Hidden gems of nature and culture in Chugoku, Japan
Prefectures there offer picturesque views and cultural icons
Travellers seeking a relaxing holiday away from the hustle and bustle of city life will not be disappointed with the lesser-known prefectures of Western Japan, where gorgeous scenery and cultural attractions more than compensate for their low profile.
Last year, the Chugoku region was battered by a series of typhoons that sparked off landslides and flooding that damaged buildings and roads, and tourists have been hesitant to return ever since.
I visited the prefectures of Tottori, Shimane, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima for six days last month and it was hard to tell that such disasters had ripped through them, a sure sign that the welcome mat is back out.
Coastal, rural, idyllic Tottori may be the least populated of the 47 prefectures in Japan, but it does not pale in comparison.
The Tottori Sand Dunes, the largest in Japan, stretch up to 16km long.
I was greeted by towering sand hills with a glimpse of the sea peeking out from the edges. Persevering with a hike rewarded me with a magnificent view of the Sea of Japan.
In summer, the area is a hotspot for locals and is filled with activities such as camel riding and sandboarding, while the Sand Museum is a hit with children.
Travellers who prefer the wintry cold can visit Mount Daisen, the highest mountain in the Chugoku region.
It is a popular spot for snow activities, and the slopes were dotted with skiers as I made my way up in the ski lift.
Just below the peak, I was greeted with a picturesque view of Daisen White Resort against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
Hiking trails are open during other seasons and are covered in golden foliage during autumn.
Kaike Onsen is a convenient accommodation located near the resort.
Furnished with traditional Japanese rooms, its outdoor onsen facing the ocean is a draw for hotel guests.
Snow crabs are readily available throughout Tottori, which is famed for the crustacean. Their flesh is firm, leaving a sweet aftertaste in your mouth.
Located right next to Tottori, this prefecture boasts cultural icons unique to the area.
The Adachi Museum of Art is best known for its award-winning garden. The beauty of this "living canvas" during the four seasons has kept it at the top spot for 16 years in the Japanese garden rankings.
The museum also holds an impressive collection of contemporary Japanese paintings and pottery.
I also visited the capital of Matsue, which houses the grand Matsue Castle, one of the five Japanese castles that have been designated as a National Treasure by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
The towering six-storey structure, with the finest architectural details, left me in awe.
It is one of the remaining 12 original castles in Japan that has survived earthquakes and the Meiji Restoration.
West of Matsue is the Izumo Taisha Shrine, one of the holiest in Japan.
It is believed that the eight million Shinto gods gather in the shrine for a monthly conference, and I was struck with a sense of wonder as I walked through the four massive Torii gates leading to it.
What really captured my interest was the "lodgings" in the shrine made for the gods.
Visitors shuffle along in silence and consciously avoid the centre path, believed to be meant for the deities.
Sacred rice straw ropes hang from the shrines with wishes for a bountiful harvest, and I tried my hands at making a miniature one for good luck at the shops nearby.
Check out the second of our two-part series on the Chugoku region, focusing on Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, on Feb 15.
For more information on the prefectures, visit Japan National Tourism Organization's website (www.jnto.go.jp).