Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Sand Dunes of Tottori (Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture)

鳥取県鳥取市鳥取砂丘 (Tottori Sand Dunes, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture)

(BGM: "Tea In The Sahara" by The Police) 

Wind ripples in the Tottori Dunes. (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Before the Jomon people came along, Japan was nothing but deep, wooded forests and thick, impenetrable jungle -a true Garden of Eden. Despite the current irrational rush to turn the archipelago into a giant cement parking lot for American mega-corporations, Mother Nature still has the upper hand in reclaiming her garden, entangling Japan in a sticky net of inescapable vegetation. You can see it in the way the kudzu vine covers every square inch of this country in mid-summer: hanging from telephone lines, choking out playgrounds and abandoned structures with their tentacular tendrils in an all-out territorial war. For every inch Mankind paves in vain, the kudzu seems to take ten miles. (To this nature lover, it's a joyous sight to behold!)

But with all this green, the very (and I mean very) last thing you'd ever expect to see out here is a huge series of rolling sand dunes. The fact that these strange landforms even exist in Japan is the key to their massive appeal as a natural phenomenon. And for this exact reason, the Sand Dunes of Tottori (鳥取砂丘, Tottori Sakyu) have been on my bucket list since I was a kid. I was overjoyed to hear Hubby's interest in checking them out!

Tottori Sand Dunes: a HOT travel destination!
Our trip to Tottori was unwittingly scheduled for a weekend during the hottest time of the year. Tropical Storm Nakri was ripping through western Japan at the time, sucking in clouds from surrounding prefectures while pushing daytime temperatures well above 35 degrees Celsius. I read online that the sands can get as hot as 60 degrees Celsius, and that burns from inadequate footwear were not uncommon.

Heat stroke was something I knew how to fight, but for walking on the equivalent of molten tar, I needed some expert advice. I asked my worldly-wise Grandparents, who spent years on the desert sands of northern Africa, just what to wear for hot sand dunes. "Comfortable shoes," was all Grandpa said, and a horrifying image of blistery, charred stumps for ankles flashed across my mind. Could I handle this?

Emerging from our economy hotel in Tottori City, my husband and I were delighted to feel the cool morning breeze blowing in from the remnants of Nakri as it finished its course over the Japan Sea. Good fortune was ours! "You'll be fine," the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed hotel attendant chirped. "It's a cloudy day today and you're smart to go to the Dunes early. You'll have fun!" Immediately I switched into my Teva sandals, mentally begging my feet to forgive any abuse they were about to incur. But happy in their Tevas, my feet were indeed comfortable! (In a way, I took Grandpere's advice).

We drove ten minutes north out of downtown, over terrain that reminded Hubby of the Han River in Seoul. Entering a small forested area of unidentifiable structures covered in kudzu, we turned a corner and could see a patch of grayish-ochre sand littered with long expanses of crabgrass.

We stepped out of the car and were about to grab our walking sticks when this sweating, heaving man in his late fifties wearing nothing but white underwear came stumbling out from the bushes, obviously over-heated and heading straight for his car's air conditioner. Bright red skin radioactive and glowing, he sweat so hard he couldn't see us well as my husband stopped him for some directions. How long had he been out there? It wasn't even sunny!

Access to the western dunes via a free parking lot.
"It's worth the 500 yen to park near the visitors center," he panted, perhaps wishing he'd taken his own advice. "It's too far of a hike from here to the main dune." We apologized for not having a cool drink for him but thanked him for his advice and drove on for three minutes around the hill, down a developed strip of uninspired concrete gift shops, a ski lift, and banners advertising ice cream and camel rides.

The chair lifts connecting the visitor's center to the main dunes.
A large group of Chinese tourists excitedly clomped their way up the wooden steps to the beach, all wearing the same rented white rubber boots. Tired Japanese mothers and fathers dragging weary, brown-skinned children staggered weakly down the stairs, drunken from the heat. We passed alarming signs warning us of poisonous tarantula-like sand spiders the dangers of heat stroke. Hubby and I simultaneously gave each other a single worried glance. A moment of hesitation had struck us both. But shrugging our shoulders, we silently agreed to just get out there and leave our lives to Fate. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance after all! We'd come all this way. We can't back out, now!

Funds go towards preserving the dunes, which are shrinking from the effects of crabgrass and seawall construction.
We loaded up on bottled water at the nearby visitors center's vending machines, thankful that our donations would contriubute to the saving of these precious dunes. 

The sign begs visitors to drink plenty of water and avoid heat exhaustion.
At the top of the stairs, the sand stretched out before us, golden and hissing in the Nakri winds. We couldn't see the beach beyond the massive main dune, looming over us menacingly as an ant-like stream of black human dots trailed up its central flank, solemn and slow like pilgrims.

Windblown and weary in Japan's largest sandbox!
It was then that I noticed the unmistakable, musty-sweet stink of sweaty camel hide. Turning to my left, there they were, grunting and farting as parents fussed over their squirmy spawn, trying to get the perfect pose for their money. (For 500 yen, you can have your picture taken standing in front of a camel with the grassy part of the dunes for a background -with your own camera of course). I've been on a circus camel before and Hubby was curious to ride one, but not curious enough to shell out 1300 yen for just a few minutes of humpty fun. So we decided to just take pictures of others living out their desert fantasies. Right as we wielded our smartphones, however, the camel attendant started waving us off. "No photos!" he shouted.

A camel utterly ruining my shot of some beautiful crabgrass. What nerve! 邪魔だ!
I asked a young mother still smiling after her sandy trek how long of a walk it was from the platform to the main dune, since bright sand has a way of tricking the eye, making distances look much shorter than they really are. She smiled and said it only took fifteen minutes and that it felt really good to walk it. I noticed her daughter trailing behind her in bare feet and with that, I was raring to go. With my trusty Ol' Green (now yellow) bamboo stick, I gripped my water bottle and followed Hubby up the main dune.

Almost at the top! (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
The warm sand was soft and cushy to walk on. Before I came here, I actually had a temporary moment of insanity, thinking the sands would try to swallow me whole like they did Junpei in the passionate 1964 film The Woman In The Dunes (filmed here on location in Tottori). Much to my surprise, my feet only sank in about a centimeter and hiking in the sand was very easy going -much easier than walking on a beach. The Nakri winds sand-blasted our eyes, ears and mouths, making sure every exposed crevice was thoroughly salted with shimmering, silky sand. I felt like a chicken being prepared for a giant BBQ. It stung just a little bit, but was more pleasant than anything and only made me higher on this very new experience. Right away I imagined the awe my Grandparents must have felt at the sight of the mighty Sahara, Libyan and Western Deserts stretching out before them. Overwhelmed from missing them, I knelt down in the pie crust-colored sand and just closed my eyes, feeling the tiny crystalline particles pummeling my skin, remembering my loved ones in this bizarre, completely unrelated place, staring lost into a sea of sand.

The Tottori dunes aren't a desert at all; the area receives far too much precipitation to qualify. But these sands still possess the magical ability to disorient and hypnotize, curving and bronzed like sun-kissed skin, the stuff of fantasies. Lost in a flight of fancy, I decided to strap my Tevas to my bag and simply enjoy the rest of this exotic journey barefoot. It was still only 28 degrees Celsius and I had yet to break into a sweat. The weightless sand enveloped my toes in pillowy comfort like the skilled hands of a professional masseuse. What a sensual delight!

The sand of the Tottori Dunes is a mix of volcanic ash from Mt. Daisen and sediment deposits from the Sendai River, powdered fine by Sea of Japan winds. These dunes took over 100,000 years to form!
Gradually, the two-toned sand around us brightened and changed color as clouds overhead evaporated to let in more light. The resulting intense glare reflecting into our eyes prevented us from seeing our screens, so we took as good of pics as we could completely on faith, being sure to bag our smartphones while walking to cut down on sand damage. It was all too easy to forget about sipping water; the surroundings were that awe-inspiring. The top of the largest dune gave us some impressive vistas from about forty meters above sea level.

"Sea, Sand & Sun" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
We had no way of knowing that two brief hours had already passed us by. The sunlight grew hotter by the minute and Hubby suggested we slowly head back, traversing the tops of the dunes down to the sandboarding access trail, creating a wide arc. Glad to move away from the crowds, we encountered stretch upon stretch of uninterrupted wave patterns. (We wondering why nobody else would follow us here where the dunes are more, well, dune-like!) These waves in the sand were exactly what I was after! Wind ripples as far as the eye could see stretched out to the sea, like fingerprints on the hand of God.

God's Fingerprints (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Looking behind us at what we'd just conquered, we spied an adventurous local sliding down the backside of the dune towards the beach. We knew his way back would be arduous and didn't wish to imitate him. But boy, was he fun to watch!

"Dune Dude" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Occasionally glancing back to keep from forgetting this mystifying otherworld, we trekked easily down our last dune into the crabgrass, the sounds of wind and screaming children now drowned out by the percussion of shrilling cicadas and chirping sparrows. Hubby patiently paused for me as I reluctantly strapped my sandals back on, the skin and muscles of my feet aching for a permanent life in that heavenly warmth. We slowly acclimated our bodies back to the land of concrete and kudzu, but with our minds still swirling in the wind.

Evil, wicked, naughty crabgrass...
Ironically, the dunes are disappearing, partially due to Mother Nature's battle to reclaim as much of her Eden as possible. Year after year, patches of crabgrass and kudzu encroach upon the 30 square kilometer-wide perimeter of the dunes, growing faster than volunteers can pick it. Perhaps photos like the one below of a spotless dune will be quite rare in the future. (And maybe the camel guy will eventually forbid free shots of them as well). As sad as this fact is, nature has a reason for everything. Perhaps here is yet another example of where she doesn't do everything merely for human aesthetic enjoyment. If I remember my own place in nature, this becomes much easier to accept, though I still found myself pumping more coins into the "save the dunes" vending machine than I'd intended, forgetting that I was only creating more plastic waste. (How does one win as a modern human?)

The sands will cover any traces that I was here. (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Nonetheless, Hubby and I felt a sort of pang when we made our final steps out of the dunes. We both agreed that it felt like we'd traveled across the sea to the other side of the world and back, yet that sensation of teleporation was all in our minds. (Perhaps another trick of the sands?) After many decades, it finally became clear to me why my fashion-forward Grandmother always wore desert sand tones since she repatriated to the States.  Now that I've witnessed the haunting mystique of the dunes with my own senses, I'll probably be doing the same.

Thank you, Tottori Sakyu. We'll be back soon!
Time to cool the heck down! Back in the real world, we made full use of the visitors center's facilities, including the resting station where you can rinse off burning, sandy feet in icy cold water for free at the push of a button.

A very welcome way to cool down from a hot day at the dunes.
Before leaving for our second destination of the day, we made darn sure to stop by one of the many vendors specializing in a famous (and highly recommended) Tottori treat: seafoam-green Asian pear soft-serve ice cream! It went far beyond our expectations in smoothness and fruity flavor. This is the first soft-serve ice cream we've ever had in Japan that we actually enjoyed enough to buy twice on the same day. Crabgrass or no, kudzu or no, we are totally in love with the Tottori Sand Dunes! Yet I have a feeling we'll be back this way again, if only to enjoy this delectable ice cream. Maybe you'll see us there!

梨ソフトクリーム (nashi sofuto kureemu). Well worth the 300 yen!
Tottori Sand Dunes Information: 
Open Hours: Open 365 days a year, 24/7. 
Holidays: Open every day of the year.
Transportation Access:
Parking: Free parking exists around the far ends of the dunes, but to be close to the vending machines, bathrooms and other facilities, it's worth paying 500 yen near the Visitor's Center.
Access By City Bus and Taxi: Comprehensible directions can be found here.
Access By Car: 
(Out of Kyoto): Follow Route 27 to get on The San'in Road (Route 9). Follow it all the way up to the Tottori Dunes. Too convenient! (Toll fees may apply).
(Out of Hiroshima): There are brand-spanking-new toll-free roads from Onomichi and Shobara all the way up to Izumo, Shimane. From there, it's another couple of hours along Route 9 to the Dunes. (Toll fees apply along Route 9).
Admission Fee: No fee to access the dunes.
Available Facilities: Public restrooms (Western and J-style), gift shops (along the main strip, specializing in pear-flavored and camel-shaped goods), chikuwa (fish cake) shop, ice cream vendors, drink machines (in front of the visitors center and elsewhere), chair lift (ideal for those with walking issues), rubber boot rentals, sandboarding rentals, paragliding lessons, camel rides, horse and cart rides.
Other Points of Interest in the Area: The Suna-No-Bijitsukan sand museum (specializing in internationally-themed sand sculptures by the nation's most talented sand artists, located about a 10-minute walk up the hill from the main dune access), rakkyo (shallot) fields, nashi (Asian pear) orchards, cafes, a few restaurants and a campground. The Tottori Sand Dunes are part of the San'in Geopark, a stretch of coastline that holds many cultural and geological points of interest. Follow the coastline down Geopark Road towards Uradome Kaigan to see some spectacular beaches and seascapes!
Insider's Tips:  
(For Fun) Bring your own sled! We totally regret not bringing one!  
(For Safety & Comfort) Even on a hazy day, wear a hat and breathable clothes in pale colors that reflect light. (Everyone I saw wearing black looked exhausted and miserable). Put on sunscreen, even if it's cloudy out. Reflected sunlight from the sands can easily burn skin. Wear shoes (or boots) and socks that completely cover your feet if attempting to climb the dunes in anything hotter than 31 degrees Celsius. One hotel staff worker described the hot sands as "molten lava." (Eek!) Like other touristy spots in Japan, you'll see some local girls actually coming to these places in high heels. Use common sense. The tops of the dunes are easier to walk on than their bases. If traveling to the dunes in summer, avoid the hottest times of the day (between 12 noon and 4pm), especially if bringing kids. (They're lower to the ground and will get more heat exposure than you, so have mercy). Bring lots of water to drink. The tides and undercurrent are very strong out there so try to resist the urge to swim. (Two tourists drowned to death while swimming near the dunes a few years back).
(For Unique Photos) For wind ripples and other sand designs, try hitting the dunes first thing in the morning (before 10am), while the sand is still free of footprints! Most tourists stick to the one big dune, but it's well worth your time to wander away from the crowd and explore the dunes from original perspectives. The dunes shift and change all the time, so your shots will be the only ones like that, ever. :-) You'll notice when you upload your digital pics that they won't look the same as you remember them. Much as the sea changes color with daylight, the same thing happens to sand. I use photo apps to bring out what I want. There are many options available.
(For Smartphone Care) Smart photographers have plastic bag covers to keep the sand out of their expensive gear. We don't have any of that. But we can say that if sand enters your phone it could destroy it, so be sure to keep it in a clean place while hiking (your feet will kick up the sand), and vacuum your phone ports, speaker holes and buttons really good when you get the chance. Your phone will thank you!

(Pour mes Grands Parents: Vous me manquez tous les deux et je vous aime beaucoup!) 

A Pair of Footprints (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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