Friday, October 8, 2010

Nothing Says Japan Like A Camel

Saturday, September 25th I was scheduled as the guest speaker for a Global Session at the Kameoka Exchange Center (if you want to know more about it, click here). Margaret and I woke up early on a Saturday (travesty) to get a champion’s breakfast of donuts and hop on a bus to the Center. I spent the next two hours reading and aiding discussion of my paper, the subject of which was adult language learning and learners. We never really got to what I’d wanted to talk about, which was improving the ways we learn as adults, but at least the group talked a lot. Seriously, click on the link and read my paper. It's gold.

After the Global Session I headed home to pack, deal with a sick creature in my house, and then hopped on a train. The Kyoto Association of JETs had put together an overnight trip, and as dorky as I felt for signing up to travel around with a pack of foreigners, I was determined to go. It was my first tourism-based travel in Japan since Hannah visited last year, and I was going for only one reason: camels.

Tottori-ken is the only prefecture in which lies an expanse of sand large enough to be labeled dunes. It’s a tiny desert, or a giant beach, on the west side of Japan. I was warned that the dunes are completely unimpressive, and were disappointingly small. This doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but in keeping with the desert theme they offer short camel rides. Camel rides! As a casual fan of equestrianism and an avid fan of piggyback rides, I am always up for sitting on a sizeable beast and hanging on while it lumbers this way and that. Had I the time and money I would pull a City Slickers move and be a cowboy for a month or two. I just like riding things.

Safe to say that I could care less about the rest of Tottori Prefecture (which is rumored to have some of the best and cheapest steaks in the country. Screw you, Kobe). I just wanted to hand someone five thousand yen and sit/hyperventilate with joy on a camel for five minutes while it walked around. It’s a small dream, but some dreams do come true.

I met Kim-Chi and J.S. to catch a bus over to Tottori. It was about a three-hour drive, but the round trip was less than one way on a train that would have taken us there in half the time.  We needed to save our money for the camels.  That day of the trip was rather uneventful. We met up with six other ALTs in Tottori-shi, checked into our hotel, ate at a mediocre Italian restaurant and had donuts for dessert. Then we went to bed.
View from my 11th floor hotel room in the morning.

This is where I hide my crusty face
On Sunday morning we all met up to catch an 8:40 a.m. tourism bus to the dunes. Tourist buses are great for letting us see what we’re missing on the way to our destination. For the most part Tottori City looked like Kyoto, though Kim-Chi pointed out a larger number of buildings with western-style roofing. There were old buildings, new buildings, run-down areas and some beautifully kept parks. I almost wished we’d arrived earlier on Saturday to take a look at some of the sites. Almost.

Finally we arrived at the dunes. There was a huge group of volunteers with barbecue tongs and plastic bags receiving instructions on removing the encroaching grass from the dunes. We shrugged and figured we might as well look around until it was time to ride a Bactrian or dromedary. Not to call the unnamed sourpuss who told me the dunes sucked a liar, but he was wrong. No, they weren’t mind-bogglingly large. I’d seen the Planet Earth section “Deserts,” and Tottori had never been mentioned. Nonetheless the weather was perfect and it had rained the night before, so it was as though no man had ever set foot on the striated beauty of the sands. You know, aside from the dozens of people picking up trash and yanking weeds out of the sand with metal tongs. Here are thirteen thousand words’ worth to back it up:
See that encroaching grass?

I like a shadow.

Cross this expanse and you can…

watch Kim look at the ocean! There's a really steep drop off right there, by the way.

J.S. lagged behind to take a picture or ten.

I like three shadows.  Guess whose.

Our traveling party.


By the time we finished frolicking in the surf and crawled back up the dunes it was about noon. There was a kite festival scheduled going on, so the camel rides didn’t start until 2 p.m.  We settled for shaking the sand out of our shoes, discussing camel care, the ethics of camel rides in Japan as compared with elephant rides in Thailand, picking the camels we wanted to ride, imitating camels noises and noting their influence on creatures in Star Wars, remarking on each other’s growing sunburns (just because it ain’t summer don’t mean you don’t get sun), and watching the kites dance in the sky. We were a thoughtful bunch.

Perusing the souvenir shop informed us that Tottori is also famous for the apple-shaped Asian pear, the origins of one of Japan’s most beloved manga/anime, and rabbits, which may or may not have been associated with a type of historical figure, or whatever the Buddhist or Shinto version of a saint is. Pear frozen yogurt, or “soft cream,” is one of the best flavors in the world. We went to a nearby restaurant called Sukato, or maybe it was Sukkato, or Sukatto for lunch.  Here are some more pictures to prove that we were having fun.

After lunch we all signed up for camel rides. I paid my 1800 yen and ended up riding last like a loser, but by golly I was on a camel. Who gives a newt poo if I was the only one of the group/only person who rode that day to go by myself? I was sporting the boots I’d worn specifically for a photo shoot on a camel. I was sitting on a white-ish Bactrian camel named Cherry, which is the closest I’ve gotten to touching a yak (another dream of mine). You know, what with them sharing the desolate parts of central Asia and all. Learned that from Planet Earth “Deserts,” too. The following pictures are worth at least two thousand per.
Dromedary, dames.

Bactrian, b— oh, just kidding.

About the time I was trying to explain why a large group of foreigners could speak Japanese.

After the camel rides we all went souvenir shopping. I came away with a lot of pear-flavored things, and finished off the last of the pear dango yesterday. That stuff was dang good. See what I did just now? You see? Wordplay. Kim-Chi, J.S. and I indulged in our second pear soft cream cones of the day before catching a bus back to Tottori station. We had an hour before our bus left, so we napped and chatted outside. Or we tried to, at least, though there was a man yelling nonsense, and then some sense, across the way from us.

The return bus ride was over an hour longer than the first due to traffic. I went through most of Season 6 of The Office and made a list of wistful and melancholic songs to create a playlist for writing. For when I have real free time again. Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Griet’s Theme” from the Girl With a Pearl Earring soundtrack are high on that list, for any potential copycats. I didn’t get home until after 9 p.m.  To give you an idea of how this affected me, here’s the beginning or Monday’s journal entry/school notes:
Praise God for self control, praise Him for preparation.


  1. Love the pictures of the desert and the beach. Looks like fun! Good choice for a wistful playlist. I have Girl with a Pearl Earring in many of my playlists.

  2. Wait, a camel can say "Japan" better than I? I don't believe it.

  3. Great boots. Great pictures. Great priceless. What? Yes, I am going to copy you on your playlist. One day I will write a book and it will be very whistful and poetic and we'll be like the Bronte sisters but not depressing.