When people think of Japan, they mostly think about dramatic snow capped mountains, dense forestry and beautiful coastal regions, as well as perfectly manicured gardens of course!
However, Japan is a nation and culture which is full of surprises, and one of the most unpredictable is the Japanese Desert, also known as The Tottori Sand Dunes!
Yes, you read that correctly, Japan does have a desert, and while it may not quite be on the scale of more famous deserts like the Gobi or maybe the Sahara, for a country that is very temperate and lush, even a small desert is worthy of study and admiration!
In this guide we’re going to look at the unique ecology of this most unexpected Japanese biome, as well as what you can do there, and how to get there to allow you to experience one of Japan’s most unique locations.
See Japan’s Surprising Sand Dunes
The Tottori Sand Dunes, also known as the Tottori Sakyu, are located just outside the city of Tottori. They are the location of Japan’s only desert and sand dunes, which reach heights of over 150 feet and are even home to real life camels!
In terms of size, the dunes measure some 9 miles long and around 1.5 miles wide, creating a long and thin stretch of desert sand that allows you some of the most unique experiences and views in the entire country.
It is a culturally significant area and has featured in famous Japanese poetry, inspiring the likes of Takeo Arishima, as well as inspiring other writers such as Kobo Abe, whose novel Woman in the Dunes would eventually go on to be made into an Oscar winning movie.
The dunes are visited by some 2 million tourists every year, and its not surprising, as there is a lot to do there.
In the summer months, the sand dunes become covered in green vegetation, making them a great place to visit during the warmer months for even more unique scenery. However, it’s not all just sunbathing and picnics here.
There are plenty of activities available including hiking, sandboarding, camping and even paragliding!
Where Is It?
The only desert in Japan is located in the middle of Tottori Prefecture, within the Sanin Kaigan National Park. While they are relatively near to the city of Tottori, the dunes aren’t necessarily easy to get to, however it’s not too difficult either and many tourists make the journey every year.
What To Do There
Originally created by the sands of the Sendaigawa River, the dunes have become a favorite destination of thrill seekers and tourists, and there are many different experiences to be found here.
It’s a very ideal and popular spot for sandboarding, as well as paragliding, hiking and camel rides, meaning there really is something for almost everyone.
If you’re more interested in history or culture, you can check out The Sand Museum, one of Tottori’s most unique and special tourist attractions.
The museum was created and founded by world renowned sand sculptor and artist, Katsuhiko Chaen, and is Japan’s only open air museum dedicated to sand sculptures, and actively exhibiting works from exciting new talents in this traditional artistic medium.
There is something here for everyone, from lifelike caricatures to more experimental exhibits, as well as themed exhibits which showcase different parts of the world.
How To Get There
There are many ways to reach the sand dunes, but if you want to see them from above in panoramic majesty, then flying into Tottori Airport (TOT) will give you the best views of them. However, actually getting there to visit is a little more complex.
Getting the train is the best option, as trains run to Tottori via the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Shinagawa station. Get off the train at Okayama station and then board the Super Inaba Limited Express which will take you on to Tottori itself.
The price of this journey is around 200 dollars. From here, you can get public transport to the dunes from the city of Tottori, as there is an hourly bus that runs out to the dunes.
Alternatively, you can take a taxi ride out to the desert, but this is a little more expensive.
In Japan, sandboarding is a popular activity for both adults and kids alike. It’s easy to find places where you can ride down the dunes and plenty of steeper or gentler slopes depending on how confident you are.
There are many different types of boards available, so if you want to try something new, then you should definitely give it a go.
There are some great paragliding sites around Japan, including Mount Fuji (see also ‘Can You Climb Mount Fuji?‘), Lake Kawaguchi (near Kyoto) and Mount Koya (in Wakayama), however paragliding in the Tottori Sand Dunes is even more unique.
There are camel rides all around Japan, but if you want to see camels in action, head to the Kumano Nara National Park. This park has some amazing scenery, including a large sand dune area where you can take a camel ride.
Japan is a country rich with natural beauty and diversity, and the Tottori Sand dunes are no exception. They are certainly not your average desert, and there is much more to see than just the dunes themselves.
Whether you’re looking for adventure, relaxation or culture, there is something here for everyone.
While Japan may not be well known for its desert scenes, or oasis vistas, the Tottori Sand Dunes show that there is more to Japan than what is shown in popular culture, and plenty of hidden gems to discover should you decide to visit for yourself.