Japanese desert

Yes, Japan Has a Desert—and Yes, It’s Amazing

Japan is a place where bullet trains sit close enough to some of the oldest remaining structures in the world to shake them as they pass; where the wildest porn is produced, but where genitals in said porn must be pixellated by law; where you can get a pedicure 24/7, but where ATMs have operating hours—the ultimate land of contrasts.

So, it came as no surprise to me to learn that 32 square kilometers of desert exists along the heavily-wooden northern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island.

Formed around 100,000 years ago by sediment deposits from the Chugoku Mountains being carried into the Sea of Japan via the Sendai River, the Tottori Sand Dunes now attract some two million visitors per year, most of whom are Japanese or from other nearby Asian countries.

The Japan desert the star attraction of the region surrounding their namesake city, a sleepy industrial town that’s approximately three hours from Osaka by semi-fast train—the Shinkansen doesn’t come here yet. But they’re also awesome enough that I don’t regret having made the trip up here just to see them.

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Where to Stay in Tottori

The sand dunes notwithstanding, Tottori is far from a major tourist destination, so you shouldn’t expect to find incredible hotels here. Indeed, I recommend staying in a simple “business hotel,” where you choose Tottori City Hotel or Hotel New Otani Tottori, both of which are located in the center of the city, close to the bus station where you’ll embark on your journey to the dunes.

What to Do in the Tottori Sand Dunes

To be sure, although they constitute one of the smallest desert areas I’ve ever visited (the other possible contender being Vietnam’s Mui Ne), the Tottori Sand Dunes have a peaceful energy that belies the number of people who visit on a daily basis. Plus, the desert Japan has tucked along its northern coast has camels—and you know how much I love camels.

According to some scientist types I spoke with, the topography surrounding the dunes—sakura-speckled coniferous forest, a grass-filled lagoon that grows every time it rains and the massive Sea of Japan—threatens their very existence. But as is the case with many threatened places I’ve visited, these hugely contrasting, potentially dangerous elements actually enhance the beauty of the Tottori Sand Dunes.

Stairs to desert in Tottori, Japan
Camel in desert in Tottori, Japan
Woman in desert in Tottori, Japan
Dunes in desert in Tottori, Japan
Salaryman in desert in Tottori, Japan
Tree in desert in Tottori, Japan
Sunset in desert in Tottori, Japan

How Big is the Desert in Japan?

Prior to my visit, I’d psychologically set myself up for the Japanese desert being small – and Japan’s only desert is small when compared, say, to the Sahara or even Israel’s Negev Desert.

But 16 kilometers long by two kilometers wide isn’t tiny when compared to the size of a human like you and I! Better still, most visitors to the Japanese desert stay along the same (easy) path up, down and around the dune, which means that it’s easy to find a quiet place to lie and take in the silence, something I didn’t realize I’ve been missing as I explored hectic Tokyo and tourist-infested Kyoto, as much as I genuinely loved both of those cities.

In fact, you might say the Tottori Sand Dunes are a “happy place” for me, which is ironic when you consider they inspired Kobo Abe’s 1964 existential novel Woman in the Dunes:

It’s useless. The sand can swallow up cities and countries, if it wants to.

How to Reach Tottori Sand Dunes

As I mentioned earlier, Tottori is about three hours from Osaka, a fact that is unlikely to change unless the Shinkansen comes here. If you’re using a Japan Rail Pass, you should note that because the train you need, the Hakuto Super Express, travels partially on private tracks, you need to pay a supplement, which was ¥1,770 as of April 2014.

From Tottori Station, there are several buses bound for the dunes, the schedule for which varies depending on the time of year. Your best best is to consult the tourist information stand for the updated schedule, to avoid disappointment. Generally speaking, however, the first bus leaves at around 9 a.m. and the last returns around 6:30. If you want to access the dunes more flexibly, you’ll need to hire a taxi (~¥2,200 one-way) or rent a car.

The Tottori Sand Dunes’ closeness to the city also means the web is easily accessible. Specifically, you can access your Windows Desktop on CloudDesktopOnline and your files, calendars and tasks on CloudAppsPortal sites.

The Bottom Line

I knew I’d love the Tottori Sand Dunes—I already mentioned the camels and I’m a sucker for juxtaposition, especially when nature does it. But I truly expected I would arrived on the scene, snap a few pictures and leave almost as if I’d never been there, a tendency that is unfortunately sometimes necessary in my fast-paced line of work.

Instead, I stayed at the dunes for nearly nine hours, from early morning until the moment the sun set into the Sea of Japan, and if I wasn’t headed to Hiroshima today, you can bet your sorry as I’d go back again.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Japan

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is the author of 1003 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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Jmayel & Sacha April 11, 2014 at 6:11 am

Looks Very Cool. We will definitely check this out when we finally get to Japan

Robert Schrader April 11, 2014 at 7:12 am

You have to! 🙂

Charlie April 12, 2014 at 3:55 am

Ha, who knew Japan had a desert! Will try and get out there when we visit in October.

zglar April 12, 2014 at 9:32 am

As much as i love Japan, i didn’t know Japan has a desert! Thanks for the nice info

Renuka Singh April 12, 2014 at 11:37 am

Interesting. I didn’t know this side of Japan. The desert looks pretty!

Jen @ The Trusted Traveller April 12, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Wow this is really cool. I didn’t know this existed but definitely something to add to my someday return to Japan.

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm

You must go!

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm

It’s beautiful!

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Now you know!

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:43 pm

I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Yosef Robinson May 14, 2014 at 6:41 pm

32 square kilometres – that’s more than half the size of Bermuda, and much bigger than Gibraltar or Monaco.

Robert Schrader May 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

Great frame of reference, Yosef!

Elle July 27, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Watching the old Antlar Ultraman episode with my boys which was filmed in a desert. We were curious where in Japan it could have been filmed. Now we know! Your description and photos are excellent! My 7 and 9-year olds and I thank you very much!

Robert Schrader July 28, 2015 at 4:21 pm

And you are all very welcome 🙂

Steve Chan October 14, 2015 at 7:23 pm

haha I thought I knew everything about Japan until I stumbled on your post and realised I actually knew very little. I’d like to visit if it’s on my way but sadly it’s not. Well, maybe next time! BTW I love that pic of a salaryman walking on the dunes. What a juxtaposition that can’t be easily emulated somewhere else…

Robert Schrader October 15, 2015 at 7:58 am

Next time!

JohnC May 19, 2016 at 4:54 am

Sand dunes and desert are not the same thing. Idiot!

UltraWideLife November 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Waah, never knew Japan has a desert. Great to know!

Tam May 26, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Wonderful pictures of Tottori! I love the sand dunes (and the camels there) and really hope to make it there for their annual snowball competition. Yes, that’s a thing 🙂 Hope you don’t mind but I linked your blog on my own local’s activity guide to Japan. Thanks again!


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