Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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From kimono to constellations: Peeling back the layers in Tottori

By Vicki L Beyer
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Those who enjoy Japanese history, kimono or dolls will recognize juni-hitoe, the 12-layered kimono worn by ladies at the imperial court during the Heian Period (794-1185) and still used by imperial ladies for special ceremonies, such as their own weddings or the enthronement of the emperor. Many of the hina dolls of the March Girl's Day Festival are also depicted in these elaborate costumes.

Visit Tottori to discover some other versions of 12 layers, ones that are much more accessible to the average tourist.

Seisui-an in Kurayoshi

The town of Kurayoshi is perhaps best known for its historical district, full of warehouses and shopfronts that date back about two centuries. One of these historical buildings is home to Seisui-an, a restaurant that specializes in mochi (the building was originally used for mochi production). Mochi, rice pounded into paste, then shaped as desired, is a hearty and filling food, especially popular in winter.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

At Seisui-an, they offer mochi shabu shabu. The mochi is served as thin rectangles — slightly longer than a business card — that are to be swished in a boiling broth until soft (about 10 seconds — any more than that and it melts away!) before eating.  What's particularly fun is that there are 12 flavors of mochi arranged across the plate in a particular order, the colors roughly reflecting the correct order of the layers of a juni hitoe kimono. The flavors are: carrot, shiitake mushroom, green tea, pumpkin, sesame, blueberry, cayenne pepper, sweet corn, mugwort, shrimp, yuzu citrus, and horse chestnut, though you don't have to eat them in that order.

Depending on how hungry you are, you can order a meal that is just mochi shabu shabu, the slices of mochi and some vegetables and fish paste balls for protein, or you can get a larger meal that includes thin sliced beef, the more traditional shabu shabu ingredient. In the case of the larger meal, the broth is served in a special pot with a divider so that you can cook your meat on one side and the mochi and vegetables on the other.

Since the premises began to be used as a restaurant, Seisui-an also makes kimchi. As if this fact wasn't interesting enough, their kimchi features a different vegetable each month of the year — there's that number 12 again! Seisui-an sells both its kimchi and its flavored mochi slices to those who want to take some home, too.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Sightseeing in kimono

What better way to experience an historical district like the one in Kurayoshi than to stroll it dressed in a kimono?  The dress lends an air of authenticity. It turns out that even modern kimono, which usually consist of only two layers, and maybe an extra collar layer, are actually remarkably complicated garments that require layer upon layer of strings, cords, ties and cables to close everything up the right way, and finally an obi held in place with a couple more cords to finish the job. Just donning the garment is something everyone should experience at least once.

At Akagawara Ichigokan, a building that was once a soy sauce brewery, 5,000 yen will get you  dressed in a kimono made of Kurayoshi Gasuri, a uniquely woven cotton cloth (don't worry, the helpful staff do all the complicated dressing for you), to spend two hours exploring the streets and shops of the district.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Snowshoeing on Mt Hyono

I never really thought about it before, but winter sports also require about 12 layers of clothing (or at least 12 articles of clothing). My preferred winter sport, snowshoeing, can be experienced on Mt Hyono ("Ice Mountain"). Forming the border between Tottori and Hyogo Prefectures, the 1,150-meter Mt Hyono is a popular winter sports destination, with Wakasa Hyonosen ski resort on its western flanks (the Tottori side). Not far away is Hibiki no Mori, the Hyonosen Nature Museum, a staging area for summer hiking, but this time of year, also host to snowshoeing tours.

Just at the turn off for the ski resort sits a little ski rental shop that bustles at this time of year, providing gear to skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers, and capable of providing even the large sizes required by most Westerners. Two pairs of socks, four layers on my bottom half, four layers on my top half, and two pair of gloves later, I felt like the Michelin man, but could stay warm in spite of the iciness of blowing snow. The mountain was living up to its name.

Because it had already been snowing for some time before we set out, we were unable to see any animal tracks, but the conditions allowed us to walk on virgin snow, sometimes as deep as two or three meters, with our snowshoes keeping us from sinking. This also put us into the branches of trees, with a view of plant life that is otherwise not easy for humans to experience.

The 12 layers also provided enough warmth that at the end of our trek we could sit outside in the snow to enjoy a hot drink.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Tottori folk crafts museum

Okay, you might not find 12 layers of anything in this delightful little museum housed in a fascinating traditional building, but you will find excellent examples of Tottori's best pottery and ceramics, woodworking and wooden furniture, textiles, paper, and pictures. The variety and breadth is enough to make you feel as if you've explored multiple layers of Tottori. Step next door into Takumi, a shop selling folk crafts (mostly made in Tottori, but some from elsewhere as well) and you'll even find an excellent set of figurines depicting the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (juni-shi).

Shrines to visit in the Year of the Dog

And speaking of the Chinese zodiac, Tottori has a number of shrines dedicated to each of the 12 zodiac animals, meant to be visited especially during that particular year, if you want to ensure your own good fortune. Purists would say visits should also be during the month of the animal in question, as well as on the days of the month said to be ruled by the animal, but let's not overcomplicate things.

This being the year of the dog, there are eight shrines in Tottori to focus on.

  • Sasafuku Jinja - Nichinan
  • Fukusakae Jinja - Nichinan
  • Fukunari Jinja - Nichinan
  • Kamochi Jinja - Hino
  • Fukudomi Jinja - Kurayoshi
  • Fukudzumi Jinja - Kurayoshi
  • Toyosaka Jinja - Kotoura
  • Tomimasu Jinja - Yonago

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Mt Daisen

With a rental car or local taxi, it’s easy to visit these historic and distinctive shrines over two days (four on each day, in the order given above) to collect inscriptions and plenty of good fortune for the year. For a foreign visitor, searching out shrines on a theme like this is also a relatively unique experience and a great way to get away from the beaten tourist track. At the same time, as you move from shrine to shrine, you'll find you also have time to check out better known nearby sights, including the flanks of Mt Daisen and Misasa Onsen on the first day, and the delights of Yonago, Tottori's second city, on the second day.

For your next trip, why not visit Tottori to peel back the layers of sights and experiences and uncover “the real Japan.” There is no question that you will leave energized and fulfilled.

For more information about travel in Tottori, visit the official Tottori Tourism website.

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