If our experiences paint a picture in our memories, Tottori has given me an art gallery. This prefecture in western Japan is probably not one you can immediately locate on a map. As it turns out, that’s pretty much the norm because it is one of the least visited prefectures, according to the most recently available statistics from the Japan National Tourism Association.
By actually traveling there, I realized that it’s really not because of what it lacks, but because of how much there’s still left to discover. Just like in high school, the “cool kids” got looks but are not always the most entertaining! Tottori, with a population of around half a million, has not yet caught on among the majority of travelers flocking here for Japan’s tourism boom, however, it was in the Top 3 prefectures with the most growth in overseas visitors.
Tottori has not yet caught on among the majority of travelers flocking [to Japan].
As I found out from a trip in winter, and more recently, in early November, there’s so much to see and do. From Tokyo, it is an easy hour-and-10-minute flight to fresh air surrounded by sprawling sand dunes, just one of the experiences rarely found elsewhere in Japan.
Here are some unique ways to make memories in Tottori, through the narrative of a trip I took with a few friends.
7. Paragliding off of Japan’s most famous sand dunes
“Damn,” I thought, “We are going where?” As we ditched the concrete for the rippling sand dunes — the most famous in Japan that are accessible to the public and stretch 16 kilometers along the Sea of Japan — we hiked up the sandy hills with our parachutes in backpacks.
My nerves were getting the better of me, but were calmed by the paragliding expert instructor who has 33 years of experience, has traveled all around the world paragliding and confidently gives me directions in English. The nerves soon leveled up to raw, animal energy.
After the initial glide, even as a first timer, I was hooked! The instructors made it easy, fun, and with a blue sky decorated with puffs of clouds arching over the ocean, the scene at San’in Kaigan Geopark was picture perfect. Plus, I got a decent workout while crawling up the dunes on a half-day course.
6. Visit one of the world’s most unique natural hot springs
Misasa Onsen village, south of the dunes, was quaint and the hot spring baths were relaxing — like most of the onsen inns I’ve frequented in Japan. Though, Misasa is extra special because the natural geothermal waters there are some of the world’s most rich in radium.
Why, you might ask, do I care that this weak radioactive gas is in the water, like love is in the aiiiiiir? Stop with the disco lyrics and listen: there are scientific studies and some easily Googlable research on the subject which prove there are health benefits from exposure to small amounts of it.
It’s said that dipping in these healing waters, which date back over 800 years, can improve your metabolism and boosts immunity. After a full day of sand dunes, I can attest to that.
Plus, you can also grab a ryokan here and have a snow crab dinner set, which most often results in more crab than anyone should be able to eat at once.
5. Try Momiji Tempura at Japan’s most naturally stunning eatery
Momiji leaves are so delicate and beautiful, and when I heard people actually make tempura with them — you know, Japan is so stellar at living off the land — I was utterly fascinated. I heard you could eat them in Kyoto, but I was never able to satisfy my curiosity there.
Then, four years later, it happened at Tottori’s Mitakien restaurant, which is like stepping into a dream where you’re allowed to wonder if Michelin Guide restaurants and nature can coexist. The answer is yes, as this one is on Tottori’s Michelin Guide for 2019. Its beauty is purely natural and one-of-a-kind, as opposed to the over-the-top opulence found in the wealthy districts of Tokyo.
Just on the walk to our table, we entered a literal forest where I happily dodged the mystical free-range roosters, fish pond and babbling brooks along mossy paths to our riverside space that could best be described as an artful wooden lodge.
Inside, we dined on Tottori’s hand-picked and hand-prepared dishes including mountain veggies and plants, specially made tofu, tempura and freshly grilled river trout as part of the “Sugi (cedar)” course.
It’s one of three set meals which you must make a reservation for — and despite being out of the way, I would go back again in a heartbeat. I finally got my momiji tempura here. It, and the rest of the meal, may have been dreamy but took me to a very real place called tasty town.
4. Pet a goat and propose to your lover
Remember, love is in the air… You can go to a lot of “Lovers Sanctuaries” around Japan, typically with a romantic view and some sort of love pledge, like writing your names on a lock and clasping it around a fence to commemorate the experience. However, this one is on the list of official places named by legendary wedding dress designer Yumi Katsura as officially a lovers sanctuary.
At Daisen Masumizu Highland, a skiing hotspot in the winter and lovers’ hot-hot-spot in fall, I glided up the mountainside on a chairlift with my “lover” of the day (a man in our group) — asking him romantic questions like, “Asagohan wa nani wo tabemashita ka?” or “What did you eat for breakfast?” We took in the awesome view of northern Tottori and and the Sea of Japan from 900 meters up, which is two-and-a-half times as tall as The Empire State Building.
We chilled on chic modern observation decks, complete with plush blankets, loveseats and loungers, and options to even order beverages.
My real lover wasn’t there, but it’s still fun for singles or friends who also want to pet one of the (dare I say random) goats grazing near the entrance. If your real lover is there, the romantic view is perfect for a proposal. You may also want to check out the overhanging view from the nearby “sky church,” which is the coolest introduction of a chapel I will ever make.
If marriage isn’t your thing/or isn’t allowed to be (legalize gay marriage already!), the whole experience simply lets someone know you care enough to spend the eight (16 in total) minutes (in heaven!) on the ski lift with them.
3. Off-road fat-tire biking on the dunes
Before I grabbed my fat-tire bike (the tires are typically 3.8 inches (97 mm) or more), I knew what I wanted — the wow factor from getting that ridiculously cool photo that made us want to do the bikes in the first place. Like this one:
That’s not exactly what I got, but with the right weather, you likely will get close. The leader of the fat bike tours is famously (at least on the dunes) nicknamed Steve (after Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) with golden fluffy hair.
Not your average Japanese salaryman, this guy is a marketing genius. He knows most tourists are looking for something fun and challenging. But most of all, they (I) want proof of it, which in simpler times was a just a digital photo, but now is a #nofilter #NotSorryBoutIt Instagram post. I don’t like talking about Instagram as if it is important, but then again, I learned long ago that my reality is not always the collective one.
Steve was the “Instagram boyfriend” I didn’t know I needed. While our group cruised on and off the dunes along the Sea of Japan coast, Steve leads us to locales only known to locals for a slew of “trick” photos. The ride left us a little winded, refreshed (we even saw a freakin’ rainbow) and with memorable shots of us, on #fatbikes, #onlyintottori — Steve made sure of that.
2. Witness a human-sized Godzilla suit among 2,000 cute figurines
Just when I think I am an adult with adult problems, the Kurayoshi Figure Museum is there to remind me that my biggest issue is finding ¥400 to crank out another gachapon capsule toy so we can get a gorilla (or pig!!) figurine that stands at a urinal. Oh, shut up, it’s the cute-weird stuff we all love about this country.
It’ll all make sense once you’re at this quirky three-story school turned museum which is housed in Japan’s oldest standing cylinder-shaped school. (Why did that ever go out of style?) I wouldn’t call myself an anime or manga fan, but I do find value in cuteness and the care that goes into each model, figure and toy. Each room has a different theme.
One room had around 200 meters of model train tracks, one room with military vehicle models, another room with a hardcore collection of all the gachapon toys you can get in Japan, one room with the wildly cool human-sized Godzilla suit — yes it can be worn and no you cannot buy it, unless you wanna pay thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of yen.
Room upon room, figurine upon figurine, it was a fun stop while in Kurayoshi, a city in Tottori known for its historic white-walled warehouses.
Plus, this spot is an interesting view not only into one side of Japanese culture but also both a commentary on life in Japan back in the 1960s and the declining birthrate now. This new museum is evidence of how Japan is dealing with a dwindling population through revitalization projects, and this is quite a cool revitalization of a school that no longer had enough children to stay open.
Last, I totally would have bought some of those Japanese culture figurines at the museum’s gift shop, but they had Hatsune Miku instead.
1.Climb to Japan’s most dangerous national treasure
Sitting in the center of the prefecture, Mount Mitoku is the real deal. An old sanctuary of the tendai Buddhist sect, Mitoku’s mountain monks have been training here since 706. Due to the difficulty of the course, you cannot hike alone on these sacred grounds. The pilgrimage requires specific hiking shoes, or you have to wear the traditional straw sandals.
I strapped them on to go scale rocks and hike the pilgrimage to Japan’s most dangerous national treasure, Nageire-do Hall. Oh, and I was pissed about it until I crawled up the first rock. Of course, my ego screamed, “No way the modern invention of hiking boots could be topped!” As always, the ego was wrong.
I watched other hikers without the sandals slip, slide and fall on the rocky and sometimes scary trail, while the straw on our feet had a natural and seemingly magical grip while scaling boulders and climbing up twisting tree roots. It was totally unbelievable. I felt like Mario when he gets the secret boot (Super Mario Bros. 3 – World 5, Level 3) and can freely hop onto and over the otherwise dangerous spots.
But how ironic that my magic boots were sandals.
Back to a different reality, the hike is said to be a sort of rebirth, and the forest is nothing short of mystical. The pilgrimage destination is Nageire-do Hall, the most dangerous national treasure built into the rocky mountainside and 200 meters up from the starting point. Halfway through the hike, we took in the view of the mountains dotted in red, yellow and green from a sacred spot along the trail.
Walking out onto Monjudo Hall’s wooden ledges were heart-stoppingly gorgeous, second only to a bungee jump I did in Japan a few years ago off a bridge. It was both humbling and thrilling to follow in their footsteps of the mountain monks, if only for a few hours on the beginner’s course.
Getting to Tottori
Tottori is about an hour and 10-minute direct flight from Tokyo Haneda Airport. Tottori has two accessible airports: Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport and Yonago Kitaro Airport. By train from Tokyo, it is a 5 ½ hour ride on the Tokaido-Sanyo bullet train and Super Hakuto express train, changing at Himeji station to Tottori station. It is about three hours by train from Osaka.