From sand dunes to giant salamanders, isolated islands with sumo-wrestling bulls to temples balancing on mountain cliffs and a manga airport to blissful onsens, travellers in barely-touristed Tottori find attractions unheard of or almost non-existent elsewhere in Japan.
You'll likely see camelback riders on the Tottori's dunes, some towering 50-meters high. These golden mountains also attract hikers, boarders, and paragliders who run, fly or slide down the plummeting dunes to waves along the Sea of Japan. The undulating, exotic dunes have inspired countless artists, including Kobe Abe, whose book Woman in the Dunes is internationally famous.
Each year, Japan's acclaimed sand sculpture Katsuhiko Chaen invites a select team of international sand artists to Tottori's Sand Museum. The concept "Travel the World in Sand" guides the sculpturers' tools as they shape amazingly detailed sculptures. Some as large as two-story homes, the works are exhibited in the world's only indoor sand art museum for half a year before workers pulverize them into sand grains for the following year's creations. The latest exhibition, opening in July, features Egypt.
If you're ready for a challenge, a harrowing hiking route up Mt. Mitoku leads through forests to mysterious constructions. No one knows who built the enigmatic 1,300-year-old wooden temple called Nageiredo and how they constructed it on an almost straight-up-and-down cliff. Tourism officials describe Nageiredo as Japan's "most dangerous national monument." Climbing requires grasping winding tree roots, metal chains, and jutting rocks on slippery earth. Slips can lead to broken bones or worse. The climb is along the 1,300-year-plus Shugendo pilgrimage route.
Shugendo combines Buddhism, Shintoism, regional folk beliefs, and nature worship. Some Shugen-do priests still engage in aesthetic practices in the mountains, eating what they forage only, meditating for long periods in caves, and strengthening their bodies and spirits by standing under waterfalls in winter. British ex-pat Brit Richard Pearce, who has studied Shugendo, guides waterfall training sessions and ascents of Mt. Mitoku.
The best time to see another Tottori surprise is when moonlight pours into clear rocky streams. Wearing rubber waders, you'll be assisting a biologist with research on the Japanese giant salamander. These strange but cute mottled amphibians can grow up to 1.5 meters and live about as long as humans. They eat insects, fish, and small mammals. Your travel yen will pay for wildlife conservation. Although listed as "special natural monuments," habitat destruction and pollution are significant threats.
A memorable experience with mammals is joining islanders as they bet on the sumo wrestling skills of their bulls. Japanese bullfighting is not a blood sport: It is a pushing contest between evenly matched bulls. The heaviest weighs close to a ton. When one bull appears to concede, farmers separate their animals. Winners and losers return to work the next day.
The rare spectacle of Japanese bullfighting is just one of many reasons to visit the tiny Oki islands, which are off the coast of Tottori and Shimane prefectures. Others include kayaking over the emerald sea waters between islets to reach an ocean cave in a rocky cliff, viewing sea life from a glass-bottom boat, jungle trekking, and bicycling around the sparsely populated islands. However, be wary of the semi-wild cattle and horses roaming freely in many areas.
Crab is the local specialty of Tottori, and the residents are crab crazy. Local crab consumption is six times the national average. Even some schools provide crab lunches to students. Tottori's fishing fleet harvests more crab than other prefectures and has more crab farms. Local menus list grilled, steamed, boiled, raw, sushi, sashimi, and numerous different ways of preparing this succulent creature.
The chef at Ryokan Ohashi in Misasa Onsen, Tottori, prepares award-winning meals, and the service in private dining rooms is unforgettable. Someone suddenly turns off the lights, and waiters enter with lights shining on crab sashimi dishes—still in the shell—designed to represent the illuminated crab boats that landed those crabs the evening before.
After dinner, soak in the ryokan's private baths next to the ever-flowing Mitoku River. Fresh air, frog and bird songs, and hot mineral water eliminate stress and melt the most hardened muscles. If bathing naked in public doesn't faze you, walking downstream to soak in the free communal outdoor onsen is a local tradition.
Tottori Airport, which services flights in and out of the prefecture, is pleasantly strange. Manga nerds and jaded travellers who have never cared about manga can't help but smile and take countless photographs while strolling the airport. Manga artworks cover floors, walls, and just about everywhere. With more than 250,000 million copies sold worldwide, Detective Conan is Japan's fourth most popular manga series. Honouring boy detective Conan and his creator, Tottori-born Gosho Aoyama, Tottori Airport is rightfully called the Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport, a sweet nod to the country's manga culture.