Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT) Thru-Hike – Day 7 : Urato Islands

Yesterday, while we were walking around those ancient historical sites in Tagajo city, I made a phone call to the MCT supporter fisherman named Suzuki-san, who was going to take us on his boat to our goal for today.

From his voice and the way of talking, he seemed very nice and friendly. He told us the weather for the next day should be fine, though the waves would be getting higher and higher later afternoon.
So, our boat riding is on.
I told him our hiking plan including which ferry we were going to take in the morning, and our estimated arrival time at the Sabusawajima (寒風沢島) port to meet him.

Although all of the three island looked not that big and the distance of MCT route on each island is actually only a few kilometers, we tried not making too optimistic estimation. we didn’t want to end up to running to make it on time. Meeting at 3pm should be safe.
He said he was going to be there a bit earlier to wait for us, just in case we turned out much faster than we thought.

All necessary preparations for passing all three islands in one day were set.
Now let the new experience begin.

Hotel Grand Palace Shiogama (ホテル・グランドパレス塩釜) was only 10 minutes walk away from the ferry port. We checked out the hotel at 6:45 for making it to the 7:15 ferry.

We bought one ticket to Katsurashima island (桂島), the first island of the three of Urato Islands (浦戸諸島) we were going to hike through and got on the ferry. Surprisingly many passengers, mostly local elders, were already on the seats. Only a few of them seemed from other area to go leisure fishing.
Just before the departure time, a big group of students in the same sports wears carrying racket-shaped bags arrived in, greeting and calling each other to sit together.

Since our seafare was supposed to be only 20 minutes, I didn’t go in the passenger seat room and stayed on the deck to enjoy the good views in the beautiful morning.
As the ferry leaving away from Shiogama city, we saw the clear shapes of snowy mountains further behind the city buildings.

At Katsurajima, only the two of us got off the ferry.

It was very, very quiet around the port. Actually, throughout the day, we saw few local people while we were in the three islands. Instead, the only people we did see were a lot of construction workers building new sea walls and roads around the ports.

Miyagi prefecture had independently announced state of emergency for COVID due to the recent unusual surge of the number of the infected. Though I was unsure if this silence had anything to do with it or not, the last thing We, as strangers from outside of Tohoku region, wanted to do was to scare the residents of these super fast aging small islands. So, we just enjoyed ourselves alone and did not actively seek for the encounter with locals.

All ferry/boat ports in the three islands had nice waiting shelters, modern bathrooms and vending machines. But, as we totally expected, we didn’t see grocery shops or any type of stores along the MCT trails.

We passed a few houses and pretty soon the MCT route took us through a small shrine into the woods behind.

I found very interesting that every shrines we saw in the three islands had big bells we usually see at Buddhism temples. We had visited quite a lot of Buddhism temples and Shintoism shrines in various areas of Japan. This was my first time to see Shinto shrines have the Buddhism big hanging bells.

Well, probably it may not as strange as I thought. Since Buddhism came to the ancient Japan from India via China, until the dawn of Japanese modernization, Buddhism temples and Shinto shrines were not that strictly separated. They often stood together in the same place.
Even today, here, in these sparsely populated tiny islands, I guess building both shrines and temples separately would not be so efficient.

The trail ran through the tunnels of very common type of trees for seaside area.
There were some viewpoints from where we could see perfectly clear blue sky and sea.

Eventually, arrived almost opposite side of the ferry port and saw a very quiet sand beach below our foot.
I got excited a bit because this was the first time we saw a sand beach actually since we started walking on the MCT trails.
One of the images I had about Michinoku Coastal Trail was hikers walking on a long long sand beach. Though I didn’t think those promotional photos were taken on this beach, I just wanted to do our first “walking on sand beach of MCT,” After all we had seen quite different views and sceneries from my original images on MCT for the last one week.

MCT route was not really running on the beach but along the edge of growing new pine tree forests behind a relatively low sea wall, so hikers didn’t have to walk on the beach. But I went into the beach and walked on the edge of dry sand area as close to waves as possible.

Satisfied with the short beach walk, we got back to the route and soon it joined a narrow driveway crossing in the center of the island. The road was gradually going higher area where we passed through a neighborhood with newly built houses. We could feel there were people living each houses but didn’t actually see them at all. Probably everybody is working near the port or went fishing.

We took a short break at a beautiful flowerbed of yellow narcissus on the hill. A white bench was placed in the middle of the flowers with “welcome to Katsurashima” sign. Apparently local people made this beautiful viewpoint for the visitors to the island and I imagine they would want to see many travelers enjoy the view here this year again if it hadn’t been COVID.

The east side of the island was again covered with trees. We walked through the woods and came out to the site of former very successful fisherman’s house.
Around here, we saw some holes made into the sea cliff. The holes were so square shape that they must have been man-made. The tourist guide says they used to be used for storage of fishing tools.

Much earlier than we originally estimated, we arrived at the east side ferry port, called Ishihama (石浜). The fist port we arrived in the morning was the west side port as this island is long thin shaped stretching west and east.
From Ishihama port, we were going to the next island, Nonoshima (野々島) by a free public motor boat.

Though hikers still can use the Shiogama city ferry to go to Nonoshima from Katsurashima island, using public run motor boat is much easier and more convenient. The motor-boat has no time schedule and can be called anytime from the port during their operation hour. It’s free and the direct phone number to the boat is shown on the wall inside of the waiting shelter.

After only one or two rings, my phone call was picked up. The operator of the crossing boat said his boat was at Nonoshima island side port at that moment and was coming for us now.
And yes, immediately we saw a small motor-boat was leaving from the Nonoshima port over there and coming straight towards us. How convenient it was.

As we stood at the boarding deck and waving to the boat, it arrived pretty quickly. Then, let us get on board and immediately started going back to Nonoshima island.

Since Nonoshima island was as close as we can actually see over there, the boat ride was pretty short.
We found a vending machine at the door of a building that looked like it should be waiting/rest lounge for the ferry passengers. Much to Erik’s surprise, this machine had his favorite milk tea, and wow, hot ones.

It was getting really hot and shiny. We passed by a few houses and walked up to a shine hill. From where, an old path was going through tunnels of camellia trees.

As this island looked the smallest of the three islands we hiked today, the MCT route here was definitely shorter than others. It was almost a straight line to cross the island.

We already knew that calling the public motorboat to move on to the next island should be as easy and lighting fast as the last one. That meant we the extra time we saved for possibly boat waiting time when we estimated the total time we need for hiking the entire three islands route, was not needed any more.

So, when we were walking through the woods and I found a sign indicating an optional local trail to make a short detour around the northern beach, I convinced Erik we should have time to take a look. I dragged still a bit hesitant Erik to that “path of camellia” sign way, otherwise we would get to the meeting point with Suzuki-san way too earlier.

The northern beach seemed a place for local kids to practice swimming and kayaking. But of course no one was there in this spring break season. The area between the beach and getting back to the MCT route was shown as a kind of herb/flower garden on the tourist guide map but all we saw was some very dried lavenders then. It was too early for their season.

When we re-joined the MCT route, which was on the top of small hill in the center of the island, we found a mobile bathroom. While I was minding my own business inside, I heard Erik was talked to by another voice.

I came out of the bathroom to find a local grandpa was trying to talk to Erik with very limited English and hand gestures.

Just before I used the bathroom, we passed by him working in a small flower beds there and greeted him “Konnichiwa,” as we always do to anyone we pass by on the MCT trails.

It was not rare that some of the local elderly fishermen at very remote areas in Tohoku suddenly started talking to Erik in English. Some of their English were surprisingly good.
What’s common with them was they said they have been to other countries, mostly in pacific ocean area, when they were young and working on pelagic fishery ships or at fish/shellfish farms.

With my translation, the grandpa told us that his father was in an Indonesian island as a soldier of Japanese army when the second World War ended in 1945.
The battles-field his dad was sent to was one of the most terrible ones and all other men who came with him from the same fishing village had been killed during the battles.

When the war ended, he was totally hopeless and exhausted from the long long battles and hungers and believed he was dying, but then the Dutch army came for the disarmament of Japanese army in the island.

All villagers of the this island thought his father would not come back, because they had been notified the terribly sad news about all other young men. But he made it back to Nonoshima island, his home safe and sound, to all’s great pleasant surprises.

The grandpa was only a toddler when his dad was sent to the war.
The grandpa told us that his father would always tell him that the Dutch soldiers treated him kindly and arranged for him to safely go back to Japan. Since the day his father came back home, the little grandpa kept, in his heart, a huge appreciation to the Dutch and Indonesian people for their kindness.

He said he always dreamed one day he could do something for them to return. But he had never had an opportunity to meet any people from the Netherland till this day.
He looked very very excited to finally meet a Dutch person.

“My heart is so full…. I can’t describe how I am glad to see you here now.”

The grandpa showed us the beach a bit down from the flowerbed and told us that his mom used to make good vegetable fields on the hill and little grandpa was always playing and swimming on this beach while his mom was working.
The hill had been abandoned for long and was about to turn complete wild bushes.
“I retired last year and now have a plenty of time. I am going to cut the trees and clear up the hill. I want to put some benches for the future visitors to this island.” Beaming, he shook hands with Erik.

With warm feeling and good memory in our heart, we arrived at the east-side port of the island.
Just like the last time, I pulled up my iPhone and called the direct number to another cross-islands motorboat, which was again at the other side.

The two islands, Nonoshima and Sabusawajima looked really close each other, probably not more than a hundred meters away. I think local kids and young fishermen in old times would be able to swim to cross here.

After really short ride, we were now at the last Island, Sabusawajima (寒風沢島).
The port we arrived was going to be the one to leave from. While we hiked across the other two island, only this island’s MCT route runs in circle.

Around the port, we didn’t see any local people either but saw construction workers building a new road and walls.
After checking out another vending machine and new bathroom, we started walking the route counterclockwise.

Pretty soon, I saw an information board of an very interesting story about old villagers from this islands.
They were considered as the first Japanese who traveled circling the globe.

Were they great explorers?
No, they were working on a freight ship, Wakamiya-maru (若宮丸) transporting rice and logs to Edo (the old name of Tokyo) in 1793. But a terrible storm made the ship drift for as many as five months and ended up to arrive at one of very northern Russian islands.

Through the every imaginable suffers and struggles in a foreign lands, some of them died, some decided to stay in Russia, and only four of the all ship crews come back to Japan, finally in 1804, after 10 years.
The Russian ship they were on board was the first Russian cruise ship to travel all around the world. It left from Europe side of Russia, crossed the Atlantic ocean and then, the Pacific ocean.
Even after they arrived Japanese territory, they had to go through very strict and hard investigation by the government, because Japan then still closed to other countries and going abroad, regardless of its reasons or circumstances, was a major crime for the Japanese. They finally came home in 1806, after 13 years since they left.

Aside from the information board, I later found an eight-page-brochure about the exceptional lives of the four villagers at the lodge we stayed this day.
I learned much more details of their story and found two of them died within a few years after they came back home. (Actually, one of them tried to kill himself. )

First, the MCT route went up to a small hill/view point, where we saw a small stone Jizo statue tied with ropes.
According to the tourist guidemap, there are many guessing about the reason why the Jizo was tied. one of them was to pray for raining, because there used to be a brothel in this island and the women there hoped their guests not to leave them to go back to their islands.

As we guessed, our hiking around Sabusawajima went by pretty quickly.
After walking on a short natural path through trees and bamboos, we came out to a very flat open big space.

“Is this a thing about MCT to make us walk in the middle of nothing?”
Erik became a bit sarcastic after all of the past “walking on huge flat open spaces for all day” experiences.

I looked at the Urato Islands walking guide map again. (Yes, this map is a must have. Really useful.)
This open space used to be all rice paddies, where the villagers of the island grew rice only with natural rain waters.
Considering the super aging and fast shrinking population of the island, most of all rice paddies had finished their role long time ago. We saw only one tiny corner of this open area still show some signs of ongoing rice farming.

At some parts of the three islands, we saw the good re-use of the most available and natural material around the area …shells of oysters, to fix holes and rough parts on roads.

Back to a couple of hours ago, while we were walking in the fist Island, Katsurashima, I received a text message to my phone from Suzuki-san.
He wrote if we finish walking earlier than our originally estimated time, he could take us a short cruising around the islands instead of just heading straight to the last post in Miyatojima island area.
Through we were not sure about our time then, he has lots of experiences to help MCT hikers to cross this last part. He sounded confident that we would finish walking much quicker than we thought.
And he was absolutely right.
We came back to the same port of Sabusawa Island and finished three islands hiking at 12:45.

I called Suzuki-san as he wrote in the message that he was already around the port to wait for us.
He was resting on his boat at Nonoshima island side, so he immediately came to us.

His boat was a regular fishing boat, smaller than the cross-islands motor-boat we used.

We sat on a small bench Suzuki-san made in the boat and put on life-jackets. Since Erik is exceptionally bigger than the standard adult Japanese man size, we were a bit worried if there are his size jackets. But Suzuki-san brought the biggest size available as I had already told him how tall Erik was.

He then started the boat heading to south, the opposite direction from the direct way to the Miyato Island boat deck, to the open sea.

It was like our boat was sliding on the sea water. It was totally different from sitting in the passenger room or on the deck of bigger ferries. Without any shelters or fence around me, I felt all the wind blowing around my face and speed. It felt so fast and dynamic.
Suzuki-san navigate the boat to avoid higher waves and always tried to make the boat smoothly without jumping or hopping on the waves. Sometimes he stopped the boat and turn down the engine noise to tell us the stories and legends of rocks or small islands sticking out of the sea, to explaining the geological features about the Urato islands, and to show us how the oyster farmings everywhere around islands were done.
It was a really special tour.
Our boat went up along the East side of the Sabusawajima island to the north. We passed through the narrowest point, only 80 meters apart, between Sabusawajima and Miyato islands.

We arrived at a boat deck of Miyato island at 13:30pm.
Our multiple sea travels for today was over, as Miyato island is connected to the mainland of Tohoku with a bridge.

Suzuki-san said we were the first hikers of this season he helped to cross the sea as today was April 1st, the first day of the MCT supporter boat operation season for 2021.
He pointed the small mountain right behind us on the deck and suggested us to walk up to the top for the observation deck there to see the great view of all Urato islands.

He also asked which place we were going to stay tonight. We told him the minshuku in a fishing village a bit away from here, and he said he knew the owner, who is the same age as him.
“That place is really good one. Foods there were exceptional. You guys picked up a nice place.”

Since we came to Miyato island side 3 to 4 hours earlier than our estimation, we still had a plenty of time to kill until checking in our lodge for tonight.
As Suzuki-san recommended, we walked up the small mountain, Ōtakamori (大高森). The name of the mountain means a “big high forest” and as the name tells, it was not that high mountain. Only 15 to 20 minutes walk brought us up to the the observation deck.

Amazingly nice 360 degrees view around us from the deck.

We were able to see all the patches of the small islands on the sea to the west.
To the north-east, our destination for tomorrow, we saw… well, a long long beach line along the direction we were supposed to go walk tomorrow. Not to mention the very flat city area inside of the beach line.

We already got to know clearly what kind of fate was waiting for us tomorrow.

Miyagi prefecture has another sets of trails called “Miyagi Olle (宮城オルレ)” aside from Michinoku Coastal Trail. Unlike MCT, the olle routes were not connected each other but separately set in the different parts of Miyagi. One of them was in here, Miyato island area which is also called as Oku-matsushima (奥松島).

The Okumatsushima Olle route spans 10 kilometers and the trails around this Ōtakamori mountain is a part of it.
We saw the Olle route trail along the ridge line stretching to the different direction from the one we walked up on, so we decided to follow that one instead of just going down to the boat deck area. The Olle trail should continue about 2 km until joining a driveway from there, we should be able to walk back to the sea side fishing village area for our lodge.

The red dot line on the map shows the Olle route in Okumatsushima area
Olle route sign for mountain trail
a roadside sign for Olle route

The minshuku we stayed was in the middle of the small village by a park around an ancient sites from the Jōmon period (縄文時代.) The bathroom of the minshuku was facing to the seaside park, so I enjoyed a long hot bath while watching the view.

After checked in the minshuku, before dinner time, we went out to see if the seemingly only shop in this village had some chips and drinks for our nighttime snacking. We tried not to set high expectations on the shop as we already felt how quiet remote area around here while we were walking to the minshuku.
This village might look different if it had not been for COVID and off-season, or at least on weekday. We didn’t really find anything at the store and felt a bit unwelcomed as strangers from outside to this very small village, where majority of villagers are old and probably much more scared of the COVID viruses. We totally understand it.

When I was searching accommodations in this area, I read many reviews of our minshuku said how big the regular dinner here usually is. When we came down to our table, the number of dishes for each of us set on the table was already quite many. Then, a freshly made sashimi was served as well as a cup of rice and miso-soup.

When I was trying very hard to fish all the dishes and thought I may not be able to, even two more plates were served for each of us.
Each plate had a whole fish cooked in different ways, fried and grilled.
I liked fish and all of the plates were really nice and delicious. But is this REALLY the normal portion size for an average adult person’s dinner?

I could not win the fish fish fish festival for this night.
I wonder if anybody actually could.

Our MCT Thru-hike : from late March to mid-May, 2021

Day 7

START : Marin Gate Shiogama

GOAL : Minshuku Sakura-so

  • Distance walked 19.3km (29.5km)
  • Total elevation gain / loss 404m / 397m
  • Time 8h 50m (9h 30m)
  • Highest / lowest altitude 102.4m / 0m

Tonight’s Accommodation

Minshuku Sakura-so (漁師民宿 桜荘)

note:
Wifi: local public wifi only available at the lobby. Very weak signal. (April, 2021)

USEFUL INFORMATION

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