Day 4 of MCT (Michinoku Coastal Trail): Abukuma River & Iwanuma 阿武隈川と岩沼市

We have been lucky with the weather situation since Day 1.

Today was supposed to be raining again, but when we woke up and opened the hotel room curtains, the sun was already high in the sky, shining brightly, and outside even looked already hot.

In Japan, we call a person who usually gets good weather whenever and wherever they go out or need to be outside a hare-onna/-otoko 晴れ女/晴れ男. (Hare means good weather, Onna is a woman, and Otoko is a man in Japanese.) Therefore, I must be a Hare-onna, as most of her past hikes were all sunny or at least cloudy, even in the supposedly rainy season.

When I walked my first Shikoku Pilgrimage in Fall of 2015, I had only a handful of rainy days out of the 65 days, and most of them fell into the rest days. The Shikoku island is usually wetter than other parts of Japan, and early fall was a typhoon season. But, surprisingly, in that particular fall she walked, Shikoku had an unusually dry autumn nearly to the level of drought… The power of hare-onna seemed to work too much then.

Back to yesterday’s end point, the former Watari castle site

Last night, we stayed at Watari Onsen Torino Umi わたり温泉鳥の海. It had a big hot spring open to the public until 8 pm; after that, it became private to only hotel guests. We went to the Onsen relatively late, just before going to bed, so both the female and male sides were totally empty, all ours. Best relaxation time after a long day walking through the mountains. As it was Monday night and off-tourism season (plus in the middle of COVID), we would not be surprised if the hotel guests were only two of us.

After checking out, I called the number I got from yesterday’s taxi for pick-up. A taxi immediately came, and by 8 am, we were already back at the same grocery store next to the former castle site, where we returned to the MCT route.

Since the store didn’t open until 9 am, we started walking, and soon, we found a convenience store we could get light breakfasts and morning joe for me and hot milk tea for Erik.

According to the MCT official route map, we would walk mostly on flat terrain and approach busier areas today.
But we first had to walk to our original goal for yesterday, which was 4km from the grocery store. With the extra 4km, the estimated distance for today would be around 24km. Not that long. Today should be an easy day… That was how chillaxed we were then.

The first part the MCT route took us to was a quiet neighborhood with patches of small vegetable fields between houses. We were a bit surprised to find a small olive orchard there. The typical images of olive orchards are the ones in arid and sunny Mediterranean climates. Meanwhile, the Tohoku region’s image for us was usually colder and very snowy in winter. How could the olives survive here? Or are they much tougher and more resilient than they seem?

Olive trees in the Tohoku region

We were passing by quite a few local elders enjoying their morning routine walk. Practicing the same custom in Shikoku, we greeted each of them with “Konnichiwa (hello)” or “ohayo gozaimasu (good morning).” Always, smiles and gentle-toned greetings came back to us.

The oldest MCT thru-hiker

Then, a friendly-looking grandpa was walking his dog.

“Are you two walking on the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail みちのく潮風トレイル (the Japanese name of the MCT)?” he asked us.

He told us that he had been walking on MCT as section hikes, Northbound, starting from the south trailhead in Soma city 相馬市. He had reached Kesennuma city 気仙沼市 so far. We said we were northbound, too, and it had been four days since we started. He looked very impressed when we told him our plan to hike the entire 1000km in one go for 50 days, which requires us to walk an average of 25 to 30km a day.

He said he became too old (later, we found he was 85 at this point) to walk such long distances, so he was doing many, many day hikes on the MCT to move up to the north little by little. His family seemed to fully support him by driving him to a trailhead and coming to pick him up at the goal of each day. In addition, his grandson sometimes came to walk with him, especially for the remote mountain trail parts.

“One day, I will reach the north terminus in Aomori. That’s my dream and motivation for life,” he said, beaming.
“Then, we may be able to see you again somewhere up north next time you walk. We really hope to see you.”
He had reached much further ahead of us at this point, so another coincidental encounter of us would not be that unrealistic.

He became the oldest MCT thru-hiker

On October 13, 2022, this grandpa, Ikuzo Tsuchido, completed walking all parts and became the MCT’s oldest (at age 87) thru-hiker! According to a news article by Kahoku Shinpo, he was inspired by the MCT hikers passing in front of his home. So, he decided to retire from his business to walk the MCT by himself in October 2020. He walked 10 to 20 km each time, which took 73 days in total of section hikes to walk all parts. He started hiking in the mountains when he was 65 and hiked to the peak of Mt. Fuji at age 80. His next dream is to hike the highest mountain in Japan again when he turns 90.

All photos courtesy of the Michinoku Trail Club

We said goodbye to the MCT walker grandpa and his well-behaved doggie, who was calmly waiting by his side the entire time of our chatting. Shortly after that, we passed the Ōkuma station 逢隈駅, which was the initially planned goal for us yesterday.

Ōkuma station

The station had a nice waiting room and some vending machines. We dropped by for a short coffee/tea break, not realizing how precious this opportunity was.

Who knew these vending machines would be the last before so long – as distant as 15km until we could find the next one…

Eventually, we hit the large Abukumagawa River 阿武隈川.

Going up on the one-lane road running along the riverbank, we found a massive rock standing in the water and some several-hundred-year-old Buddha images called Tazawa Magaibutsu 田沢磨崖仏, carved in big holes on the sides.

Almost half of today’s walk would be on these pedestrian and bike-only roads on the riverbank, asphalt-paved and super flat. While we did not have to be careful about passing cars on these roads, we could not expect any shades, blocking sunshine and heat all day. Today’s route would pass by some notable local sites, such as the rock cave Buddhas we just passed, so there would be some help for us not to get too bored.

This site used to be where travelers crossed the river by boat
Tazawa Magaibutsu. Magaibutsu means “Buddha images curved on a cliff” in Japanese

The sky was perfectly blue and clear today. We turned our heads to the west and saw the stunning snow-covered Zao mountains 蔵王連峰 standing tall. The upper areas of the mountains were hidden behind thick clouds earlier in the day, but eventually, the clouds were gone, and the Zao started showing their magnificent forms beyond a big watergate bridge over the Abukumagawa River.

The snow-covered Zao mountains

Since the first in the morning, the sun seemed incredibly energetic today, as if it was determined to work harder to show how capable it was to turn the northlands into summer.

I was walking on roadside grassy parts to get softer grounds under my feet rather than on the hard and heated concrete paved road that would be more likely to cause blisters. Compared to a cooler weather day like yesterday, my foot pains seemed to come back much quicker on this road condition.

After about 3km on the south side riverbank road, we reached the very busy Abukumabashi bridge 阿武隈橋.

In the middle of the bridge, we crossed the municipal border from Watari town 亘理町to Iwanuma city 岩沼市.

The busy main road on the bridge stretched into the city’s center. Far away, we saw a lot of big roadside signs of well-known national chain restaurants and shops on both sides of the road, which was alluring.

But, much to our disappointment, the MCT route didn’t go straight in that direction; instead, it turned to the right for another narrow paved road along the other side of the riverbank.

With a slightly frowny face and mixed feelings, we continued walking on a painfully heated concrete-paved pedestrian/bike-only road, moving away further and further from the city’s shopping area.

At this point, we still kept a tiny last hope that we might be able to find bathrooms and vending machines along the way, as we saw some road signs indicating a bikers’ rest area a few kilometers ahead of us.

…Sadly, we found the rest area was just a table and benches under a small square roof. Disappointingly, No BATHROOM. Feeling suddenly heavier legs, we took a short break there, and Erik rubbed additional sunscreens on his face and around his neck thoroughly.

We were mostly under the shade provided by mountain trees and the cloudy sky all day yesterday, and in addition, Erik put much more sunscreen on than usual in the morning. Nevertheless, his face and neck had already turned very red. So today, he wore a UV protection cap and tried to keep adding sunscreens so as not to make the condition worse.

I applied more sunscreens on her face, too. I learned how harmful spring sunlight in Japan actually is in a painful way from her childhood experience of getting her face burnt on a school spring sports day. Some spots on her cheeks literally got singed on that day…

My light breakfast of a rice ball and a small cake from the convenience store had been completely digested a while ago, and now I felt empty stomach. Luckily, I always kept a few small packs of candies for emergency calories in my backpack. Usually, my body doesn’t need drinking water for a pretty long time even in hot weather. Despite that, we started wondering how long more to go on this riverside road to finally find our dearest friend, vending machine, again.

Erik always carries Katadyn’s Befree, a UL water filter in a collapsible flask pack, in his backpack so that we can get drinkable water from natural water sources or public bathroom taps in case of emergency. Well, like today, we were walking literally next to the water most of the time on the MCT route. So we don’t have to worry about at least dehydration. Still, we missed vending machines.

Now, we were heading to the river mouth. To our right, far away on the horizon, we could see a line of mountains we traversed yesterday. On the other hand, vast empty farmlands were extensively spread to our left side. A few scattered farmers’ houses were usually surrounded by thick windbreak trees and hedges.

Finally, we reached the point the MCT route took apart from the long monotonous riverbank road. There was an old shrine, Nichigetsu-do 日月堂, which had been once washed away from the earthquake and tsunami ten years ago but was rebuilt by the faithful local villagers in the area.

Interestingly, several big stone monuments in various shapes stood on both sides of the path behind the shrine gate. One was a flat stone with many inscribed letters on its front. An information board said the stone monument was built 90 years ago to recognize a great “filial devotion” of a villager who was awarded for it by the territorial lord in 1773. His father was also honest, caring, and responsible and commanded respect from local people.

We walked down from the riverbank road, and the MCT route joined a village road crossing a corner of the farmlands. After passing a couple of houses, we found a small prefabricated building in an empty former residential site. Our expectations jumped up, and YES! Something long-awaited caught our eyes – a vending machine!

The building looked like an onsite office for a construction company, so the workers came in and out while we, the total strangers including an unusually tall western guy, dashed in and frantically drank bottles of tea, coffee, and sports drink by the office entrance.
The workers seemed totally cool about it and somewhat amused by the scene.

These makeshift onsite offices, usually in or near construction sites, continuously save us by providing vending machines (of course, meant to be set there for their staff and workers) wherever we go hiking in Japan. Whether in the deep mountain area or remote ocean coasts, often in the most unexpected places, they provide us with precious vending machines.

With an extra bottle of cold green tea in my backpack pocket, I was recharged and gained back the confidence to make it through today.

Now, the village road we were walking on was approaching the long, straight coastal line and met a narrow asphalt paved path running parallel to the coast at the corner of seemingly a hospital or nursing home for the elderly. As the MCT route map directed, we turned into the path.

The path crossed on a bit higher grounds, and short young pine tree windbreak forests continued on both sides. Along the way, we saw some small man-made hills far ahead of us.

We walked up one of them and learned that each hill was 11m high and had a simple gazebo on the top flat part. Some benches there were actually emergency aid goods keeps. These man-made hills were meant to be evacuation places in case earthquakes, and following tsunamis attacked this extensive flat coastal area with nothing high enough within reach that local elders could run in a short time.

After these small evacuation hills, the path connected a super straight long, long looong road stretching through the middle of…nowhere.

Both sides of the road were empty spaces with dried yellow grass. Short pine tree windbreaks continued endlessly outside the empty areas.

We wished we could see the ocean, which would make this situation a bit more enjoyable, but all we could see along the coastal line were tall and solid concrete walls blocking our view. The roaring sound of ocean waves barely reached us.

Some kilometers away from us, this road literally continued to reach the horizon. Road mirages were waving far in front of us, making this situation even hotter and more smothering.

We thought walking on the long riverbank road was already pretty physically and mentally challenging, but we confirmed there was always something worse. At least on the riverbank road, I could walk on the softer grassy grounds at the road’s edge. Now, there was absolutely no softer place on this straight road to seek some gentleness under my feet.

Pretty soon, we started the battle against boredom, and also, my foot began to feel extra harder pains from the heated concrete.

It was a truly deserted area so remote from human lives. Only occasionally, less than a handful of cars and bikes passed. Only birds here were singing excitedly for some reason.

So randomly, I kept imagining the moors of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte while limping along.
We felt really done for today. We only wanted this walking to end as quickly as possible, so we kept moving our legs without thinking.

Then, so out of the blue, we spotted something like a big black buoy sitting in a corner. A cute illustration of a sheep and an arrow were painted on it, indicating a side road.

“Why sheep?”
“Look, another one there,” we found one more black buoy sheep.

Erik checked the Google map on his phone and found a place called Iwanuma Hitsuji Mura いわぬまひつじ村 near where we were then. Hitsuji means sheep and Mura is a village in Japanese.
Why sheep here?

Google map showed the sheep village was only three minute’s walk from here, which was not a significant detour, and we got so curious. Besides, whatever it would be, a place open to the public should have what we seriously wanted then – a toilet.

Much less than three minutes, the roadside grass fields turned paddocks.
“So, it’s real sheep, then?”

Yes, it was. Here they are; we found a group of sheep in one of the paddocks.

Not really an Erik-friendly entrance
Feed a 100 yen coin to the wooden flog for sheep food
“Welcome! Got food for me?”

Since this morning, we saw an olive orchard, extreme heat and dry weather, and now sheep. We started seriously doubting if we were indeed in the Tohoku region of Japan. Or, probably, my stereotypes about the Tohoku area were incorrect from the beginning.

Seeing us outside the paddock fence, all sheep came to us with eyes full of expectations for the food.
Their food was available for purchase for visitors to feed them. We got a cup of them for giving the sheep extra tea-time snacks. The pure but intense pressure from their eyes was unignorable.

We also found a small toilet hut for visitors, which was surprisingly nice and clean, decorated with many re-used tiles. A few varieties of drinks were also sold in the entrance greenhouse. It looked like they even had a café only on weekends during high season.

So, MCT hikers, remember that the sheep are here to save you all.

Feeling recharged, we walked back to the torturously boring concrete road. After a while, much to our relief, the tiny shadow of the Sendai international airport 仙台国際空港, today’s goal, finally came into sight on the horizon.

The fact that the goal was within visible range relaxed us a bit and made us feel like exploring what we could see over the high sea wall. So we took an unpaved side path to go up on the walls.

It was surprisingly cooler there.

Ocean winds blowing there made us realize how much breeze these walls blocked from the inside area. We enjoyed this temporary heaven, and the view of big white waves kept coming and battering the breakwater tetrapods.

As we were getting closer to the airport, more components of civilizations came back around the road. The MCT route made a big curve to go around a pond and got into a big sports park: Iwanuma Beachside Park 岩沼海浜緑地.

We were absolutely ecstatic to finally see a good variety of vending machines waiting for us by the park management office. One of them was the ice cream machine!

Nearly 15km from Okuma station to this park, no vending machines on the route, except for the one at the construction company’s onsite office.

We doubt the makeshift building will still be there after whatever construction projects they are doing get completed. We may be lucky to find them there today. So, future hikers should know it is risky to count on it for your water supply plan wholly.

Whether you are northbound or southbound, make sure to carry enough water and food when passing through this area. On the map, this area looked a part of an urban area, and I admit that we totally underestimated the reality: how hardly accessible shops and vending machines were along the route.

After the sports park and walking a little less than two kilometers, we saw another park, Millennium Hope Hills Ainokama Park 千年希望の丘相野釜公園, made around a couple of man-made evacuation hills.

This one had a more picnic park-like atmosphere, and we saw a nice bathroom and at least one vending machine near the parking area on the opposite side of the park. Over the park, a corner of the airport runways was right there.

The last kilometer to the airport went through a big grass field. Nothing but a carpet of knee-high dry yellow grass.

In the center of it, a lone house stood like a ship floating on the yellow sea.

Approaching closer to check what it was, we found it was a half-destroyed resident house.

Before the tsunami washed away everything ten years ago, this grass field was a village with hundreds of homes. One in every eight residents was lost. This house miraculously survived through the destruction and kept standing in the debris. After everybody was gone and any traces of the area’s history were cleared, the house had been left alone as only proof this area used to be a lively village.

This house, the former Suzukis’ residence 旧鈴木英二邸, was already scheduled to be torn down at this point and finished its mission by the end of 2021. The grass field of the former village has been under redevelopment now. So, future hikers will see totally different scenery here.

We appreciate that we happened to pass by here today and could witness the last moment of the house.

According to the official MCT map, somewhere between the picnic park and the yellow grass field, we crossed the second municipal border today, entering Natori city名取市 from Iwanuma. But again, we didn’t notice it at all.

Honestly, we were a bit sorry that all our memories about Iwanuma city were hot and boring flat roads along the river and walled coastal line. The sheep village redeemed the whole situation a lot, though.

We finally arrived at the Sendai International Airport, our goal for today. A train line runs from here to the Natori station area. Otherwise, there was absolutely no place to stay around here. We were actually surprised there were no hotels near a major regional airport. So, we got a room at a national chain business hotel in front of a big shopping mall, only two stations from the airport.

We really hoped something more interesting would be waiting for us along the MCT route in Natori tomorrow.

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

Day 4

StartWatari castleFinish Sendai Int. Airport
Distance 26.5kmTime 7h 26m
Elevation Gain/Loss40m/44mHighest/Lowest Altitude   30m / 0m


Route Inn Natori ホテル ルートイン 名取

Official Website
MCT References


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