December 11, 2020

Mt. Daisen & the Sand Dunes

Though Japan's least populated prefecture, Tottori is home to some truly amazing attractions such as Mt. Daisen and the legendary sand dunes.

Donny Kimball stands in front of the torii gateway of Mt. Daisen's Ogamiyama Shrine in Tottori Prefecture

Hail and well met travelers…

In this week’s article, we will be taking a look at some amazing attractions in Tottori Prefecture that I’ve been itching to visit for quite some time. Now, for those not already in the know, understand that this portion of Japan is about as far off the beaten path as you can get. In fact, Tottori is notorious for being the least populated prefecture in all of Japan. While it may be somewhat lacking when it comes to its head count, Tottori is indeed a prefecture that is rife with all sorts of hidden allures. Especially given the need for social distancing in a post-pandemic world, Tottori is the ideal location for adventurers to consider once travel resumes.

When it comes to Tottori, there are two main draws that stand well above the rest. These locales are the sacred Mt. Daisen and the legendary Tottori Sand Dunes. What’s more, unlike many similar locations across Japan, these two spots offer a sweeping appeal. Whether you’re into outdoor adventure or keen on the cultural side of travel, both Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes are sure to deliver. In fact, the only real downside to these attractions is that you’re likely going to need a rental car to enjoy them to their fullest. Assuming you’re not like me, and actually know how to drive, I cannot think of a better duo to add to the list of must visits when traveling across Japan.

Additionally, while always a solid option, Tottori Prefecture is also going to be one of the key locales for the 2021 World Masters Games (to be held in 2022 due to our friend, the coronavirus). This international sports festival is held every four years and is one of the largest competitions of its kind with over 170,000 enthusiasts participants to date. The World Masters Games have been running for 30 years now and western Japan is set to host the 10th global gathering. Because of this, Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes make for convenient side excursions for anyone coming to see the 2021 World Masters Games.

Getting to Tottori

Before I go all #DonnyThings on why you absolutely must visit Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes, let me quickly cover some key logistics. Simply put, getting to this rural prefecture is either really easy or downright difficult. If you opt to fly in from any major city, you can reach this area in just under an hour. Alternatively, if you prefer to take the train or drive, you’re in for a bit of a difficult undertaking. This option is especially true for those relying on public transportation given the eventual need to navigate the buses. If at all possible, do yourself a favor, and rent a car.

During my recent visit, I was traveling with an entourage that included Simon Rowe, an Australian writer living in Himeji. We met up in Shin-Osaka before hopping a ride in our trusty van bound for Mt. Daisen. All in all, I recall the road trip taking approximately three to four hours. Had I been traveling solo, I would have instead opted to fly directly into Yonago Airport. However, this route would still require me to access additional train and bus connections whereas those with valid licenses could potentially pick up a rental car near the airport.

While you can fly directly to Yonago Airport, know also that Tottori can conveniently be accessed directly from Kansai International Airport in under four hours. Though you’ll need to navigate a number of connections, there are actually some express trains that run all the way through the mountainous interior of western Honshu. Refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to help you calculate the optimal route and train schedules.

Simon Rowe poses with his bike at Kaike Onsen in Tottori Prefecture

As an important side note, Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes are essentially located on opposite ends of the prefecture. With that said, you should consider budgeting for at least two days in Tottori. Luckily, this is more of a perk than a problem. You see, this coastal prefecture has a slew of amazing seafood options. What’s more, the area offers numerous revitalizing hot springs to consider when selecting your lodgings. During my travels in Tottori, my companions and I stayed at Kaike Onsen which has some great options for cycling along the Sea of Japan as indicated above.

What to See on Mt. Daisen

The main hall of Ogamiyama Shrine on Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture

For the longest time, I’ve been chomping at the bit to visit Mt. Daisen. Since I started writing way back when, this adventure has been sitting on my bucket list just taunting me. Truth be told, I was actually planning a visit during Golden Week but the coronavirus put an immediate stomp on my travels. So, being a responsible human, I stayed home with my fellow Tokyoites throughout the prolonged state of emergency. You can only imagine how elated I was when the powers that be invited me to go check out Mt. Daisen during my recent trip to Tottori!

What makes Mt. Daisen so extraordinary for someone like myself is that the crag has long been a spiritual enclave for the practice of mountain asceticism. Similar to the other mountaintop sanctuaries, Mt. Daisen is dripping with all sorts of neat nooks for ascetic training and self-mastery. As a result of the syncretic history that Buddhism and Shinto share, the crag is home to a shrine and temple that are both more than a millennium-old. These days the pair is distinctly separated into the Daisen-ji temple compound and Ogamiyama Shrine, nevertheless the intertwined legacy of the two remains extremely palpable on Mt. Daisen.

In addition to Mt. Daisen’s spiritual side, the location is also an ideal choice for those who enjoy an active hike. While I had to opt out due to a tight schedule, the strenuous, three-hour climb to the summit of Mt. Daisen waits in my bucket list. From what I’ve read, the entire trek to the top measures approximately four kilometers; however, much of the terrain consists of steep stairs that you’ll need to climb. Thankfully, the commanding views from up above as well as natural beauty along the way more than make up for the difficulty of the ascent.

Assuming that the timing works out for you, one of the best times to visit Mt. Daisen is during early June. Every spring, on the first weekend of the sixth month, the locals gather for the Natsuyama Summer Festival. Held in honor of the approaching summer season, thousands of participants join in a mystical torch parade to Ogamiyama Shrine. As you can see here, it’s an epic spectacle which travelers are welcome to participate in. If you intend to join the celebration, be sure to arrive no later than 7:30 PM and make sure to bring along 500 yen for your torch.

Shojin Ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at the shukubo pilgrim lodge Sanrakuso on Mt. Daisen

Before moving on, I have one final bit of advice to share. Should you visit Mt. Daisen, I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend that you make plans to enjoy some of the mountain’s famous shojin ryori. The reason for this is simple. All of the vegetarian Buddhist dishes that you will be served are derived from ingredients directly sourced from Mt. Daisen. During my stint on the peak, I was able to savor the meal pictured above at a shukubo pilgrim lodge called Sanrakuso. The feast consisted mainly of freshly picked mushrooms as well as several delectable mountain vegetables, yuba and other shojin ryori staples.

For the imbibers out there, I’d also encourage you to give the local brew a try. Now, technically speaking, Buddhist monks aren’t allowed to consume alcohol so you’ll need to order what is called “hannya-to.” A portmanteau of the Buddhist term Prajna and the kanji for hot water, this concoction was one method the monks utilized to sidestep the ban on boozing. Apparently, Japanese monks were of the mind that as long as their other vows were vehemently upheld, it was OK to knock a few back every now and then so long as they didn’t drink “too much” (and no, there are no stipulations on what “too much” means).

The Tottori Sand Dunes

Donny Kimball stands on top of the Tottori Sand Dunes and looks out at the sea

No visit to Tottori would be complete without experiencing the prefecture’s most iconic attraction, the expansive Tottori Sand Dunes. Found on the distant side of the prefecture from Mt. Daisen, this 16-kilometer-wide expanse was created over thousands of years from sediments steeped in the nearby Sendaigawa River. The distinct sand dunes and hills are in constant flux as they are continually being molded and sculpted by the winds and waves of the Sea of Japan. Because of this phenomenon, no two visits to the Tottori Sand Dunes will ever be the same experience.

Though indeed vast, most of the action at the Tottori Sand Dunes can be found within a relatively narrow swath of land. Here, visitors will find the tallest sand dune formations which provide impressive views of the coastline below. From what I was told during my all-too-short visit, it seems the dunes can reach the height of up to fifty meters. Unfortunately, due to the never-ending amount of sand, it’s really hard to convey this via a still image. For context though, just try to imagine a mound of sand that’s much taller than your average office building.

Much like Mt. Daisen, the sand dunes appeal to an eclectic variety of interests. While the dunes sufficiently stand as an attraction in and of themselves, there remains a variety of activities to enjoy as well. For example, adventurous souls can try their hand at paragliding or sandboarding down the dunes. Alternatively, visitors to the Tottori Sand Dunes can also hop a ride on the back of a camel. Frankly speaking, it’s a sight that feels like it was taken straight from the Sahara Desert and not Japan.

Attractions Nearby in Tottori

Czechoslovakia sand sculptures at The Sand Museum in Tottori Prefecture

As impressive as Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes stand, they are only two of many allures throughout the prefecture. For instance, just a stone’s throw from the dunes, you’ll find The Sand Museum. As the name implies, this facility houses all sorts of impressive works of art that have been crafted solely from sand. For the price of but a mere 600 yen, visitors can marvel at these masterpieces. One unique draw of The Sand Museum is that its exhibitions change annually. The new exhibition in 2020 is based on the Czech Republic and Slovakia and will be open until January 3, 2022.

In addition to The Sand Museum, travelers could consider another regional attraction, the Shirakabe Dozo-gun. Located almost equidistant between Mt. Daisen and the Tottori Sand Dunes in Kurayoshi City, this historic district is reminiscent of my beloved Kawagoe in Saitama. At Shirakabe Dozo-gun, you’ll find assorted antique shops and warehouses. Some structures date as far back as the late 1800s and the spirited vibe emanating from these bygone days still very much lingers in the air.

Until next time everyone…