Tottori Sand Dunes
If I tell you that you can visit Japan's very own desert riding camels or paragliding, would you believe me? When I first heard about Tottori Sand Dunes, I was startled to learn that a desert was hiding in Japan. Indeed, surely like most of us before coming here, I would picture this country filled with shrines and temples, old castles surrounded by skyscrapers, and bamboo forests. Sand dunes in Japan with real camels? That sounded a bit too much for me to believe. It turned out to be real and is now one of my favorite treasures in the country.
So after a quick research on how to get there, we decided to book a bus ticket and enjoy Japan's landscape on the 3 hours drive from Kobe. Once we arrived at Tottori's station, we had to take another city bus in order to reach the sand dunes. It was Golden Week 2019, and before the whole Covid-19 situation, so many tourists were there. Surprisingly, not a lot of westerners came to this site. It seems the desert is more famous among Chinese and Koreans. Nonetheless, we could see Americans venturing on the dunes or French riding camels.
After a rather short waiting time - considering the crowd - we finally manage to get a ticket for the chairlift leading to the bottom of the dunes. The view was worth the price. In front of us, the desert was spreading far on each side to fit in our field of vision and wide enough to give the feeling you have to cross it to reach the sea. The sun was bright that day, the cloudless blue sky contrasted with the golden sand and black dots of people roaming the desert - a view waiting to be seen.
When we eventually set foot on the sand, I was filled with a sensation of confusion. Is this Japan? I don't understand. In front of me is a desert and on my right people riding camels. I was expecting someone to tell me: "Let's go see the pyramids." But the confusion soon was replaced by the wonder of my surroundings. Although there were quite a lot of people, the area felt relatively muted, and the atmosphere was peaceful. Far from the touristic rush of major cities like Kyoto or Osaka, Tottori felt like an oasis of tranquility, yet ideal for a one-day trip.
As we reached the top of the highest dune - aka Umanose - we could enjoy the beauty of the whole scene before us. The sea of Japan stretched to the horizon, its wave crashing loudly on the dunes, behind us, the desert stood there, massive and quiet. On top of Umanose (lit. horseback), we could see the desert spreading even more on each side. It can get a little bit windy up there, so a light cardigan is recommended. Down the hill, people were playing in the sand or taking pictures, others riding camels. At some distance of us, we could see tourists trying different attractions like paragliding or sandboarding. It appears as well that you can rent a bike to roam what is called the Mirror Beach, a portion of the coast where a few centimeters of water reflects perfectly the sky, leaving you with the same sensation as the salt desert in Bolivia. Unfortunately for us, we couldn't see this spot. For our part, we decided to keep things simple and just wandered, enjoying the panorama.
As we roamed the dunes and took pictures, we realized how clean the desert was. Japan is a very clean country, and it helps you appreciate the experience even more. It's not uncommon to find groups of volunteers organizing cleaning patrols from time to time. And so, we found one here at Tottori. This group was not really here to pick up trash from the tourists; their mission was to eliminate an invasive type of weed. Indeed, as you can see in the picture above, some areas of the desert are covered with plants. When we asked the volunteer why they were weeding, they explained that it was part of a local government policy to protect the sand dunes. With the smallest population in Japan, the Tottori prefecture is counting on the sand dunes to attract tourists and thus is putting effort into preserving it. Because of the weeds spreading, a natural phenomenon called the wind ripples (see the above picture) is threatened to disappear - a good reason for us to go back and help taking care of this gorgeous place.
When the time to leave came, we looked back at our rather simple yet wonderful experience in Tottori. We realized that quality tourism doesn't need to be intensive and that a good experience doesn't require spending a lot of money. Sometimes you only have to be standing on top of a sand dune, starring at the horizon, to feel grateful for what you have found in Japan.