There's no time to waste when it comes to a day of exploration in the city of Tottori. The western Japan city plugs travelers into the heart of an area packed with dramatic landscapes which shape local life as well as the experiences of the visitor.
Epic scale and action awaits among the city's iconic sand dunes. Ancient castle walls scale a mountainside almost downtown. Wild Sea of Japan elements have carved out a stunning coastline, the setting for one of Japan's oldest myths. Then there's the local sake, born from clean water and tough winter conditions, and tasting even better for it.
There's no getting away from it, the full Tottori experience means getting up early and getting active. But that's OK, the sunrise can be stunning, so be sure to set your alarm.
The following day in town starts along the coast west of central Tottori City before gradually taking the traveler to the downtown area, hopefully arriving in time for dinner.
Dawn of the day, and of legends
Nature puts on a show along the Hakuto Coast with rocky outcrops puncturing the waters of the Sea of Japan and swathes of golden, sandy beaches pointing the way to hazy mountains and a spectacular sunrise.
Walking and cycling routes navigate the area, west of central Tottori City. Or you could just stand agog in the sand and take in the spectacular dawn. Either way, enjoying the peace and quiet of the morning down by the water is a wonderful way to start any day.
Route 9 hugs the coast and from the roadside station Shinwa-no-Sato Shiro Usagi the inviting sands of a popular summer swimming beach are easy to access. To the east the sun rises above downtown Tottori and to the west the form of a small torii shrine gate can be seen atop the rocky island of Okinoshima.
This is the setting for the well-known myth among Japanese, and Japan's first love story, the White Rabbit of Inaba, which is told in Japan's oldest book, the Kojiki.
Courtesy of the myth and its titular rabbit playing match-maker between a god and a princess the Hakuto area is recognized as sacred ground for lovers.
Tributes to the rabbit dot the area. Most notable are those on the approach to Hakuto Jinja, a shrine hidden among trees on the hillside across the road from the beach.
Steps leading to the shrine are flanked by statues of the rabbit upon which worshippers and love-struck dreamers have balanced musubi ishi, white stones stamped with the Chinese character for "en" (縁), representing the term "bond."
Further along the approach, the shrine's torii gate bears the weight of even more of the stones.
Early in the morning you'll likely have the attractive Hakuto Shrine to yourself and plenty of time to admire the heart-shaped ema - votive wooden plaques upon which shrine visitors write their hopes and wishes, in this case those relating to love and marriage.
Musubi ishi stones are available to purchase from the shrine office. If your love life is already in good health, Hakuto Shrine is also said to help soothe burns and other skin ailments. Handy that it's just a short walk from a popular summer beach then!
Heading towards town, on the way to the Tottori Sand Dunes, you might have time to squeeze in a visit to Tottori Harbour Seafood Market Karoichi, the "kitchen of Tottori." The day's catch on display here is about as fresh as it gets. Early November and into March is the season for the region's celebrated snow crabs.
Epic landscape, epic thrills
It would be difficult to approach any trip to Tottori City and not be presented with a myriad of images featuring the city's landmark sand dunes, the Tottori Sakyu. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the arresting sight that awaits at the real thing. Put simply, they are not to be missed.
The dunes that you see in the pictures really only account for a section of an area of dunes stretching some 16km east to west along the coast. The main area for visitors is close to downtown Tottori, only around 5km north of Tottori station. Strategically planted pine trees help to prevent the city from becoming part of the 100,000-year history of the dunes.
Between the sea and the barrier of trees the dunes continue to shift and evolve at the mercy of strong winds. Experts say that the high ridges of the dunes are shifting inland at a speed of around 50cm each year.
If you can resist the urge to dive right into this dynamic landscape, exhibits and hands-on experiences at the Tottori Sand Dunes Visitors Center provide background to the topography of the area.
There are a number of ways to enjoy the dunes themselves. Fat biking must surely be among the most fun. A two-hour experience with friendly outfit Camel Cycle Club takes in the highlights including views from the lofty ridges, time for frolicking down by sea, and exploration of the trails among the greenery which fringes the dunes. In fact, this tour is the only experience to take in the dunes, the sea, and the surrounding high ground.
The two hours also comes with a bicycle tutorial, a guide who'll peddle you into the best photo ops, and the added extra of a wake-up call to the fact that you could be a lot fitter than you actually are.
Take our word for it, fat biking the dunes is as fun as it looks on paper but your legs will have to put in some work, despite the bike's "fat" tires designed to tackle the sand. (Pro tip - resist the urge to stand and hammer down on the pedals when the going gets tough, doing so will only make the going get even tougher as you sink further into the sand. Instead, keep your weight back and your bum on the saddle.)
Be it on a bike, on foot, hanging from a paraglider, or on the back of a camel, getting the best out of the dunes will take a bit of physical endeavor but when you crest one of the ridges to be greeted by the expanse of the sea in its Sisyphean clash with the shifting dunes you'll feel rewarded for your efforts and then some. And hopefully the views will put enough spring back into your step for you to make it back to the parking lot in time for lunch.
Cafe lunch and cutting-edge architecture
Back on solid ground, Takahama Cafe stands out from the collection of retro eateries and souvenir shops that gather around the east entrance to the dunes. The cafe is the new kid on the block, having opened in August 2022, and was designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
The eye-catching structure appears to be reaching for the sky, much like the peaks of the dunes. Cafe seating is spread across two indoor floors and a breezy third-floor terrace, while interior features, including bathroom sinks made in collaboration with a local pottery kiln and lampshades made from original washi paper sprinkled with sand, pay homage to Tottori's culture of mingei folk crafts.
On the menu are burgers and breads, shaved ices and shakes, as well as craft cola and coffee, among other items. Try the craft ginger soft ice cream (topped with caramel sauce and ginger chips) for a unique treat, and one that appears to have coordinated its colors with those of the dunes.
The things they can do with sand!
The forces of nature have created a magnificent spectacle at the Tottori Sand Dunes. The exhibits on display nearby at The Sand Museum are also spectacular proof that humans have reached spectacular heights in working with sand. Well, some people at least have come a long way from childhood summers playing with buckets and spades at the beach.
Exhibits at the museum have been transporting visitors "around the world in sand" since the theme set out in 2006 with sculptures of landmarks from Italy. The current "destination" is Egypt in an exhibition which runs until January 3, 2024.
Artists from around the world have sculpted some 3,000 tonnes of sand from the dunes (reused from previous exhibits) into the remarkably detailed Egyptian landmarks currently on display.
It takes around two and half months to prepare the sand for sculpting and up to one month to sculpt the larger exhibits, according to museum staff. The current exhibit will run for around 15 months. One wonders how long it takes to collapse the exhibits at the end, and whether or not the sculptors can bring themselves to be part of the process!
Afternoon exploration of castle ruins, strategic city views
Approaching central Tottori from the dunes brings you to the city's quiet eastern outskirts, an area of orderly streets and civic buildings. Here Mt. Kyusho commands fine, and at one time strategic, views over the city and beyond.
The mountain was the site of Tottori Castle, early construction of which was carried out in the mid-16th Century during Japan's turbulent Warring States period. During this time the castle was placed under siege by a force led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi) under the orders of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan's most powerful feudal lords, in his attempts to unify the country.
Tottori Castle underwent further development during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Craftsmen involved in the maintenance of the castle were among those who constructed the main keep of the much-vaunted Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture). As a result, Tottori Castle is also known as "Himeji’s little brother." The castle here would eventually be demolished in the 19th Century following the Meiji Restoration.
Today, some of the castle's impressive walls, earthworks and moats remain, spread around the mountain in an area which is now Kyusho Park.
Start your exploration street side with a stroll by the castle moat where you can enjoy views to the elegant Jinpukaku, a French-style Neo-Renaissance residence which dates back to the early 1900s.
Beyond Jinpukaku trails navigate the mountain slope, winding up and around the castle walls to a number of points from which you can enjoy panoramic views over downtown Tottori and beyond.
The highest point of the castle ruins located at the base of the mountain is the Tenkyumaru. Here you’ll find the unique "makiishigaki," a spherical stone structure built to support a section of castle wall. With no record of similar structures in Japan, the (reconstructed) makiishigaki at the Tottori Castle Ruins is something of rarity.
The climb to the top of Mt. Kyusho takes about a one-hour (there and back). A local told us that some people do it during their lunch break at work if that’s any indication of what to expect from the endeavor.
The castle ruins and Kyusho Park are a popular cherry blossom spot in spring. Depending on the timing of your visit, illuminations may also be switched on to create an atmospheric mood at the base of the mountain in the evening.
Downtown discover the legacy of a local icon
The streets between Kyusho Park and Tottori train station pass through an area of the city's commercial and entertainment district. It's here where you can discover the legacy of a Tottori cultural icon.
In the 1920s when Japan was undergoing a period of frantic industrialization a group of thinkers and craftsmen led by art critic Yanagi Soetsu started the mingei folk craft movement which sought to preserve and promote the beauty and value of simple traditional crafts made for the people.
Tottori local Shoya Yoshida brought this mingei movement to the region in the 1930s. As if being a doctor, father, and husband didn't keep him busy enough, Yoshida championed mingei by becoming a designer and producer of mingei himself.
When he wasn't treating patients at a practice in downtown Tottori, Yoshida was busy supervising the creation of one of the region's most iconic pottery designs, opening a store to collate and sell the works of craftsmen from the San'in region, establishing a museum, and later a restaurant in which diners could see mingei crafts in use. Oh, and Yoshida introduced Japan to one of its favorite dishes - shabu shabu.
Learn about the life and legacy of the remarkable (and remarkably busy) Yoshida at the Tottori Folk Crafts Museum, or "Tottori Mingei Bijutsu-kan," established by Yoshida himself in 1949.
The museum houses a collection of some 5,000 items relating to the life of Yoshida and the mingei movement and is attended by a friendly and knowledgeable curator.
The Tottori Folk Crafts Museum is just a short walk from Tottori station and sits across the road from the former medical practice where Yoshida assumed his role as a doctor.
Once you've got to know your stuff at the museum, pop next door to Takumi Kogei-ten - the oldest existing folk art specialty store in Japan - and shop for some mingei of your own, or go next-door-but-one to Takumi Kappo, the atmospheric restaurant where dishes are served in selected mingei crockery.
Sip on a taste of authentic Tottori
The Sea of Japan winters that Tottori and the wider San'in region endure might be tough, but along with the region's mountains and clean river systems, they make for great sake-brewing conditions.
Brewers Nakagawa Shuzo have been making the most of these conditions to produce award-winning sake since 1828 from their brewery about one kilometer east of Tottori station.
Approaching 200 years in the business, Nakagawa Shuzo is the oldest sake brewery in the eastern region of the prefecture.
As if to reflect the tough winters and the kind of constitution required of people to get out and work with such elements, Nakagawa Shuzo's signature sake brand is made from a special sake rice, or "sakamai," called gohriki, a name made up of the kanji characters for "strong" and "power." Grrrr!
Brewers at Nakagawa Shuzo were behind an effort to bring back production of gohriki after the sakamai all but disappeared during food shortages in the 1950s. Things got off to a rocky start though when remaining samples of the rice proved elusive. Samples suitable for cultivation were eventually found at Tottori University's Faculty of Agriculture. Gohriki came back into production in 1989.
"Actually, it's not the job of the brewer to make sake, only the bacteria can do that. It's our job to create an environment in which the bacteria can do its work," Yuto Nakagawa, the 8th generation brewer at Nakagawa Shuzo, told us during a tour of the brewing facility.
The tour took us past the large danjikomi mixing tanks and up to the climate-controlled koji room where the all-important brewer's mold is cultivated, and where the walls are fragrant with the scent of almost two centuries of sake production.
After the tour we jumped at the chance to enjoy a taste or two (or more) of the sake in the brewery's cozy store-cum-exhibition space. On the menu - some of the brands brewed from the special gohriki rice which, it's worth noting, can only be cultivated in Tottori's rice fields by Tottori farmers for use by Tottori sake brewers. Those are the rules, according to Nakagawa.
*Nakagawa Shuzo brewery tours can be arranged by advanced request. Inquire by phone or via the brewery website.
Dine out on Tottori wagyu craft burgers
They like their meat in Tottori. As well they should, with the region boasting the kind of clean natural environment great for raising cattle and other livestock.
Burgers are on the menu then, and if you like yours served with a warm welcome to match the taste, you'll likely have your appetite satisfied at Shuvi du Bar.
Owner and chef Taiyu Morio brought craft "handmade" burgers to Tottori City after returning to his childhood neighborhood after more than decade in Tokyo where he learned his trade.
For the full taste of Tottori try the Shuvi du Burger which features a patty topped with pulled pork. The patty is made with Tottori wagyu beef and local Oenosato Farm tenbiran eggs. The pulled pork, with Wakasa Yoshikawa pork (smoked for 10 hours and prepared onsite).
Diners who like a bit of flair will enjoy the premium cheese burger which comes with an extravagant serving of raclette cheese.
BLT, BBQ, and a classic burger are also on the menu here and there are soy meat and vegan options, too. Wash down the generous servings with a bottle of home-produced Shuvi du Beer IPA.
Shuvi du Bar used to be tachinomiya "standing bar" before Morio took it over.
"There used to be a strong smell of nihonshu coming from the shop. At that time I never thought I'd end up working here. I was scared of the place as a kid," Morio told us with a giggle.
Today, the cozy eatery just a few blocks southeast of Tottori station emits the kind of warm glow of an evening which serves as an indication as to the welcome awaiting within.
Hungry travelers and a crew of local English teachers (the ALT burger stands for more than just avocado, lettuce, and tomato) are regulars among the clientele. Interior decor and posters appear inspired by the kind of colorful street art you might find in a youthful bohemian neighborhood of Tokyo, like Kichijoji where Morio lived and worked during his time in the capital.
And despite the switch to craft burgers and home-produced IPAs, Morio has kept the name - Shuvi du Bar - as a nod of respect to the old neighborhood and his roots.
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