Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo
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Sea winds sweep over Tottori's rolling sand dunes along Japan's coast. The area has shrunk in recent years due to changing sea currents and the encroachment of plants.

Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo

See Japan's Surprising Sand Dunes

Escape the big city lights and get lost in this spectacular desertscape.

Stretched along the Sea of Japan just outside the city of Tottori is an unexpected swath of gold: Japan’s only sand dunes. Unlike classic images of Japan—sushi, bullet trains, Shibuya Crossing, and Hello Kitty—Tottori is more like a scene from Arabian Nights. Sand dunes curl nearly 160 feet above your head, camels are a form of transportation, and dreamy desert mirages replace big city lights.

The Tottori Sakyu, or Tottori Sand Dunes, were formed thousands of years ago when sand carried by the nearby Sendai River was dumped into the sea. Strong winds and a strong current deposited the sand along the coast, creating a desert oasis in the land of sushi.

At just nine miles long and less than 1.5 miles wide, Tottori is a small piece of something bigger: Japan’s San’in Kaigan National Park, a UNESCO Global Geopark and symbol of the country’s commitment to conservation, cultural history, and biodiversity.

Tottori may not have appeared in One Thousand and One Nights, but its appearance in several other notable works of literature in Japan reveals its longtime cultural significance. Japanese poet Takeo Arishima made the dunes famous when he wrote a poem about an affair he was having with a married woman, describing the deep misery he felt while surrounded by the sands. He and the woman committed a double suicide shortly thereafter.

Decades later, in the 1960s, Tottori set the stage for Japanese writer Kōbō Abe’s book, Woman in the Dunes, a story that was considered ahead of its time and eventually turned into an Academy Award-nominated film.

With more than two million visitors annually, there are plenty of things to do in Japan’s only sand dunes, including camel rides, sandboarding, paragliding, and an impressive sand sculpture museum. Though you won’t find any overnight camping in Tottori like you would in Dubai, impressive views of the desert meeting the sea, together forming an extended horizon, make it worth the trip.

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Two children are dwarfed by the steep sand dunes, which stretch nearly 160 feet into the air.