Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tottori - Friends, Crab & Sand Dunes

Alongside satisfying my general travel bug, one of my objectives in visiting Japan was to take advantage of my time in Asia to meet up with those of my friends who live there and who I otherwise don't get many chances to see. Combine that thought with my love of anything unusual or off the beaten track and you can imagine my delight at discovering that, not only was one of my high school friends living in Tottori, a city in Japan's least populated area, but that he practically had sand dunes in his backyard - sand dunes! In Japan!

2km wide in places and extending for 10km along the coast, I was so excited about the prospect of seeing sand dunes in snow that I was nearly devastated when I heard it had all melted the week before I arrived - Thankfully, someone was listened and we got a whole bunch of snow the night I arrived.

Located on the northern coast of the Chugoku region of Japan, Tottori's quietness - especially in comparison to many of my other destinations on the trip - provided the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax, make some awesome new friends, absorb the scenery and enjoy vicariously soaking up some of what living in Japan has to offer.

Wandering the edges of a 'lake' formed by the melting snow at the base of the dunes. An established park with rangers who seem to exist to capture you on film (or SD card), they even have a live camel to act as a photo prop during the summers.

One of the problems with visiting a beach town in winter is that you see the surf and realise how awesome it must be to visit in summer. That said, there is also something charming about boats pulled up on shore in the snow.
If I was excited about the dunes, it was nearly nothing when compared to how I felt upon discovering that Tottori also had a crab museum - A Crab Museum! I realize that this might not seem all that exciting - even to fellow crab lovers such as myself, after all, museums are for seeing, not eating - but after spending 3 years walking past the Japanese spider crab shell in the Natural History Museum in Oxford on a daily basis, I was more than ready to see what a real live one looked like. They're huge!

Face off!  Weighing up to 18 or 19 Kg (that's 40 pounds for are you Americans) and with an arm span of nearly 4 meters (12 feet). These guys aren't huge, they're massive! They also apparently like to play rough. I'm told there used to be two in there. Now there is only 1. Less than one if you consider that 3 of his legs are gone. (My bet is that someone with keys just couldn't resist - I mean, could you imagine looking at that delectable-ness all day and not taking some home to fry up with butter for a snack?)

 I also loved visiting some of the more rural temples and shrines and, of course, enjoying that most Japanese of experiences, Onsen. For those who don't know, onsen are gender segregated public baths much like the Korean jjimjilbang (with the exception of the fact that jjimjilbang can also be slept in and are used more as social clubs than purely as bath houses). As Japan has much more volcanic action than does Korea (which has little to none on the mainland), many traditional Japanese onsen are served by naturally heated springs. They also tend to have outdoor pools - pure bliss on a cold, wet, snowy winter's day.  A trip to the onsen is made even more enjoyable by the fact that Japanese houses are traditionally only warmed by space heaters, with all hallways and other such adjoining passages (such as those connecting the bathroom to the general living/sleeping room) left unheated. While I might complain about this being the case with schools in Korea, at least most houses here (though not bathrooms) are heated fully by the underfloor ondol systems.

Ube Shrine. This is an Ise Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun, ancestress of the imperial line and greatest of all Kami (Shinto spirit-gods) - although the latter part of this designation only came to be emphasized during the Meiji Restoration of the19th century in order to strengthen the legitimacy of rule of Japan by the Emperor (and not the shogunate).
Alongside getting in a soak at the onsen, I was also given the opportunity to practice that other traditional Japanese activity - purikura! The first love of teenage girls all throughout Japan (and much of Asia), purikura are photo-stickers made by posing ridiculously in photo booths with friends and then digitally drawing all over the resulting images before printing them off. It's disturbingly enjoyable, particularly as the digitization process wipes away any facial flaws or impurities, making make-up completely unnecessary for glamour.

Purikura! Also, far too much fun when one has a train to catch.

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