Tottori, a remote outpost on the west coast of Japan, is frequently defined by what it lacks.
It has the lowest population of any prefecture in the country. No bullet train stops here. It ranks 39th out of the nation’s 47 prefectures in attracting tourists.
But what Tottori does have, in abundance, is sand: Undulating golden dunes stretch for about 16 kilometers along the coast here, so majestic they have been turned into a national park.
For the past decade, sand sculpture artists have gathered here every year for two weeks at the world’s only indoor sand museum to mount an exhibit of improbably intricate tableaus, all crafted from about 3,000 tons of sand.
This year, 19 artists from countries including Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia traveled to Tottori to sculpt scenes on the theme of the US. Previous themes have included Africa, Russia and South America.
Working nine hours a day, the artists — five of whom are from the US — built, among other things, Mount Rushmore, the New York skyline (yes, Trump Tower makes an appearance), oversize busts of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, scenes from the gold rush and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
With Japan’s population declining, Tottori officials are mounting a campaign to attract more foreign tourists to the region, and the museum and dunes are central to the effort.
Japan in general is seeking to lure more tourists. Last year, 24 million foreign visitors traveled to Japan, a record high. The national tourism bureau wants to increase that number to 40 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics.
Foreign visitors typically stick to what tourism officials describe as the “golden route” of well-known destinations in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka.
In an attempt to expand that range, particularly among tourists who may be returning for a second or third visit to the country, the government’s Japan Tourism Agency has allocated about US$15 million to help develop and market suggested routes through 11 regions, including around Tottori.
Fewer than 500,000 people visit the Tottori sand museum every year. The number has declined slightly in recent years, and it does not come close to the 2 million people who visit the much better known snow festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido, every year.
Local tourism officials acknowledged that Tottori’s distant location remained a challenge but said they had suggested that visitors be allowed to watch the artists at work, or even help knock down the structures at the end of each exhibition.
The sand museum was founded in 2006 when the city of Tottori decided it wanted to better exploit its proximity to the sand dunes.
Officials invited Katsuhiko Chaen, an artist who had mounted sand sculpture festivals in his hometown in Kagoshima prefecture in southern Japan, to help develop an exhibition in Tottori.
Although the dunes sand is actually off-limits because of the national park designation, the city had saved a trove of sand unearthed during a road-building project above the dunes a decade ago.
For locals who had mounted a campaign to save the dunes from erosion, the ephemerality of the sand sculptures appealed.
“One attraction of the sand sculptures is their frailty,” said Yoshihiko Fukazawa, the mayor of the city of Tottori, the capital of the prefecture. “All the forms will eventually disappear or degrade or collapse.” Treasuring that impermanence, he said, is “a Japanese virtue.”