Tottori? That’s, like, somewhere south with the desert, right?
These are usually the first words out of most people’s mouths when asked about Tottori, the skinny prefecture in Japan’s southern Chugoku region. Yes, Tottori is home to the country’s largest sand dunes (a rather random terrain to find in temperate Japan) but aside from this fun fact, its other attractions remain hidden.
Sitting on the coast of the Sea of Japan, Tottori is a sparsely populated prefecture with fewer than 600,000 residents – a stark contrast to Tokyo’s 13-million population. As someone who likes to avoid well-trodden tourist traps, I was excited to discover what else Tottori had to offer when I recently traveled there for a few days.
1. You can go outdoors from sea to snow…to sand!
I was dismayed at what my weather app displayed for Tottori, only to find blue skies and a crisp ocean breeze as my plane landed in Yonago in west Tottori.
Tottori’s ever-changing climate comes from the close proximity between the sea and mountains. As a result, I experienced hail, rain, sunshine and an extreme wardrobe change in a single afternoon.
During winter, Tottori is blanketed with heavy snowfall from the Sea of Japan. While I enjoyed the ocean and white sandy beaches from the comforts of my rotenburo (outdoor) bath, I had my share of outdoor fun snowboarding in the mountains.
At 1,709 meters tall, Mt. Daisen looms over an otherwise flat Tottori and is easily accessible for skiers and snowboarders coming from Kobe and Hiroshima. Daisen White Resort covers four ski slopes and on bluebird days, offers a panoramic ocean view. In the summer, it’s a popular five-hour round-trip trail with camp sites, farms and hot springs at its base. And, if you’re craving barbeque, the beach is just a little less than an hour’s drive away!
No Tottori trip is complete without a stop at the aforementioned sand dunes, but you’ll want to fly into the eastern airport of Tottori Sakyu Conan for this. The sand dunes and the adjacent San’in Kaigan Geopark is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise featuring impressive landscapes formed by the ocean winds, a massive desert where you can sandboard, paraglide, ride camels and even see snowfall (which I did), numerous inlets and caves to explore and crystal clear waters you’d be tempted to jump into during the summer.
2. Or dive into some of Japan’s best seafood.
My family religiously orders snow crab every winter, so going to Sakaiminato Port in west Tottori was like making a pilgrimage to the “Mecca” of shellfish. Sakaiminato produces the most amount of snow crab in Japan during the peak months of November to March. The famous matsuba-gani (adult male snow crab) can be found for sale at the nearby fish markets, or served at neighboring ryokans and restaurants. Coming from a multi-ethnic family, I had always eaten crab boiled or grilled and marinated in chili sauce, so tasting the subtle flavors of raw crab sashimi and the bold kani miso (creamy crab innards heated in Japanese sake) was an unexpected but delicious surprise. If crab isn’t your favorite, you can find a myriad of marine life from yellowtail, red snapper, salmon, cod roe, shrimp, abalone, sea urchin, squid and tuna.
3. Want to wander the past in a traditional get-up? You can.
Remember when you tried to get that Instagram shot of yourself strolling through Kyoto’s streets while wearing a kimono – but people just kept getting in the way of the shot? At the lesser-known and extremely photogenic Kurayoshi City, you won’t have to worry about photoshopping the other pedestrians out.
I spent a serene hour strolling through Kurayoshi, admiring the traditional merchant homes and storehouses which are characterized by narrow entrances, long bodies, red roofing tiles and white walls. Soy sauce, sake, textile and confectionary shops that have existed since the Edo period still operate today, and it was a unique time-slip experience especially as I was wrapped up in the warm Kurayoshi-kasuri, a local kimono style using indigo dye and woven cotton produced and traded during the Edo period.
I felt extremely feminine for this brief afternoon, although this was soon over when I scoffed down a delicious bowl of Tottori’s famous beef-broth ramen noodles (another must-try if you’re in the area).
4. How about going skinny dipping in mysterious surroundings?
It’s no wonder Tottori has produced some of Japan’s top manga storytellers; central Tottori is a region filled with folklore. Misasa Onsen, a hot spring village, is said to have been discovered nearly 850 years ago when a samurai warrior decided against killing a white wolf and was rewarded with directions to a hot spring. The still-active spring contains one of the world’s highest levels of radium and is said to improve metabolism and immunity. Visitors who are just passing by can drop in Kabu-yu, a public bath. For bold skinny-dippers, there’s the outdoor Kawaraburo bath in full public view which I chickened out of.
Serving as the base camp for the nearby Mt. Mitoku, Misasa Onsen is a place for travelers to purify themselves – both literally and metaphorically – before ascending the spiritual mountain. Mt. Mitoku is home to Nageire Hall, a temple mysteriously built into the side of a cliff. I caught a glimpse of this architectural treasure from the main road as the hike trail was closed for the season. Mt. Mitoku’s 900-meter trail is one of the steepest mountain temple trails in Japan with multiple temples built along the way.
5. Plus you’ll get to meet friendly locals (and drink great coffee).
I spent the night at Kiya Ryokan back in the onsen village, but what made it special wasn’t the baths or the delicious full-course dinner (although the beef bread bowl and dried persimmon with cream cheese still make my mouth water!) After dinner and an onsen soak, I dropped by the inn’s café across the street.
This quirky space is straight out of a Ghibli film. Inside was an elderly gentleman in a hakama (traditional samurai pants) brewing house blend coffee with a siphon. The seats were fashioned from tree trunks, jazz music was playing from a speaker hidden behind rows of books and in the center of the café stood a bright red post box.
Before long, Shu Mifune, the ryokan owner and barista for the evening, was sharing stories of Misasa Onsen while we sketched and painted. Almost approaching its 150th anniversary, Kiya Ryokan has an impressive history of being family-run for eight generations. It even housed injured soldiers during World War II.
Deliberately taking the time to talk and relax with a good cup of joe in this tiny village deep in the valley was just what I was looking for – escaping the Tokyo bustle for a bit of quiet, real and beautiful Japan.
Yonago Kitaro Airport on the west is around an hour and a half plane ride from Haneda Airport, with approximately six flights per day. From there, you can access Daisen White Resort and Sakaiminato Port by rental car (recommended). Misasa Onsen is around an hour and 40 minutes by car from Yonago Airport. If you want to check out the sand dunes and the San’in Kaigan Geopark first, fly into Tottori Sakyu Conan Airport in east Tottori.
[This is a sponsored article in collaboration with Tottori Prefecture.]