Where Sand Dunes and Camels in Japan Evoke the Sahara
Shortly after I posted a picture on Instagram from the sand dunes of Tottori on the west coast of Japan, a friend from Brooklyn commented, “Where is this?”
The subtext: This could not possibly be Japan, right?
With its steep hills of creamy golden sand and vast expanses ruffled into scalloped patterns by the wind, Tottori evokes a scene out of the Sahara. There are even camels to ride.
Although these dunes are not the largest in Japan (those are in Aomori, in the north, and used for military exercises), the sand dunes of Tottori are the largest that are accessible to visitors.
But even in Japan, the dunes are more famous for their literary connotations than as a travel destination. They were the setting for Kobo Abe’s classic novel “The Woman in the Dunes,” but among Japanese tourists, Tottori, the least-populated region in Japan, ranks just 43rd among 47 prefectures in attracting visitors.
That makes it a very relaxing place for a getaway. We live in Tokyo, a city of immense crowds and towering buildings. But when I took a walk with my daughter along the dunes, it was easy to leave behind any sign of other people.
One reason for Tottori’s absence of tourists is its relative isolation. While Japan’s system of shinkansen, or bullet trains, makes travel around the country extremely convenient, no lines stop in Tottori. But it is just over an hour by plane from Tokyo Haneda Airport, and there is a convenient bus that connects the airport in Tottori to the center of the modest city.
Most hotels and restaurants are in the center of town, and the dunes are reachable by city bus as well as taxis. As the Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, I had come to report on the Sand Museum, where artists from around the world assemble every year to build massive sculptures from the distinctively moldable sand. The museum is open to the public from April through early January, and it is a delightful place to marvel at what sand can do in the hands of skillful artisans.
The dunes are protected as a national park, and there is no charge to climb them. It’s a great workout for the thighs — in some places the sand reaches 165 feet. As in many places we go in Japan, I was impressed by the number of fit elderly people who could keep up with the rest of us.
Although the dunes stretch for 10 miles along the coast, most visitors seem to stick to a fairly narrow area, climbing a steep hill next to a lagoon. Even the people watching was fun: We saw a man climbing in a business suit with a briefcase, as well as a group of millennials dressed in pink bodysuits kicking around a pink ball. And, well, why not?
At the peak, my 10-year-old son enjoyed hurtling himself off the top of the dunes, trying to see how airborne he could get.
Those who want more of that flying feeling can get their feet off the ground at Tottori Sakyu Sand Board School (like snowboards, but for sand) or try paragliding with the Tottori Sand Dunes Paragliding School.
For sand boarding, you get a board, a helmet and about two minutes of instruction in how to bend your knees, grab your thighs and slide down a steep slope that bottoms out at the ocean. My son and husband caught on quickly, though they both had some spectacular wipeouts that left their faces covered in sand.
They also tried paragliding, carrying their parachutes on their backs on the walk from the boardwalk to the dunes. With a group of about a dozen others, they each took three or four flights during two hours on the dunes.
We had an extra day and decided to venture away from the dunes, catching a bus to Uradome beach, which my 12-year-old daughter had scoped out on Instagram. As we walked from the bus stop down to the coastline and glimpsed the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, we spotted a coffee sign and stepped into the charming Nijinoki Cafe, where Brazilian jazz played on a turntable and architectural magazines were piled neatly on a bench. The coffee was delicious, too.
The husband and wife who worked behind the counter told us of a “secret” beach, so we decided to skip Uradome and explore. It was about a 25-minute walk east, where we found a trail to Kumaihama Beach. And indeed, when we arrived in the cove of turquoise water and soft pale sand, we enjoyed that rare treat in Japan: We were the only people there.