Day 7 of MCT (Michinoku Coastal Trail): Urato Islands 浦戸諸島

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 the 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 the first island, Katsurajima, only 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 on the three islands had nice waiting shelters, modern bathrooms and vending machines. But, as we totally expected, we didn’t see any grocery shops or other types of stores along the MCT route.

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 Buddhist temples and Shintoism shrines in various areas of Japan. This was my first time to see Shinto shrines that have big Buddhist temple bells.

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

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 a former wealthy fisherman’s house site.
We saw some seemingly man-made holes in the sea cliff around here. Their very square shape should not be natural. According to tourist information they would be storages for fishing tools.

Much earlier than we originally estimated, we arrived at the east side ferry port, called Ishihama 石浜. This island has a long and thin shape stretching west and east, and the first port we arrived in the morning was located on the west side.
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 motorboat 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 on the Nonoshima island side at that moment and was coming for us right away. And yes, we saw a small motorboat immediately leaving from the Nonoshima port over there and coming straight towards us. How convenient!

As we stood at the boarding deck and waved, the boat arrived pretty quickly. Then, the operator let us get on board and immediately left to go back to Nonoshima Island.

As Nonoshima Island was as close as a good swimmer could easily swim across, our boat ride was pretty short.
We found a vending machine at the door of a building that looked like it should be a 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 shrine hill. From there, an old path was going through the 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 lightning-fast as the last one. That meant the extra time we saved for boat waiting, which we estimated to hike the three-islands route, was no longer needed.

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 early.

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 lavender. It was too early for their season.

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

I came out of the bathroom to find a local grandpa who was trying to talk to Erik with very limited English and hand gestures.
He was working in a small flower bed when we passed by just before using the bathroom and greeted him “Konnichiwa,” as we always do along the MCT route.

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

With my translation help, the grandpa told us that his father was on an Indonesian island as a Japanese army soldier when the Second World War ended in 1945. He was on one of the most deadly battlefields, and all the other men who came with him from the same fishing village had been killed during the battles.
When the war ended, the long, long battles and hunger put him nearly dead, and he was hopeless to go back home alive. Then, the Dutch army came to the island for the disarmament of the Japanese army and saved him from death.
All the villagers of this island didn’t expect him to come back because they had been notified about the sad news of all the others. However, to everyone’s great, pleasant surprise, he made it back home, safe and sound, to Nonoshima island.

The grandpa excitedly told us that he was only a toddler when his dad returned. His dad would often tell him that the Dutch soldiers treated him kindly and arranged for him to go back to Japan safely.
While listening to the story, then-little-boy Grandpa grew in his heart a huge appreciation to the Dutch and Indonesian people for their kindness. He always dreamed of doing something for them to return one day, but he had never encountered anyone from the Netherlands to this day. Now, he finally met a Dutch man and looked very excited.

“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 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,” he shook hands with Erik, beaming.

With warm feelings and good memories in our hearts, 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 on the other side.

The two islands, Nonoshima and Sabusawajima, looked really close to 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 a really short ride, we were now at the last Island, Sabusawajima (寒風沢島).
The port we arrived at was going to be the one to leave from. While we hiked across the other two islands, only this island’s MCT route ran in a loop.

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 a new bathroom, we started walking the route counterclockwise.

Pretty soon, I saw an information board with a very interesting story about old villagers from these islands.
They were considered 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 arriving at one of the very northern Russian islands.

Through every imaginable suffering and struggle in a foreign land, some of them died, some decided to stay in Russia, and only four of the ship crews came 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 the European side of Russia, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and then the Pacific Ocean.
Even after they arrived in Japanese territory, they had to go through very strict and hard investigation by the government because Japan was 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 where we stayed that day.
I learned many 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/viewpoint, where we saw a small stone Jizo statue tied with ropes.
According to the tourist guide map, there are many guessing about the reason why the Jizo was tied. One of them was to pray for rain because there used to be a brothel on this island, and the women there hoped their guests would not 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 bamboo, we came out to a very flat, big clearing.

“Is this a thing about the 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-area-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 a long time ago. We saw only one tiny corner of this open area still show some signs of ongoing rice farming.

In some parts of the three islands, we saw a good reuse of the most available and natural material around the area: shells of oysters to fix holes and rough parts on roads.

Rewinding the time to a couple of hours ago. While we were walking on the first Island, Katsurashima, I received a text message on my phone from Suzuki-san.
He wrote that if we finished walking earlier, he could take us on a short cruise around the islands instead of just heading straight to the last port on the Miyatojima island side. Though we were uncertain about our progress at that point, he sounded confident that we would arrive at the meet-up port much earlier than our estimation.

Well, he had helped MCT hikers cross this last part so many times, and later, we proved he was absolutely right.
We came back to the same port where we had landed before and finished hiking the three islands at 12:45.

I called the number written in Suzuki-san’s message. He answered that he was already somewhere on the Nonoshima side, right across our port, waiting for us. Within a couple of minutes, his boat cut through the waves towards us.

His fishing boat was much smaller than the cross-islands motorboat we had taken earlier that day.

We sat on a small bench Suzuki-san made on the boat and put on life jackets. Erik is exceptionally bigger than the standard Japanese adult man size, and we told Suzuki-san how tall he was. Still, we were a bit worried about a jacket of his size existing in Japan. Suzuki-san brought the biggest size available, and Erik managed to put that on.

Our boat slowly started moving and soon accelerated to the south, in the opposite direction from the shortest way to Miyato Island’s boat deck, to the open sea.

Our boat was like sliding on the seawater. Totally different feeling from sitting in the passenger room or on the deck of bigger ferries. Without any shelter or fence around me, I felt all the wind blowing around my face and the gravity from the speed, so fast and dynamic.

Suzuki-san navigated the boat to avoid higher waves and always tried to make the boat run smoothly without jumping or hopping on the waves. Occasionally, he stopped the boat to turn down the engine noise and talked about rocks or small islands sticking out of the sea, explained the geological features of the Urato islands, and showed us how oyster farmings everywhere around the islands were done. It was indeed a special tour.

Our boat went up along the East side of the Sabusawajima island towards the north and then, passed through the narrowest point, only 80 meters apart, between Sabusawajima and Miyato islands.

We arrived at a boat dock on Miyato Island at 13:30 pm.
Our multiple sea travels for today were over, as Miyato Island is connected to the mainland with a bridge.

Suzuki-san told us that we were the first hikers he helped to cross the sea this season. No surprise, as this day was April 1st, the first day of the MCT supporter boat operation for 2021.
He pointed to the small hill right behind the boat dock; “You guys should go up to the hilltop to see the great view of all Urato Islands from the observation deck there.”

He also asked which accommodation we were staying in tonight. We told him about the minshuku in a fishing village a bit away from the boat dock area. He knew the owner and said they were the same age.
“That place is a really good one. Foods there were exceptional. You guys picked up a nice place.”

As we came to the Miyato island side three to four hours earlier than our estimation, we still had plenty of time to kill until check-in time of our accommodation for tonight. So, we followed Suzuki-san’s recommendation.
We walked up the small hill called Ōtakamori 大高森, which means “a big, high forest.” It took only 15 to 20 minutes easy walk to get to the observation deck.

The 360-degree view below from the deck was absolutely stunning.

We could see all the patches of the small islands on the sea to the west from the deck.
To the northeast, to our destination for tomorrow, we saw — well, a long, long beach line in the direction we were supposed to walk tomorrow. Not to mention a VERY flat inland town area neaxt to the beach line.

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

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

The Okumatsushima Olle route spans 10 kilometers, and the trails around this Ōtakamori mountain are a part of it.
An Olle trail along the hill ridge line stretched in a different direction from the one we came from, so we followed that one instead of just going down to the boat dock area. The Olle trail should join a car road in about 2 kilometers. From there, we should be able to walk back to the seaside fishing village where our accommodation is located.

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

We arrived at the minshuku in the middle of a small fishery village near a history park of ancient remains from the Jōmon period 縄文時代. Their bathroom was facing the seaside park, so I enjoyed soaking in a long hot bath while watching the view through big windows.

Before the bath and dinner time, we stepped out to check out the seemingly only store in this village for some snacks and soft drinks. We did not set such high expectations for the store, as we already knew how quiet this area was. It might be different if it had not been COVID time and off-season. We didn’t really see anything interesting at the store as besides, we felt a bit unwelcome as strangers from outside. We didn’t blame it because the majority of villagers must be elders and probably much more vulnerable to the COVID virus.

When I was searching for a place to stay in this area, I found many reviews about our minshuku for tonight, saying how big portion their standard dinner course is. When we came down to our table, the number of dishes set for each of us on the table was already quite a lot. Then, a freshly cut sashimi was served, as well as a steaming bowl of rice and miso soup.

While I tried so hard to finish all the dishes but thought I might not be able to, even two more fish plates, were served to each of us. Each plate had a whole fish, not cuts of fish, fried and grilled.
Though I do love fish, and all of the dishes were really nice and delicious, is this dinner course REALLY the normal portion for an average adult?

I could not win the fish fish fish festival for this night.
Please let me know if you can.

The standard breakfast at Sakuraso

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

Day 7

StartMarin Gate ShiogamaFinish Minshuku Sakuraso
Distance 30.5kmTime 9h 27m
Elevation Gain/Loss187m/192mHighest/Lowest Altitude   102m / 0m


Minshuku Sakuraso 漁師民宿 桜荘

Official Website
MCT References


To comment