Visit the Desert in the Heart of Japan

Couple Running (Tottori Sakyu, Sand Dunes, Japan)
Couple Running (Tottori Sakyu, Sand Dunes, Japan) | © Free Images / Flickr
Lucy Dayman

From the historical streets of Kanazawa and Kyoto to the futuristic neon drenched streets of Shinjuku, from the lush snow-covered mountaintops of Hakuba to the tropical beaches of Okinawa, and from the chaos of the city to the tranquility of unpopulated countryside, Japan is a nation of fascinating contrasts and hidden surprises. So it may not come to shock you that although you’ve probably never heard about it before, the country is home to a camel-populated desert.

Where is it?

Located right in the heart of Tottori Prefecture, inside the Sanin Kaigan National Park, is where you’ll find the Tottori Sand Dunes. A little more difficult to access than some of the country’s major tourist destinations, the dunes sprawl across a 30-square-kilometer stretch of open sand fields that reach from the coast to the northern corners of the Tottori city centre.

What to do there

Originally created by sand from the nearby Sendaigawa River, these days the dunes make for ideal sandboarding, camelback riding and fat biking. To get a proper view of the area, hop on a Tottori chairlift and ride it up to the observation deck of the Sakyu Center; from this point you’ll be able to see fields of visitors trying their hand at the unique sports.

As you might well have guessed from the name, sandboarding is essentially just snowboarding on sand, and dotted along the dunes you’ll find plenty of stores offering rental equipment and lessons. It’s said the soft sand and the friendly 30-degree slope mean that even for beginners it’s a relatively easy challenge to tackle.

For something a little different, consider signing up for ‘Fat Bike Tour’ offered by the team at Trail On (the only fat biking company in Japan). Basically a sandy terrain bike with thick (fat) wheels, a fat bike is the ideal weapon for battling the slippery sand of the dunes. Hopping on one of these is an easy way to see the area in a relatively short amount of time.

For a more authentic desert experience, you can always sign up to get a ride on the camels along the massive yellow stretches of land, dodging cyclists and wobbly sandboarders as they tear through the hills of sand.

Once you’re done exploring the sights outside, it’s time to discover one of Tottori’s most unique attractions, The Sand Museum. It was originally founded by world-renowned sand sculpture champion Katsuhiko Chaen. Still to this day, the museum is Japan’s only open-air museum actively exhibiting sculptures made from sand. Check out the mega life-like sculptures and exhibits, which are themed around different corners of the world.

How to get there

Located along the sea of Japan, from Tokyo you get to Tottori via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Shinagawa Station. Hop off at Okayama Station and get the Super Inaba Limited Express to Tottori. Tickets for this journey will cost you around 21,500 yen (US$202). To get to the sand dunes from Tottori Station by public transport, take the hourly bus bound for the Tottori Sakyu and hop off at the last stop. The trip takes 20 minutes and costs 370 yen (US$3.50) each way. Taxi rides from Tottori Station are about 20 minutes, and will cost a little over 2,000 yen (US$19).

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