The crotchety-looking camel stamps its feet and kicks up a miniature sandstorm that drifts away across the dunes. Beyond the creature’s shaggy hump, the ocean of sand is marked by footprints and slopes away to a pale green oasis of grass and shrubs. A little further on, another dune rises almost sheer and, from the top, the view is of a completely different type of sea.
In front of me are the blue-grey waters of the Sea of Japan, flecked with the occasional whitecap, while away to the west is the mouth of the Sendai River and a port.
The Tottori Sand Dunes are part of Japan’s Sanin Kaigan National Park and a breathtaking and unique natural formation that is sufficiently expansive to give the visitor the impression that they are tramping through a stretch of North African desert or the American badlands.
The dunes first began to attract interest after novelist Takeo Arishima visited Tottori Prefecture in 1923 and described the dunes’ desolate beauty in a poem, although they had been an attraction for local people for far longer.
Undulating 20km along the coast of southwest Japan, the dunes stretch as far as 2km inland and are in constant shape-shifting motion. They tower in places – up to 50 metres above the sea – and are ringed by pine forests, with local entrepreneurs introducing the camels to give visitors an added sense that they are a long way from the geisha, cherry blossoms and temples that are the common image of Japan.
“This archipelago stretches for 3,000km and has the ice and snow of the far north of Hokkaido at one end and the tropical islands of Okinawa at the other, which gives Japan a unique range of environments and things to see and do,” says Paul Christie, CEO of Walk Japan (walkjapan.com).
“A lot of people – particularly first-time visitors to Japan – take the ‘Golden Route’ of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but I would suggest that does not provide a completely genuine picture of the country,” he says. “You need to get off the beaten path, you need to go where the tourists are few-and-far-between and you need to meet local people.
“The rewards are well worth the effort and it is the only way to experience the real Japan,” he adds.
One of the places that Walk Japan visits on its explorations of the remoter corners of the country is the Shiretoko Peninsula, a mountainous spit of land that points almost due north from the tip of Hokkaido and has been recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco since 2005.
A favourite destination for travellers throughout the year, the wilds of the very far north of Hokkaido are arguably at their very best in the months of January and February, when sea ice gradually floats south from the rivers of the Russian Far East and collects in the sweeping bay formed naturally between Cape Notoro and Shiretoko – which means “The end of the Earth” in the local Ainu dialect.
Recognised for its unique ecosystem and biodiversity, the region is keen for visitors to explore – but equally keen to protect its natural assets.
Just north of the town of Utoro, where the ice thickens as it comes up against the rocky shore, the Shiretoko Naturalists’ Association NPO (shinrashiretoko.wixsite.com/shinra) helps visitors squeeze – fully clothed – into one-piece dry suits that are an absolute necessity when it is minus 5 degrees Celsius and the wind chill makes it feel a good deal colder.
Once encased, visitors waddle down to the water’s edge, passing jumbled blocks of ice, some with frozen fish still visible inside them, and slip gingerly into the water. Some are content to bob about in their snug dry suits, fending off the wind-carved icebergs, but the more adventurous among them insist on climbing onto some of the larger ice blocks.
In addition to the hearty welcome that people here have for visitors, they also have cuisine that is designed to warm the cockles of any ice-chilled heart. Long considered the bread-basket of Japan, Hokkaido’s delicacies include a tangy local ramen, knobbly Nemuro crabs that turn bright red when they are boiled, salmon, and the beef from “kuroge wagyu”, or black-haired Japanese cattle. And all that goes well with Abashiri Beer or the local Okhotsk Ryuhyo sake.
“There are so many places that offer something unique for a visitor that it would be impossible to know where to start,” says Ashley Harvey, head of Go Central Japan, which was set up to promote the attractions of the part of Japan between the modern and ancient capitals – Tokyo and Kyoto – that too many tourists simply pass through without stopping.
“We want people to get out of the cities, to breathe in that fresh air and really experience another side of Japan,” he says. Central Japan’s countless attractions include ancient towns on post-roads through the mountains, the world’s first cultivated pearls in Mie Prefecture, castles, ninja clans and the chance to explore Lake Biwa.
“This nation’s best-kept secret is its countryside and our region benefits from a number of direct flights from Hong Kong and mainland China, which makes central Japan ideal for tourists wanting to try something a little different,” he says, adding that travellers from Hong Kong seem particularly keen to try fly-drive holidays.
“There has been a sharp increase in the number of foreign visitors and we know that a lot of them now are repeat visitors, which tells us that we have the uniquely Japanese sights, history, culture and cuisine that they want,” Harvey says.
The island of Yakushima, off the southern tip of Kyushu, is another of Japan’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, a bright green island that appears to rise out of the ocean from the perspective of visitors arriving by air or by sea.
The entire island, which is roughly circular and known as the “Alps of the Ocean”, is dominated by a series of sharply outlined peaks that rise more than 1,800 metres above sea level and help to give Yakushima its distinctive environment. The extremes of altitude contrast with the warm waters of the Kuroshio Current as it flows from the south, enabling subtropical mangrove swamps to thrive on coasts where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs each year, while temperatures in the ancient cedar forests of the mountains fall well below zero in winter.
Mountain streams cascade over waterfalls. Hikers share the trails that criss-cross the interior with curious deer. The cedar trees stand sentinel over the island, with the oldest specimen identified to date believed to be as much as 7,000 years old.
It pays, as a local would say, to take the road less travelled.