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Pressing Pause on The Tokyo Rush with Two Days in Tottori

My brief escape to healing hot springs, deserts and mountains.

By 9 min read

I don’t always notice the toll that the crush of Tokyo takes on my mannerisms or mood. But I noticed it when I went to Tottori for two days in April, just when the cherry blossoms began to fade in the city.

My flight was from Haneda in the early morning. I woke before the sun did and experienced that somewhat eerie atmosphere of walking through Tokyo when it sleeps. Aboard the plane that would take me elsewhere, I watched as tall buildings disappeared beneath fluffy clouds. It was the first sense of space I didn’t know I was craving.

I arrived at Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport, one of two airports in Japan’s least-populated prefecture of Tottori. It was the eastern airport, named after the prefecture’s iconic sakyu (sand dunes) and the Detective Conan museum located in Hokuei, the hometown of the popular manga’s creator Gosho Aoyama.

A small desert next to the sea

At the airport, I met my guide, Sugihara-san, and we exchanged our business cards with smiles and bows. It was raining a little but this didn’t stop us from heading straight for the dunes. Sugihara-san tells me that this desert was created over thousands of years; its full length taking up 16 km of coast on the Sea of Japan east to west, and 2.4 km north to south.

Tottori’s postcard-perfect sand dunes.

Taking in the view from the top of the sand dunes was like taking in a long, deep breath. I had gotten so accustomed to the rise and fall of concrete, the press of bodies, and the noise of neon lights, I realized I had forgotten how to really breathe.

Ghibli-style relaxation at Sennentei Hawai Onsen

Sugihara-san almost had to drag me away from the expansive pull of the dunes, but he assured me that our next stop would be just as nourishing. We hopped in the car and took the scenic drive to Hawai Onsen and Sennentei, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with private onsen (hot springs) on the spectacular shores of Lake Togo.

The outdoor onsen at Sennentei perched right on the edge of Lake Togo.

Built over 100 years ago, Sennentei sits atop a small island along the lake. Locals say the water that bubbles up from beneath relieves muscle, joint, and nerve pain due to the high content of sodium chloride, and fondly call it the “floating ryokan” — a nickname which only adds to its Ghibli-esque charm.

Touring the ryokan’s highly sought-after “Mizuna” room, I saw windows as big as movie screens displaying the peaceful lake and mountains in panoramic view just beyond the glass. Birds floated, flew, and dove just outside it.

The “Mizuna” room at Sennentei in Hawai Onsen.

When I was led outside to explore the outdoor onsen, a crane took flight and stopped me in my tracks. Except for the flapping of its wings all else was silent.

Cue nostalgia with Detective Conan and Kurayoshi Figure museums

A model of Conan’s ride outside the Detective Conan Museum.

As we drove away from Lake Togo and its serene calmness, I prepared myself to dive into a very different kind of world — the entertainment kind. We stopped at the Detective Conan Museum — a love letter in exhibition form to Aoyama’s cartoon hero — and the 1955 Enkei Gekijo elementary school, Japan’s oldest circular building, and now a figure museum.

The collection of figures at Kurayoshi Figure Museum was vast.

Figures from anime, traditional Japanese history and Buddhism, animals and even dinosaurs decorated the circular rooms like trophies of a figurine fanatic. It was a whimsical blip in the tranquil state of mind I could feel myself sinking into.

Healing myself at Misasa Onsen

After a day of exploring Tottori’s central and eastern sides, I arrived in Misasa Onsen, a hot spring retreat known for its healing, radium-rich onsen, where I would eat, sleep, and bathe away the trials and tribulations of Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms on the road to Misasa Onsen.

I would be staying at Seiryuso, the second ryokan on my Tottori tour. Stark white and surrounded by fading cherry blossoms, the building overlooked the cascading Mitoku river which I followed into the small village.

Beneath a bridge crossing the water, there was a public onsen where some elderly locals were languishing in plain sight beneath the bridge. Feeling a little shy myself, I didn’t take part but vowed to enjoy the onsen attached to Seiryuso later that evening.

The public natural onsen along the river is open to everyone at any time.

Seeing the light

Taking a left after the bridge brought me down an intimate street that seemed to belong to several different time periods. A flicker of warm light caught my eye. Several giant lanterns in a window marked the entrance to a lantern store and workshop.

A narrow street in Misasa Onsen at dusk.

Asada-san spotted me almost immediately and ushered me in, enthusing about her work and the lantern-making classes she runs for visitors to Misasa. She eagerly shut out the studio lights to show me her hand-made creations and in that moment I felt the furthest from Tokyo I’d been in a long time.

The owner, Asada-san, showing me how it’s done.

She told me that her favorite part of teaching lantern-making is that she receives many guests from all over Japan, Asia, and beyond. Sometimes the colors and fabrics they choose to make a lantern surprise her. But no matter what color, and no matter what fabric the customers choose, the lantern always turns out perfect the moment a light is lit inside it.

River music at Seiryuso Ryokan

My room at Seiryuso faced the river sound of rushing water — a sound that accompanies you wherever you walk in the village like its own background music.

My riverside room at Seiryuso.

At dinner, I changed into an off-white and purple yukata (cotton kimono) and sat down to enjoy a traditional Japanese meal. The area is rightly renowned for its exquisite crab and beef. Dessert was a delicious cherry blossom mochi ice cream.

Dinner at Seiryuso.

After the meal, it was time for a bath. Locals say with conviction that the hot spring water here has the power to save lives. The water contains a high content of radium which, when exposed to the body, helps with anti-aging and boosts its immunity to diseases. Bathers are even encouraged to drink a small cup of the onsen water before entering.

One of the baths at Seiryuso in the daytime.

The magic and mystery of Mt. Mitoku

Day two began at Mt. Mitoku. Sugihara-san explained that he was taking me to one of Japan’s oldest and most mysterious temples, Nageiredo.

Photo:
Nagereido Temple on Mt. Mitoku.

Built in 706, the structure hangs impossibly from the mouth of a cave on the side of a mountain. The legend goes that a lotus petal dropped from the hand of a god and landed on Mt. Mitoku, crowning it a holy site of spiritual pilgrimage. We climbed towards the lower temple complex, smiling back at the friendly jizo statues — protectors of travelers, women, and children — that greeted us.

Buddhist jizo are often found in temples and along pilgrimage routes.
Saying a prayer.

Just below the temple was a vegetarian restaurant called Mitokusan Sankouin. Depleted from the hike, we sat on the tatami mats at the bottom of the mountain, drinking tea, and replenishing ourselves with ingredients harvested from the mountain we’d just been on.

Our meal at Mitokusan Sankouin included pickled mountain vegetables.

The ever-present Mt. Daisen

Past windmills, ocean sides, and rice fields we came upon Mt. Daisen in the early afternoon. Reaching a height of 1729 meters, this mountain, part of Daisen-Oki National Park, can be seen on a clear day from several places in Tottori. One of the most popular hiking trails leads to Daisenji, a Buddhist temple of mountain worship. In the winter months, Mt. Daisen transforms into a ski area and resort.

Mt. Daisen with its peaks hidden in the clouds.

We didn’t climb but stayed for a while to drink in the spring vista of melting snow sliding down and greenery creeping up to meet in the middle of the mountainside.

Ocean vibes at Shotoen in Kaike Onsen

Our last stop before my trip back to Tokyo was the seaside resort of Kaike Onsen, and the third and final ryokan that Sugihara-san wanted me to see. Shotoen has nine floors, with the rooftop offering a stunning view of the city and ocean from its open-air bath. Guests residing in the east building can enjoy breathtaking views of Mt.Daisen while they bathe.

Tokyo to Tottori Shotoen Kaike Onsen

The view from the rooftop bath of Shotoen.

Lying so close to the ocean and Sakai Fishing Port in nearby Sakaiminato, the ryokan’s cuisine is directly delivered from the port. The vegetables, too, are grown locally. I wished I could have had a meal here but Sugihara-san came to tell me that it was time to go.

Returning to Tokyo

I departed Tottori from Yonago airport, making a note to myself that I began in the east and finished in the west. Sitting in the airport waiting for my zone to be called I felt a strange sense of ease, not apprehension, at returning to the city. It was strange knowing that in just a few hours I’d be moving at a pace that wasn’t my own, in a place that never feels like mine.

But if the healing powers of Tottori taught me anything in two short days it’s a kind of acceptance and patience. As I boarded the plane I held tightly onto the feeling of the mountain, the lake, the hot water, the sand. I imagined that it would all slip away the moment my feet touched the ground.

Except when I did, I still had sand in my shoes.

Tokyo to Tottori footsteps along the sand dunes

How to get to Tottori from Tokyo

There are five round-trip flights between Tokyo and Tottori Sand Dunes Airport, and six round-trip flights between Tokyo and Yonago Kitaro Airport departing daily. The flight is about an hour and twenty minutes.

Yonago Kitaro Airport is in Sakaiminato city, the hometown of Shigeru Mizuki and aptly named after the author’s most famous manga, Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro (in English, Kitaro of the Graveyard).

Where to stay in Tottori

Sennentei Ryokan (Hawai Onsen)

Reservation

The price depends on the number of people staying, what meal is chosen, and the room type. The website is available in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. However, to look at the available plans, you must view the site in Japanese. Alternatively, it is also listed on Booking.com.

Access

At JR Kurayoshi Station bus terminal, take bus No. 4 bound for Kohama, which stops at Hawai Onsen on the way. One-way costs ¥350, and takes 15 minutes. JR Kurayoshi Station is about a 30-minute train ride from JR Tottori Station and JR Yonago Station by limited express train.

4-62 Hawaionsen, Yurihama, Tohaku District, Tottori 682-0715 - Map

Seiryuso Ryokan (Misasa Onsen)

Reservation

Booking a room can be made online at the Seiryuso website (Japanese with an English auto-translated version). Plans can vary depending on meal choice and number of people.

Access

Guests can make arrangements in advance to be picked up at JR Kurayoshi Station. Details can be found on their website. From Kurayoshi Station to Seiryuso it takes 18 minutes by car. Buses also run from Kurayoshi Station to Misasa Onsen. Timetables at this website.

309 Misasa, Tohaku District, Tottori 682-0123 - Map

Shotoen Ryokan (Kaike Onsen)

Reservation

Bookings can be made on their website in English — a link will take you to the Booking.com listing. Kaike Onsen has what they call “Plans at a Glance” which are set plans you can peruse while making your reservation decisions.

Access

From JR Yonago Station, take the Kaike Line bus to Kaike Onsen. It takes 20 minutes. From Yonago Airport you can take a shuttle bus to JR Yonago Station. When you get on the bus, inform the driver that you want to get off at Kaike Onsen.

4-25-15 Kaike Onsen, Yonago, Tottori 683-0001 - Map

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