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Japan’s otherworldly disappearing desert

<i>Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images</i><br/>Japanese women prance on Tottori sand dunes in 2012 in Tottori
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
Japanese women prance on Tottori sand dunes in 2012 in Tottori

By Claire Hannum

Tottori Prefecture, Japan (CNN) — Sprawling heaps of golden grains of sand rise in peaks toward the hot sun. From the base of the desert’s tallest dune, a bright blue sky peeks out from beyond the vast expanse.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in the Middle East. But these are the Tottori Sand Dunes, wedged along the coast of Japan’s sparsely populated San’in region, the country’s very own slice of desert.

The dunes extend 16 kilometers (10 miles) across the coast, with their tallest peaks jutting over 45 meters (150 feet) high. They’ve been around for thousands of years, but are slowly disappearing – not because of climate change, but because of the community’s efforts to protect the planet.

A dwindling treasure

The Tottori dunes are located on the western coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest and most populous island.

Tottori is Japan’s least populous prefecture. Osaka is about 200 km (124 miles) away; Hiroshima is 300 km (186) miles in the other direction.

The dunes were formed over the course of 100,000 years, as sand transported from the nearby Chūgoku Mountains via the Sendai River was deposited into the Sea of Japan. Over the centuries, wind and currents moved the sand back onto the shore.

The dunes were relatively unknown to those outside of Tottori until 1923, when they made their way into the writings of famed Japanese author Takeo Arishima, which sparked their ascent to a tourism hotspot.

Today, the dunes are a central fixture of Tottori prefecture’s tourism industry, hosting an average of 1.2 million visitors per year. Tourists can visit a Sand Museum, go sandboarding and ride camels.

The dunes bring in millions each year in tourism earnings, but there’s a catch: they’re shrinking. The Tottori Sand Dunes are just 12% of the size that they were 100 years ago.

This is thanks to a wildly successful afforestation, or tree planting, project launched across Japan at the end of World War II. In Tottori, the initiative aimed to develop the dunes into forest and farmland to help feed the community, to prevent sandstorm damage and to better nurture the environment.

“Many pine trees have been planted on coastal dunes throughout the Japanese archipelago to stop flying sand,” explains Dr. Dai Nagamatsu, a professor in Tottori University’s Faculty of Agriculture who specializes in vegetation science and conducts research on the dunes.

“Especially in the 20th century, when technology was more advanced, coastal forests had been developed. The plantations were so successful that many coastal dunes were converted to fields and residential areas near the coast, and the dunes disappeared.”

Parts of the prefecture’s capital, Tottori City, were even built on top of portions of the afforested dunes.

When the afforestation plan took off, academics and tourism operators asked that the community preserve some of the desert – both for the economy and for the sake of future research.

Local officials agreed and set aside 395 acres of the most rugged section of the dunes – the 12% that now remains – as a protected national park.

Reconstructing the desert

When the depth of the impact of the dunes’ loss set in, the community set out to bring them back to life, but the foliage had already set out on a path of its own.

In 1972, efforts to cut down the forest that now overtook the desert proved to be tough. Once plant species had been introduced to the area, they continued to find their way back, choking the sand of the free movement that created its famous ripples.

Vegetation began to grow in chunks where the razed forest had stood, and scientists have battled with the shrinking desert ever since.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Japan is so skilled at afforestation that it has become an international export.

The country is home to the famed Miyawaki Method for afforestation, which was developed by botanist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s and has been implemented on depopulated forests around the globe, including the Brazilian Amazon.

Today, volunteers gather regularly to weed the stubborn vegetation cropping up in the smooth sands – a tradition started in 1991, and a necessary move if they want to prevent the greenery from increasing.

The Tottori government brings in extra sand to supplement the dunes, and extra steps like banning sand graffiti have helped the dunes inch a bit closer to the way they looked 100 years ago.

Can conservation and tourism coexist?

It’s easy to assume that letting the dunes transition into a grassland would be better for the planet, but has the local government been more environmentally-minded than its own interests should call for?

Many researchers feel that the dunes’ rare conditions make them worth preserving. At Tottori University’s Arid Land Research Center, scientists from around the world conduct dryland agricultural research.

“The environmental conditions of the Tottori Sand Dunes are different from those of arid lands because of its humid climate,” Nagamatsu says. “But Tottori University is promoting arid land research using the ‘sand’ conditions of the Tottori Sand Dunes and experimental facilities.”

Down the road from the research center, tourists are experiencing an otherworldly adventure in the sand.

On an average weekend at the dunes, visitors mill around gift shops choosing carefully wrapped omiyage (gift-worthy souvenirs) to bring to friends back home.

They buy tasty powdered-sugar ginger “sand cookies,” wander through the nearby sand museum and load up on soft-serve pear ice cream. Camels perch near the dunes’ main entrance for paid photo ops, and a local shop offers short “rentals” of time with their shiba inu puppy, who is happy to frolic with tourists on the hills.

Paragliders and sandboarders eagerly monitor the wind conditions for their perfect moment. At night, stargazers catch glimpses of the foxes, rabbits and tanuki (Japanese racoons) that call the dunes home.

“When I went to Tottori Dunes, I was very happy,” says Anya Jarilla, who traveled to the dunes for the first time last year. “I can’t believe that there’s a place like that in Japan…To experience and see the place is beyond what I can imagine.”

Staff members at the Tottori Sand Dunes Visitor Center comment that tourists often say they feel like kids again when they visit, running down hills at full speed and marveling at the sand’s ever-changing shapes.

From Tottori Station, visitors can access the dunes by taxi or bus. Shops and museums are all within walking distance of the dunes and stay open until mid-afternoon. The dunes themselves are open 24/7 and free to enter. A range of affordable hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) are available in Tottori City, about a 10-minute taxi ride from the dunes.

Tottori is the least populated prefecture in Japan, far from the busy bullet train lines that connect tourists to the country’s most popular cities and sites. Getting there from Tokyo requires a transfer from the bullet train to a local train line, a domestic flight or a long drive – and the dunes offer a compelling reason for travelers to make the trek.

The national monument is a treasured literary staple and valued research site – but it’s also a financial anchor.

Finding a balance

One key question remains: How can the region boost tourism without damaging the dunes forever?

Virtual and augmented reality have been floated as possible tools for bringing in tourism revenue while adapting to visual changes and preservation efforts in the dunes. During the heyday of Pokemon Go in 2017, the game’s creators hosted a special weekend inviting gamers to catch digital desert Pokemon in the sand.

In 2022, Tokyo-based company amulapo offered an in-person augmented reality experience that simulated a moonwalk on the dunes, complete with planting a flag on the “lunar surface.”

Back in the not-so-digital world, concerns about the dunes aren’t going anywhere. But local industry leaders are determined to keep promoting the area as best they can.

Just last year, the dunes saw the opening of one of the area’s hottest local businesses yet: a beautiful cafe created by the legendary architects of Kengo Kuma and Associates, designed to look like a “staircase to the sky.”

Some scientists even speculate that as the climate continues to change, the pendulum may swing toward dune restoration as a more powerful protective measure than afforestation. “Considering the tsunami damage in Japan that is likely to occur in the near future, there seems to be room to reconsider current coastal land use and consider restoring natural dunes to Japan’s coasts,” says Nagamatsu.

Maybe one day, the dunes’ expanse will loom larger than life again. For now, visitors and locals alike will keep on weeding – and researching, reserving and protecting – to keep this tiny desert sandy.

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