Photos by Mary King

Mary King takes to the skies above Tottori' stunning sandscapes.

Before terror even had time to register, my feet left terra firma and I was off, off and away. A great surge of adrenaline surged through my veins as the wind buffeted me along, tossing me higher and higher towards the clouds - a huge human "kite" floating over the sand dunes of Tottori. Looking down on the dunes below and then out towards the deep blue waves buffeting the San-in coastline, I couldn't help feeling as if I had just discovered one of Japan's best kept secrets. The wind softened, and then ever so slowly the paraglider gently brought me down to earth. My feet touched the ground but my heart was still soaring with the birds.

The paragliding experience, a first, had been the icing on the cake of a trip to Tottori, a city that boasts some genuinely fascinating attractions despite the fact that many Japanese consider the area to be nothing more than a "cultural black hole." Apart from onsen, Mt Daisen, ancient temples and shrines, and the Meiji-era Jinpukaku - a Renaissance-style villa that was a favorite of Emperor Taisho - Tottori is a great place to try your hand at paragliding, hang gliding and even camel rides.

Several samurai
History buffs should definitely check the Watanabe Museum which displays the wildest collection of samurai armor that I've seen so far in Japan-helmets eccentrically adorned with garish dragons and Noh masks with horns and antlers of incredible proportions are among the highlights. Hajime Watanabe at 90 years old is still busy at work in the museum, documenting some 20,000 items on top of the 10,000 or so already on display. He started seriously collecting Japanese antiques while running his own psychiatric practice in Tottori, but his passion for swords and armor developed as a young man while studying medicine at university. His collection, which includes Buddha statues, ceramics from Japan, China and Korea, as well as traditional musical instruments and ukiyo-e woodblock prints, grew so large that eventually Watanabe ran out of storage space. His solution was to buy an abandoned bowling hall, which is now the museum that houses his stunning collection of artifacts.

Holiday homes
The city of Tottori itself has grown in a fan-like shape. Mt Kyusho forms the hub, and prior to the Meiji Era it was the former site of Tottori Castle. Built in 1545, the castle was ravaged by fires, earthquakes and floods over the centuries. Today, only the ruins stand on Mt Kyusho and from here you get a bird's-eye view of Jinpukaku, a European-style villa built in 1907 at a cost of JY44,000. It was the first building in Tottori Prefecture to have electric lights. The two-story white wooden building with a tile roof became the second residence of Marquis Nakahiro Ikeda, lord of the Tottori feudal clan that held political sway over the region during the Edo period. It was also a lodging house for Prince Yoshihito. On the first floor there is a display of household artifacts from the Meiji and Taisho eras, and also materials about the Ikeda clan. On the second floor you can view the neoclassical sitting room and audience room used by Prince Yoshihito on his visit to the San-in district in 1907. Don't miss the bedroom of the man who later became Emperor Taisho. I could only imagine that perhaps the prince enjoyed some Western comforts while staying at the villa but was unable to forsake sleeping in a futon as, despite the European-style fire hearths, it is the only room in the house that has tatami mats instead of carpet.

Out at Mt Mani you find the site of Mani Temple, which has been considered the most sacred place in the Tottori area since the ninth century. Well-worn steps lead you up from the foot of the mountain, passing moss-covered Buddha figures surrounded by bamboo forest before entering the central gate leading into the temple area. A 45-minute stroll along a winding path leads on to pavilions and Buddha figures dedicated to the souls of stillborn babies. Keen hikers can follow the trail that leads beyond the temple area or return to the foot of the mountain for sansai (wild vegetables) dishes at one of a handful of restaurants to choose from.

A bird's-eye view of Jinpukaku from the Tottori castle ruins

Crab and squid are Tottori specialties, but those yearning for something adventurous should not miss Tottori Kouzushi - a sushi restaurant with a definite difference. Situated downtown on Sakaemachi, this is the place to try such wild concoctions as ice-cream sushi, shark fin sushi, Russian caviar sushi, raw beef sushi and more. For sushi purists, regular pieces are also available.

Of course, Tottori's main attraction is the sakyu, or sand dunes. Tottori's dunes may lack the grandeur of those of the world's great deserts but are still quite a spectacle to behold. Covering an area 16x2km, the dunes take on varying moods according to the weather and time of day. Most visitors are satisfied with simply climbing them, while others prefer to take short camel rides or are tempted to have their first bash at hang-gliding or paragliding lessons. For JY10,000, Zero Paraglider School offers a day's course that, according to weather conditions, can include paragliding from a height of 50 meters.

Hanging out over Tottori's dunes

My heart was in my mouth as I prepared to run and take the leap, but the instructor gently guided me to the edge as the wind tore at the paraglider's canopy. "You won't regret it," shouted a fellow novice who had just survived her first-ever experience of solo-flight. The wind did the rest, pulling me heavenwards like Mary Poppins, and this undoubtedly has to be the most thrilling way to experience Tottori.

Getting there
From Haneda airport there are three daily 75min flights to Tottori airport with ANA (Tel: 0120-029-222, 0857-23-3038).

The Izumo night train leaves Tokyo at 9:10pm and arrives in Tottori City at 7:56am (JY10190, express surcharge JY3150, double-decker bunk JY6300). An express bus service runs from Hamamatsucho and Shingawa to Tottori, one-way fare is JY10,200 (Ticket office open 10am-5pm, Tel: 03-3743-0022).

Sakyu Center (Tel: 0857-22-2111). Zero Paraglider School (Tel: 0857-29-9098 or 0727-53-8890). Tottori City Tourist Information (Tel: 0857-22-3318) Tottori Kouzushi (Tel: 0857-22-5535)

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