Fall down the rabbit hole into Japan’s Manga Kingdom

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Photo by Rebecca Quin ©MIZUKI Productions
July 19, 2016

Tiny Tottori is the least populated prefecture in Japan. As it turns out, that really depends on who you’re counting. Tottori is secretly crowded with creatures from another world.

Rural and scene-stealingly beautiful, the collection of seaside towns running along the San-in coast are home to a number of celebrated manga artists – giving it the nickname the “Manga Kingdom”. And it’s exactly that; a storybook world hidden in the heart of your ordinary-looking Japanese countryside.

Tottori is secretly crowded with creatures from another world.

The first sign that something’s slightly out of the ordinary is when you land at Yonago airport, nicknamed “Kitaro” airport after the hero of Tottori-native Mizuki Shigeru’s amazingly weird manga series Gegege no Kitaro.

Waiting for my bags, I spot a giant anthropomorphic eyeball casually hanging out on the luggage carousel. This is Medama-oyaji or “Daddy Eyeball”, the supernatural father of Kitaro. All throughout the airport are characters from the world of yokai (supernatural creatures) that emerged from the author’s imagination.

Yokai watching in Sakaiminato

Kitaro Yokai Mixuki Shigeru Road

From the airport, I headed to Sakaiminato, the first stop on the recommended Manga Tour Itinerary which first covers Mizuki Shigeru and after Gosho Aoyama, creator of the hugely successful Detective Conan series, or Case Closed as it’s known abroad.

Trains running along the JR Sakai line from Yonago to Sakaiminato are decorated with images of Kitaro inside and out, and each of the station stops is named after a yokai character. Alternatively, it’s a 12-minute drive down one straight road to JR Sakaiminato station. You can rent a car at the airport or hop in a taxi (800 yen).

Arriving at Sakaiminato is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole into Shigeru’s peculiar psyche. Leading from the station is Mizuki Shigeru road, where more than 150 bronze-cast yokai seem to mischievously pop up out of nowhere –  signs of the broken boundary between the real and paranormal worlds here. They’re on the lampposts, hidden behind postboxes, guarding the manholes and there directing you to the public restrooms for some slightly terrifying toilet time.

The Mizuki Shigeru Museum, towards the end of the road, is a fantastic insight into the author’s life and works. It features a collection of extraordinary original drawings, and you can learn about the way Shigeru used yokai as a means of social criticism. The museum has a great smartphone app for downloading the audio guide through your phone.

For a different route back to the station, divert to the Osakana road which follows along the water past Sakaiminato wharf, from where you can take the ferry to the forested Shimane Peninsula just opposite, or all the way to Korea. I took a break for lunch to take advantage of Sakaiminato’s super fresh seafood in the fittingly unusual form of tuna ramen.

Solving the case with Conan

Conan statuePhoto by Rebecca Quin ©GOSHO AOYAMA/SHOGAKUKAN

The next stop was over the Hinogawa river to Yonago into Detective Conan territory. Tottori has an ingenious taxi system where you can hire a driver and cab for either a pre-planned tour or your own arranged route. Plans range from a two hour course for 6,480 yen to a longer sightseeing tour for 9,720 yen. The Hama Loop bus also runs from the station taking in the main sights.

We drove towards Hokuei, passing the majestic Mount Daisen in the distance which rises straight from the Sea of Japan at a height of 1729 meters – the highest in the Chugoku region. If you’re taking the train, the Sakai line stops at Yonago station where you change to the San-in main line to Yura “Conan” station. The Conan-themed trains will take you all the way to Tottori City in the east of the prefecture.

From Yura station, I walked along Conan Road to the Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory. You won’t need to be as much of a sleuth as Aoyama’s famous hero to notice the bronze statues of various characters on the way to the museum, or the portraits along the sidewalk after Conan bridge.

All of Aoyama’s masterpieces, original drawings and a recreation of his former study are on display, as well as interactive replications of some of the tricks played in the Conan stories. Like with the Mizuki Shigeru museum, you can discover more about the cartoonist’s life. There’s a portrait of his mother that he created for an elementary class project that reveals his unique artistic perspective; while all the other kids were drawing their mother’s face, Aoyama painted her from behind, standing at the kitchen sink and looking out the window.

Women on the sand dunes B&W

From Hokuei it was back on the road again for the next part of my Tottori tour, the sprawling sand dunes where you can ride camels and paraglide over a desertscape. This is Tottori; a little-known land of so many wonders it’s almost make-believe. Are you packing your bags yet?

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