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Arabian Nights in Japan

  • The Tottori dunes were formed thousands of years ago and attract about two million visitors a year
  • Their dramatic appearance has made these dunes a favourite, if macabre, setting for Japanese writers

A sculpture in Tottori town’s sand museum. Photo: Alamy
A sculpture in Tottori town’s sand museum. Photo: Alamy

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I was going in search of a miracle, but the stars appeared misaligned. On the way from my home in Tokyo to the city’s airport, I left a backpack with my precious laptop on the monorail. Japan is, however, the land where What is Lost is Always Found. Forty minutes later, helpful railway staff had located and retrieved my bag, so that I was not only able to make my flight, but even pick up a bento box for lunch.

We arrived in the far western prefecture of Tottori, the archipelago’s least populated area, to a driving, cold rain and the news that the city’s famous sand museum, where giant sculptures shaped from 3,000 tonnes of sand are on display, was closed. The sculptures are prepared yearly for a mid-April opening and destroyed in early January of the following year: a tableau of the impermanence that is integral to the Japanese aesthetic.

I took a walk instead. The town was somewhat desolate: shuttered shop windows and too much concrete. An unremarkable river cut through the centre. I walked along, wondering if my decision to accept the invitation by the Japan Tourism Authority to see Arabian Nights-style sand dunes in this land of sushi and cherry blossoms was a mistake, when, in an incandescent blur of feathers, a wild heron flew past. My heart soared with it.

The next morning dawned gloomy. There was no sign of the rain ceasing. My guide looked as grim as I felt. We drove to the dunes past a large billboard of sands sparkling in the sun with the slogan:

“When you arrive, you will think:

Tottori, hometown of my heart.

When you step in, you will feel:

Tottori, hometown of my heart.”

I was having difficulties locating my heart, which had plunged, heron forgotten, somewhere into the depths of my boots. We arrived at the drenched, deserted car park for Tottori’s prime attraction. Wielding umbrellas, we hopped on to the cable car that took visitors the short distance towards the dunes, at their stunning—or so the brochures would have one believe—location on the coast of the Sea of Japan.

As I sat on the wet seat, I squeezed my eyes shut and sent up a prayer that I had scant expectation of being heard. “Please, please, please let it stop raining. Just for 10 minutes; just enough for a couple of photographs. I promise, I’ll be good.”

Tourists take a camel ride at the Tottori sand dunes
Tourists take a camel ride at the Tottori sand dunes

We got off the cable car, walked up a few stairs, turned a corner, and I felt the breath knocked out of my body. Undulating sheets of dark gold sand stretched out towards the blue waters of the ocean, making for a vista so magnificent that for a moment I didn’t realize it had stopped raining. For real.

We found ourselves almost completely alone in this luminous landscape, the aural backdrop devoid of Korean tourists and Japanese teenagers. Instead, we were enveloped by the sounds of bird calls and ocean waves as we pondered the power of nature to wrought scenes of such beauty. Given that the dunes attract about two million visitors a year, our solitude was almost as miraculous as the rain stopping.

The Tottori dunes were formed thousands of years ago when sand carried by the nearby Sendai river was dumped into the sea. Strong winds and a powerful current deposited the sand along the coast, fashioning it into steep shelves. They are not huge, around 16km long and 2-5km wide. But their location on the coast, coupled with the rippling patterns carved on to their surface by wind, rain and the shoes of tourists, make for a dazzling sight.

The Sea of Japan stretches beyond the dunes
The Sea of Japan stretches beyond the dunes

Their dramatic appearance has made these dunes a favourite, if macabre, setting for Japanese writers. Takeo Arishima (1878-1923) wrote a heart-wrenching poem about the misery he felt standing in the middle of the sands, being aware that an affair he was having with a married woman could only end in tragedy. The couple committed suicide shortly thereafter. The surreal qualities of the dunes also provided the backdrop for avant-garde author Kōbō Abe’s 1962 existential novel, Woman In The Dunes, in which an entomologist gets trapped in their sandy confines by villagers who force him to dig sand for sale.

Luckily, I was neither having an affair and nor was I an entomologist. So I was able to explore the dunes, climbing up the 58m peak of the highest sand bank called Umanose (horseback), in wonderment. My guide apologized for the fact that the Bactrian camels usually offering rides to tourists were absent due to the heavy rain that had preceded our arrival. I muttered a silent hallelujah for the same.

At the top of Umanose, a 360-degree view of mist rising on the hills behind us, the green of an adjacent pine forest, the warm brown of the sand, and the weak glimmer of sun on the horizon over the ocean, was stunning in its harmonious disjuncture.

The dunes are, in fact, the westernmost section of the San’in Kaigan Unesco Global Geopark, an area that stretches for about 120km, all along the coast from Tottori to Kyotango in the Kyoto Prefecture. I resolved to return and wander along this path less travelled.

The air was cool. We were on the cusp of spring, but winter had not yet retired for the year. There are days in the colder months when snow blankets the dunes, making for Instagram-blockbuster images. But, for me, this moment was perfect: an Arabian Nights miracle in Japan I knew I would hold on to long after the winds had carved new patterns on the sands.

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