鳥取 Desert Dreamland

Yesterday I went very far afield, travelling around 3 hours by bus to the sands of Tottori. Before coming to Japan I pictured mountains, a lot of coast, some big cities and paddy fields. I did not imagine undulating golden dunes stretching along the coast down to the sea. In fact, most Japanese wouldn’t imagine it either, as most of Japan is as one would expect, however the anomaly that is Tottori Sand Dunes does exist.

We arrived by bus at around 11:30 and first order of business was finding a temple to get a stamp for our books. Visiting a distant prefecture it only made sense to get a receipt from the gods to prove it. The closest shrine to the station I could find was Hijiri shrine 聖神社. I have found no information on the internet about its history, only that they don’t really know, even the shrine’s website has no real idea. They did not have a stamp booth either, almost dashing our hopes, but they did have a small box with a single stamp and ink pad inside it. A DIY-style stamp, but it would have to do.

The shrine itself was pretty and the architecture of the main hall was rather interesting. It was peaceful. We walked back to the station. Tottori the town wasn’t very busy and there were mountains in the distance; an ever-present backdrop to any Japanese town scene.

We stopped off for lunch at a restaurant near Tottori station. I had a sashimi assortment which was really delicious. I haven’t had sashimi in a while which made it even better. I love visiting places by the sea in Japan, Kyoto isn’t that far away but I feel like I notice seafood more when the sea is so close by.

After that we were dying to get to the dunes. We grabbed a taxi, preferring not to wait on buses as we were short of time. The taxi driver was very nice and chatted to us (all four of us are studying Japanese), he seemed pretty pleased that we could actually talk to him. The taxi journey took around 20 minutes.

We were dropped off at the sand museum. Yes, a sand museum. This is not a museum showing different types of sand or anything, but a museum showing beautiful sand sculptures. The skill that went into crafting these sculptures was incredible. Professional sand-castles to the extreme. I feel like they would make a good tv show, Extreme Sandcastling or The Sandman, a terrible MTV-style fake docu-drama reality about the struggles of a team trying to build the museum with time limits and the sand being knocked down. If they seriously have a show about making extreme cakes, I’m sure people would love one about extreme sand sculpture.

The exhibition changes annually, as the sand does eventually collapse. This year was focussing on Germany. I think they are doing the whole world country by country and Germany is their 7th exhibition. The exhibition featured tales from the Brothers Grimm, the Berlin Wall, several German castles, Bach, the Euro, German scientists, and a lot more. It was a really amazing exhibit, especially the huge castle display in the back of the hall. The detail on all the pieces was fantastic.

Once we had completed the museum we headed over to the dunes, stopping briefly for a nashi pear ice-cream. Nashi pears are a Japanese pear which is much more watery with a lighter pear taste. The ice-cream was really delicious. It is a really refreshing taste. Nashi pears are the speciality of Tottori and are grown in the prefecture.

The sand dunes were incredible, huge rolling dunes climbing skywards and then plunging down towards the sea. The sand itself was golden and soft. As it was not too hot that day we went barefoot on the sand. Well, I did eventually. I kept my shoes on for quite a long time and they got completely filled with sand. The taxi driver said on very hot days the sand is too hot to go barefoot so people borrow sand shoes from the tourist office.

On the way in we got the chance to see and ride camels! Well, we sat on the camel for a picture, to ride them around cost quite a bit and we wanted to spend more time on the dunes. It did add to the desert-vibe that the dunes give off.

We set off up the big dune to look down at the sea. Walking up the sand was a little tricky and slippery and I felt sorry for the small children climbing – for little legs it must have felt like a true mountain. At the top we joined the crowds staring down at the sea and taking pictures. Sitting on top of the dunes in the breeze, gazing down at the bright blue sea was a really magical experience. As we sat we saw a man and his dog making their way up the hill, the sand-coloured dog, though matching the area, was struggling a little with his short legs, but he did make it up the hill.

After sitting for a while we headed down to the sea; we couldn’t get so close and not go for a paddle. Going down the dunes was a bit more tricky than climbing them as the sand slid. In fact surfing the sand on boards is fairly popular in Tottori, though I did not see anyone doing it that day. We did see people paragliding down from the top of the dune to the sea which must be a fantastic experience.

Once we reached the sea I had to go in, though the waves did go a little higher than I anticipated and I got a bit wet. There were a lot of children playing in the waves though no-one was actually swimming. I suspect there was quite a rapid drop-off and it gets deep very quickly.

Tottori 鳥取 literally means ‘take bird’, and it has been settled for millennia. The reason for the bird in the name is due to people hunting the abundant waterfowl, a trade that went on for centuries. The first mention of the prefecture in writing is in the Nihon Shoki (720AD), in which an elder from Tottori prefecture comes to court and gifts the Emperor a swan. The Emperor’s son, despite being 30, is unable to speak, but when the prince played with the swan he started to speak. The Emperor was overjoyed and gave the elder many honours.

Tottori is now the least populated prefecture in Japan, and is often classed as ‘inaka’ 田舎, ‘countryside’ by Japanese. The Japanese sometimes rate inaka status by whether or not a town has a Starbucks. Until last month, Tottori city, and the whole of Tottori prefecture, was without this status symbol, but one was built last month. We went to check it out when we were near the station. Surprisingly we were not the only ones taking pictures of a Starbucks as if it were a genuine tourist attraction. Tottori is on its way up, no longer countryside!

Though Tottori may have been ‘the middle of no-where’ until last month, the dunes attract around 2 million visitors a year. The dunes are over 100,000 years old and 131 hectares. Sadly, the dunes are shrinking. Due to the construction of Tsunami barriers and other works on the river that deposits the sand, the dunes have been losing sand. The government has therefore started to weed the dunes when they show signs of reverting back to forest or grass, probably due to the tourism the dunes attract but I’d like to think it’s also because of their beauty. Pictures do not accurately portray the amazing volume of these dunes.

On our way back we ran into a spot of trouble; we had thought there was a taxi rank at the dunes and assumed allowing half an hour to get back to the bus would be okay. Turns out that there is no taxi-rank and we had to wait for a taxi after a very nice other taxi driver (who was busy) phoned around for one that could come quickly. Our saviour arrived at around 4:10 (bus was at 4:30) and he raced to get us there on time. He was great, sighing with us at every red light and happily chatting to us about how the cars in front didn’t understand how we were in a hurry. We made it with 5 minutes to spare thanks to his driving. Sadly you don’t tip drivers in Japan, because if anyone earned one it was him.

I took some pictures on my phone of the countryside on the bus on the way back. When I was little my parents would play a game when we went on car journeys; if you go through a tunnel you must try to hold your breath for the length of the tunnel. This was clearly a genius way to get us to shut up on long car journeys and keep us distracted, though I realised that in Japan you would be holding your breath the entire way. There are brief glimpses of valleys and some winding elevated roads, but as Japan is mostly mountain, there are a lot of tunnels, many stretching for several kilometers. If you were really dedicated to the game you’d turn blue.

I bought a few o-miyage in Tottori. O-miyage お土産 are presents you bring back to give to your friends and family, usually food. Each region and town has a speciality fruit, sweet, flavour or other food, so you bring back something flavoured with the speciality. I bought some nashi pear flavoured wafers for my class (which went down great today) as well as some treats for myself: honey-butter with nashi flavour, a chu-hai (alcoholic drink) flavoured with Nashi, and some daifuku rice cake bunny-shaped sweets flavoured with nashi (delicious). I also had a nasi gelato on my way back from the dunes, really delicious. I really like the nashi pear flavour, makes me wish that Kyoto was famous for it.

I had a wonderful trip to Tottori and I would really recommend it to those that want to experience something really different about Japan. For me it was a perfect day and it really showed me that there is so much more to Japan than what you would expect. Bonus relaxing dog in the souvenir shop:

東山 The Accidental General, The Immortal Poet, The Sun Priest, and The Three Legged Crow

On Saturday I went for a walk through a little visited part of Kyoto’s temple-country, East of the Imperial Palace Park but West of Philosopher’s walk, these are often the ‘fly-over’ temples, neglected in favour the guidebook check-list. I based my walk loosely off one of the walks in Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (a book I strongly recommend for those with a little more time to explore Kyoto), though I missed some temples and added others.

I began my walk through Yoshidayama park just East of Kyodai university’s main campus. Yoshidayama park is a peaceful park on what is essentially a hill rather than a mountain. There are a number of shrines around the fringes and lots of mosquitos in the middle – bring bug spray or don’t stand still for longer than a few seconds if you want to avoid getting bitten (this advice only applies in the summer).

I emerged from the other side of Yoshidayama park and encountered a small shrine called Takenaka-Inari Jinja 竹中稲荷神社. This shrine is connected to the more famous Yoshida Shrine, which is nearby but I still missed seeing. I will rectify this soon. Takenaka-Inari shrine had lots of different gods enshrined, dedicated to many small local gods, the more famous and celebrated Inari, as well as a separate shrine to our teacher friend Tenjin. The famous gods get the big houses while small gods inhabit small spaces.

Takenaka-Inari Jinja was founded in the 800s and is referenced in records about the life of Ariwara no Narihara, who lived next-door. Ariwara no Narihara (825 – 880) was a waka poet and aristocrat and is considered by many to be the basis for the hero in the Tales of Ise, a Heian period collection of poems about court life, which include some of Narihara’s poetry. Despite being both maternally and paternally descended from Emperors, he never advanced very far in court, probably due to his numerous love affairs with other people’s consorts. These affairs are documented in the Tales of Ise, though some events are considered to not match up with his real actions. It sounds like he had a pretty relaxed lifestyle and ended up immortalised over those that probably worked very hard to advance in court, I feel like there is a lesson there somewhere.

My next stop on my adventure was Munetada Jinja 宗忠神社, a shrine belonging to the Kurozumi-kyo sect of Shinto. There are thirteen sects of Shinto, though there is also a non-sect version of Shinto that is more generalised. The Kurozumi-kyo sect was founded by Kurozumi, a Shinto priest, who had fallen gravely ill. He accepted his death and prayed to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. When he did so he had a spiritual experience in which he became one with the sun goddess and received divine instruction. He was miraculously cured of his illness and he founded the sect.

The core beliefs of Kurozumi-kyo are that Amaterasu is the source of life and light, and devout followers are able to tap into her power to perform miracles. It is a fringe sect and one of Japan’s newer Shinto sects, founded in 1846 (actually around since 1814 but official from 1846). In 1978 it had 218,000 followers (I can’t find a more recent statistic). The shrine in Kyoto was founded in 1859 and enshrines Amaterasu, Kurozumi himself and 8 million gods 八百万の神 (basically meaning all of the kami, 8 is just a nice looking number to the Japanese). I feel like enshrining literally all the kami is somewhat cheating, I imagine them all crammed into one small shrine whenever someone prays there, it’s a bit like wishing for a million wishes when in an encounter with a genie. But then again, founding a religion so that you yourself are enshrined as a god also seems pretty spiritually sneaky.

The next temple was just down the shrine steps and across the road. Shinshogokuraku-ji 真正極楽寺, or Shinnyo-do 真如堂 for short, is a Tendai sect temple, established 984. It actually has very little interesting history. Like every single temple and shrine on this walk, it was destroyed in the Onin war (a civil war that led to over 100 years of warring states in Japan), but other than that it has had a fairly mundane existence. However, the grounds of this temple are beautiful, it makes up for its lack of history with its beauty.

I stopped at a sub-temple at the entrance of this temple but I cannot find any information on it at all. It was nonetheless an interesting visit, though I cannot tell you why there are old woodblock print portraits inside the roof of one of the buildings.

Walking into the grounds I came across a pond next to some beautiful blue hydrangeas. The pond had a little turtle gang swimming around. I watched them for a while and some old ladies came along. One of the ladies clapped her hands and the turtles came over towards us, hoping for food. It was a great experience. For me at least, the turtles were probably rather disappointed.

The main buildings of Shinnyo-do are a pagoda and an impressively large main hall. I took off my shoes and went inside the hall, hunting for stamps. I found my stamp and looked at the elaborate decorations on the inside. Sadly, as with most temples, I was not allowed to take pictures, but I can tell you there was a lot of gold. The Buddha, though he urges us to release all material and emotional attachments, really likes gold.

I really liked the new maple leaves in the gardens, they are definitely under appreciated. Like most seasonal colours in Japan, they’re so bright. These shocks of spiky leaves are just so green, it always amazes me that nature produces such vivid colours; the glowing red of the maples, the delicate pink of the sakura and now the electric green of the fresh maples. Maybe I just didn’t pay so much attention to seasons in the UK; in Japan everything is telling you the seasons are changing – limited edition foods, beer cans covered in sakura print, my favourite ice-cream place changes its specials, decorations appropriate to the season appear in town centre. Japan loves its seasons (except maybe winter).

My next stop was Konkai Komyoji 金戒光明寺, often referred to by its common name, Kurodani Temple. This temple was founded in 1175 and would be as sparse on the history front as the previous temple, if it wasn’t for the presence of the graves of Aizu and Kuwana men that died in the Toba-Fushimi Battle of 1868. Though this link is a little tenuous, you are probably now curious about this battle, so let’s investigate.

Toba-Fushimi battle can be seen as the final stand of a shogun that was being stripped of his dignity having already surrendered, or we can view it as the last desperate attempt of a weak and incapable ex-shogun to ruin the rightful restoration of power to the Imperial family. The Meiji Restoration officially took place on the 4th January 1868, and the Tokugawa Shogun had renounced his title and restored power to the emperor. Tokugawa men were still prominent in the new government of Japan, something that displeased imperialist (and probably power-hungry) samurai from Satsuma (it’s not just a fruit) and Choshu provinces. The Emperor was persuaded to confiscate Tokugawa lands and the ex-shogun was ordered to totally dismantle his defences on Osaka castle. The ex-Shogun Yoshinobu resisted the total dismantling of Tokugawa power, and instead of filling in his moat, he rallied men to his castle and attacked Kyoto, hoping to remove those that had stripped him of the last of his power.

Troops belonging to Satsuma and Choshu met the shogunal army. Though the ex-Shogun’s army was 15,000 men strong, three times that of the Imperial forces, the Imperial troops were fully modernised with rifles, howitzers and even one gatling gun, while the shogunal forces were fairly ill-equipped. Also the presence of British warships in Osaka bay meant that the ex-Shogun had to leave many troops in garrison and reserve, as the British were known to favour the Imperial troops and had to be considered a threat.

The Emperor granted his blessing to the Satsuma and Choshu forces, and they picked up Prince Yoshiaki on their way, a member of the Imperial family, but also a 22-year-old monk with no military experience. No matter, he became their leader, making the army an Imperial force with Imperial banners, a smart move as this made any man to fire upon them a traitor to the Emperor, something that many of Yoshinobu’s troops were unwilling to become. If monk-turned-general Yoshiaki had written a book I would definitely read it, the contrast between a peaceful monastic life and suddenly becoming the Imperial representative of a large army on the eve of battle must have been quite jarring.

The battle went badly for the shogunal forces and they fled to Osaka castle. Yoshinobu took shelter on an American warship and planned his escape back to Edo. Their leader abandoning them caused the remainder of Tokugawa troops at Osaka castle to surrender. This event tarnished the reputation of the Tokugawa and was the nail in the coffin for their claim to power.

Kurodani Temple was pretty empty when I arrived as they were just closing (it was 4:30), but it was still good to see. There were also a few sub-temples I got to visit on my way there (some of the pictures are among those of the main temple above). Sub-temples are always little jewels. Always empty, always beautiful; great if you enjoy small, perfectly kept gardens.

The final temple was one I came across on my way back to the bus stop. Kumano Jinja 熊野神社 is a medium-sized shrine dedicated to the Kumano religion, Shugendo. Shugendo, a religion connected to Shinto, goes back to prehistoric times and revolves around the worship of the three Kumano mountains, Hongu, Shingu and Nachi. These mountains later became associated with different buddhas, blending old Kumano with Buddhism to create a Shinto-Buddhist blend, an example of shinbutsu-shugo (the combination of Shinto and Buddhism in one faith). Today Shugendo temples are associated with either Tendai or Shingon Buddhism due to an edict in the Tokugawa period forcing them to declare allegiance with one sect or the other.

Shugendo includes the belief that enlightenment is attaining oneness with the kami through pilgrimage and self-realisation. There is a lot of importance placed on experiencing nature and walking in mountains – you can go on a pilgrimage between the three sacred mountains, a journey that spans around 40km and is considered a World Heritage site. Hopefully one day I’ll get to go and see it.

The crow that is prominent in this shrine is the three-legged crow, Yatagarasu, a symbol of guidance. It is said that Yatagarasu guided Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan from Kumano to Yamato, the final settling place of Jimmu. Japanese crows are massive so I can see having one on your side as pretty handy.

I enjoyed my stroll through this much overlooked area of Kyoto, I would recommend this area to someone who does not like the crowds – I went on a Saturday afternoon and most temples and shrines were almost deserted. Bonus picture, Hello Kitty Gravestone. A step too far Japan, too far.