Drifting through the storied sand dunes of Tottori

by

Special To The Japan Times

The woman from Ethiopia, resplendent in a scarlet headdress and gold ear pendants, blended in splendidly with the vast dune plateau.

This was not Africa, however, but a unique wind corridor along the Tottori coast where great drifts of sand, attracting curious visitors from all over the globe, are fashioned into steep shelves. It may not compare to the great wind-raked dunes of Namibia or Tunisia, or the sand tombs of Timbuktu, but to come across formations like this in Japan is nothing short of stunning.

This otherworldly landscape, suggestive also of the massive Dune de Pilat, a short drive from the French City of Bordeaux I visited some years ago, provided the perfect setting for the surrealist photographer Shoji Ueda (1913-2000), known for placing figures in the sands for a series of highly compositional monochrome images he took in the 1950s.

The writer Kobo Abe, aware of Ueda’s dislocating, oddly beautiful works, requisitioned the sand drifts for “The Woman in the Dunes,” his novel of disengagement and entrapment. In Abe’s story, an entomologist finds himself confined in a sand pit with a recently widowed woman. Tasked by short-handed locals in a remote seaside village with shoveling encroaching drifts of sand, he finds his identity, which is already threatened by the legal registration of his death, beginning to vanish in the dunes. This painful existential work, an erotic and violent allegory of a couple interminably shoveling sand in order not to be buried alive, was made into a film in 1964, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

Breaking through the claustrophobic confinements of Abe’s story was the sight of colorful paragliders being launched from the sand shelves, the billowing chutes making graceful curves and plunges above the desert. The view of sea and sand from these airy contraptions must be magnificent.

I had thought before coming here that I could simply step out of my hotel near Tottori Station and walk onto the sands, but the dunes turned out to be a 20-minute bus ride from town. Visitors have the choice of either walking down to the base of the sand hills or taking a lift in the form of bucket seats that pass over the coastal road, affording good views, before descending to the beach.

Saving this natural wonder for later, I followed the road from the bus stop, to the extraordinary Sand Museum, where some 20 sand sculptors from all over the world were enlisted to create lifelike works with predominantly German themes in a building resembling a hangar. There are scenes from the Pied Piper of Hamelin, key moments in the life of the religious reformist Martin Luther, a number of castle facades, a massive panel on the coronation of Charlemagne, a highly realistic representation of Albert Einstein and even a “Fall of the Berlin Wall” piece.

It is quite a transition from the highly controlled and creative manipulation of sand to the dunes themselves, a wilderness stretching 16 kilometers from north to south, the product of strong winds blowing in from the Sea of Japan. Against the largest of the dunes, named Uma-no-se, visitors struggling up its slopes are reduced to flyspecks.

As are the rental camels that occupy the flatter portions of the beach, waiting for tourists fueled perhaps by fantasies of Arabist writers and adventurers like T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger. I shot off two or three pictures of the creatures (the camels, not the tourists) before a man came hurrying up to me waving his hands in protest. The question of why there was a prohibition on photographing camels, perfectly clueless animals that couldn’t care less about having their portraitures taken, remained unanswered. “The camels are resting and can’t be disturbed,” offered one handler. Having once traveled with a group of camel traders for 30 days from the old slave town of Omdurman in Sudan to the camel market in Cairo, I can attest that the last thing these apathetic creatures are is camera shy.

If the sand dunes seem like painterly subjects (and I did see a number of people setting up easels), the Uradome Coast, a 25-minute bus ride from Tottori Station, resembles the kind of landscapes portrayed by Chinese and Japanese artists in black ink. I spent a good three hours following a delightfully sinuous hiking trail that winds through pine woods and rock crevices, suddenly opening onto cliffs perched above empty coves and deserted islands. The water between the rock outcroppings is turquoise or emerald green and highly transparent, indicative of a sea that is extremely clean. On clear days its surface sparkles, shafts of light illuminating shallow pools that look like cut glass. The conditions were perfect for divers. Among the only people I glimpsed on the trail were a group, a diving club perhaps, assembled on a pebbly beach, receiving directions from an older man before plunging in wearing goggles and wet suits.

Walking the trail along this archetypical Japanese coastline requires a degree of physical exertion, and in the warmer months, plenty of water. Planks made from tree trunks provide traction along some portions of the track, while other parts are simply earthen. Stone steps help to negotiate the steeper ascents, but in other spots the path is completely natural, with exposed roots providing hand holds. Perhaps that was why I saw only a handful of people that morning. Where I had met people from all parts of the world on the sand dunes, here there were none. This was a little surprising, as the coast was designated as one of Japan’s best viewing sites as long ago as 1927, and as a natural monument the following year.

The Uradome Coastline is part of what has been designated the San’in Geopark. Most visitors seem content to simply take a boat cruise along this section of the coast. Having done both the cruise and hike, I can testify that the latter is infinitely more fascinating, including many beautifully framed views. Boats and private vessels such as canoes and kayaks do add interest, though, and the one-hour tours provide the opportunity to see some interesting rock formations and serrated cliff surfaces up close, and to approach the entrances of caves and grottoes at water level. Small craft can be spotted puttering around the bays and coves, circling islands and providing commentaries to their customers that are, mercifully, inaudible from the hiking trail. I even saw one or two people paddleboarding, a good way to access some of the coast’s small, marvelously secluded white sand beaches.

I had been walking for what seemed like most of the morning along the rising and falling cliff-side path. With my water supply dwindling, and the climb generating a powerful lunchtime hunger, I exited the trail onto a surfaced road, rather than completing the 15-kilometer stretch of coast. The downhill stroll back to the port and bus stop could not have taken more than 20 minutes. It was a good example of relativity: the power of natural landscapes to create a different spatial and temporal reality.

I dropped off at the dunes on my way back to Tottori. The last tour bus was long gone and most of the souvenir shops were shuttered for the day. The cluster of commercial buildings had acquired the neglected quality of so many other shabby seaside resorts in Japan. At this hour, the sand plateau was little more than a smudge of light and abstract mass on the horizon. A sour, winey smell hung in the darkening air, recalling the presence of those laconic rental dromedaries. By the time I finally arrived home after three weeks on the road, the Tottori dunes were little more than a dim memory. Then one afternoon, cleaning my boots, I watched in wonder as rivulets of golden particles fell out, like the contents of a broken sand timer.

There are daily flights from Tokyo to Tottori Airport. JR lines and San’in lines stop at Tottori. Regular buses leave from Tottori Station to the dunes, a journey of 20 minutes. The Uradome Coast is a 25-minute bus ride from Tottori Station. Maps and information in English are available at a tourist booth by the station’s north exit. To learn more about the Sand Museum, visit www.sand-museum.jp/en.