All About Japan

Road to Recovery: Hiking the Fukushima Coastal Trail

Fukushima Tohoku
Road to Recovery: Hiking the Fukushima Coastal Trail

A new 200-km trail connects the Fukushima coastal area to the popular long trail down the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region. Tim Hornyak joined trail pioneer Robin Lewis on a section near the southern city of Iwaki.

Robin Lewis walking on the Fukushima Coastal Trail at Nakoso Beach.

When Robin Takashi Lewis first heard about the historic earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan in 2011, his first instinct was to help out. Born to Japanese and British parents, his grandfather hailed from Sendai, some 130 kilometers west of the epicenter of the magnitude-9.0 temblor. He volunteered in the Tohoku region, helping coordinate others who came to lend a hand. Later, he decided that an effective way to help the disaster-stricken economy and open up the region to travelers was to highlight its allure as an emerging eco-tourism destination with coastal hiking.

Boots on the ground in Tohoku

Boots on the ground in Tohoku

Born in Japan but raised in the U.K., Lewis graduated from Edinburgh University with a master's degree in international business. Keen on encouraging sustainable lifestyles, he cofounded mymizu, a water supply platform that includes a free app directing users to places where they can refill their water bottles.

Lewis has worked with international organizations and social enterprises in over 20 countries, including as a consultant for the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. For his social innovation work, he was selected as one of the Innovators Under 35 Japan 2020 sponsored by MIT Technology Review in 2021. The following year, he received Business Insider Japan’s Beyond Millenials Award in the Economy category.

Motivated by a love of the outdoors and a strong desire to help people in Tohoku, Lewis began walking Tohoku’s northeastern coast in 2017. At the time, local municipalities were stitching together trails that would form the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail, named after Michinoku, a former province in Tohoku. Lewis walked from Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture to Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, a distance of about 1,000 kilometers completed in stages over about 30 days. Since the trail was not officially opened until 2019, he had to improvise and find his way along the coast. In 2022, he did the reverse course along the official route in a single 53-day hike.

Lewis launched the Michinoku Trail Walker project, which involved blogging about the hike, crowdsourcing maps of the trail, and producing videos about local highlights. In spring 2024, he plans to publish an English version of the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail Guide.

“Initially the idea was to walk the trail, take pictures, write a little bit, promote the trail, and get more people from other countries to come,” said Lewis. “Ultimately the goal is not just that but also to contribute to local businesses, to speak to people and to learn about what happened here as well.”

The Michinoku Shiokaze Trail winds through some spectacular scenery, particularly along the Tanesashi Coast in southern Aomori. Some of it follows a coastal terrace of meadows overlooking the sea that was designated a national Place of Scenic Beauty in 1937. Other attractions include the local seafood and sake, the region’s distinct history and culture, and the warmth of its locals. Lewis received many gifts of drinks, food and shelter from complete strangers along his path, partly as a way to repay the disaster relief support they received from the international community.

“It really is an off-the-beaten-track adventure, so if people are looking to get away from the big hotspots like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, coming to this part of Japan is really unique,” said Lewis. “The beauty of walking is that you have to slow down. You speak to people. You often see things that you wouldn’t if you were rushing through the city on a guided tour. You can learn so much about Japan by walking this trail. You can see everything from climate change to the aging population to rural decline. The trail is also unique in that it has a purpose—to contribute to local recovery.”

Making fresh footprints on a beach wiped clean by the incoming surf.

Blazing a New Trail in Fukushima

Blazing a New Trail in Fukushima

The route of the Fukushima Coastal Trail often follows seawalls.

On a recent hike in southern Fukushima Prefecture, Lewis was exploring the Fukushima Coastal Trail, a new section of the Tohoku trail network. It stretches more than 200 kilometers along the Hamadori coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture, from the northern border with Miyagi Prefecture down to the border with Ibaraki Prefecture. As with the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail, it’s aimed at opening up Fukushima to eco-tourism and boosting disaster recovery.

Introduced in September 2023, the trail links 10 cities and towns. When combined with the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail, the network stretches across 37 municipalities in four prefectures along the Pacific Coast of the Tohoku region. The Fukushima Coastal Trail logo, seen on stickers along the way, consists of a wavy line, a straight one and a squiggly one, symbolizing the Abukuma Highlands, the trail itself, and the Pacific Ocean.

The Fukushima Coastal Trail logo, seen on stickers along the way, consists of a wavy line, a straight one and a squiggly one, symbolizing the Abukuma Highlands, the trail itself, and the Pacific Ocean.

The trail snakes along the coast and inland, bypassing certain areas, including the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, which suffered a meltdown in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The plant is now undergoing long-term decommissioning work. The trail has seven suggested courses ranging from 19 to 46 kilometers so that hikers can walk sections at a time if they don’t have the time or ability to walk the entire route.

Fresh seafood from nearby Onahama Port is sold at the Iwaki Lalamew market.

I hiked with Lewis along the coastal part of Course Seven, which joins Iwaki and Nakoso stations. Unlike the Michinoku trail, the Fukushima path is mostly paved coastal roads that have some elevation changes but are often flat. We began at Iwaki Lalamew, a seaside fish market featuring fishmongers with fresh seafood brought in from Onahama Port, as well as restaurants and shops. After a hearty lunch of kaisendon (sashimi over rice in a bowl), we set off southward under a flock of seagulls hovering over the port. The trail follows local roads before joining a long beach where enormous whitecaps were dashing against the rocks. Nearby, in front of the sprawling Nakoso Thermal Power Station, stood a remnant of a former concrete breakwater that was damaged in the 2011 disaster, as well as a time capsule commemorating the historic event.

Part of the seawall destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake has been left as a memorial to that day.

An egg-shaped memorial conveys the memory of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The base of the object contains audio and video recordings of tsunami survivors recounting their experiences.

The legacy of the earthquake and tsunami is ever-present on the trail, particularly farther north. Course Four, which runs between Odaka and Futaba stations, takes hikers past the ruins of Ukedo Elementary School, some 300 meters from the sea. While 154 local residents lost their lives in the tsunami, all 82 students were safely evacuated from the school before waves topping 15 meters struck. Today, the wrecked building is open to visitors as a memorial and educational resource. About 35 minutes’ hike to the south, the trail passes the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum, which presents a comprehensive account of the cataclysm.

Back in Iwaki City, on the other side of the power station, the trail wound through Nakosokaryoku Park, where a grove of cherry trees of the kawazuzakura variety was in bloom, displaying rich purple petals over the park. After crossing the Samegawa River, we marched through the quiet farms of Nakoso, crossing National Route 6 and climbing to the hilltop Nakoso Barrier, a former checkpoint that once marked the northern limit of the Yamato empire. Nakoso means “Do not come here” and was directed at the Emishi tribes of the north. The endpoint of the hike was an opportunity to reflect on both local history and the future of Fukushima and its recovery.

Cherry trees of the kawazuzakura variety bloom in Nakosokaryoku Park.

Nakkuru, a cafe near the final stop, Nakoso Barrier, is a good place for a break.

The café menu includes a lunch of a variety of meats and vegetables marinated in homemade fermented seasonings.

Nakoso no Seki Park, the site of an ancient checkpoint. A bronze statue of a military commander from about 1,000 years ago and a barrier gate mark the site.

“Walking through ordinary towns tells you a lot about what’s happening,” said Lewis. “I’ve enjoyed just walking through quiet towns, enjoying nice food. It’s made me curious about what the rest of the trail looks like.”

Lewis recommends choosing sections of the trail that cater to your tastes, for instance scenic areas along Kinkasan Island and the Tanesashi, Kitayamazaki and Goishi coasts for nature lovers. Other tips: go in spring or autumn, when temperatures aren’t extreme, and plan ahead for accommodations since they are often sparse; many are family-run inns that require advance notice.

“For those who really like long hikes, the 1,000 kilometers of the Michinoku Shiokaze Trail isn’t that far,” said Lewis. “So this Fukushima Coastal Trail can be an add-on, bringing hikers the few hundred more kilometers down to Nakoso. If people are curious about Fukushima and how it’s recovering it would be really interesting to spend a week hiking the Coastal Trail.”

If you’re looking for the proverbial road less traveled, the Fukushima Coastal Trail forms a destination of many facets: sweeping seaside vistas, excellent seafood, interactions with local residents, the struggle to overcome a tragic history, and the chance to see part of Japan that few visitors experience.

The Fukushima Coastal Trail website (Japanese only)