Tottori Sand Museum
Places across the globe, seen through sand sculptures in local Japan.By Joshua Meyer
The Tottori Sand Museum is the world’s only indoor museum dedicated to the art of sand sculptures. Though Tottori is Japan’s least populous prefecture, its Sand Museum has become a hotspot for sculptors from around the world, featured in global news outlets like The New York Times.
The installations are made with leftover sand from the nearby Tottori Sand Dunes, a national park with camel photo ops and dunes so steep that climbing them might feel like impromptu training for a Mount Fuji ascent.
Around the world in sand
The Sand Museum opened in Tottori in 2006 with an outdoor exhibition with Italy and the Renaissance as the main theme. Since then, it has kept up the transnational focus, graduating from tents to an exhibition hall that traditionally hosts eight-month “Travel Around the World in Sand” events. Previous sculptures have depicted scenes from different regions of Asia, Austria, Africa, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, Nordic countries, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
These are more than just “sandcastles,” though the museum once offered a trip through German history, complete with realistic castles from that country.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics, its South America exhibition included sculptures of Rio de Janeiro and the carnival in Rio. The current exhibition which is Egypt themed runs until early January 2024.
In the summer months, the museum’s sand sculptures provide a warm alternative to the snow and ice figures seen each winter at the Sapporo Snow Festival. They’re detailed and impressive, with the same sand recycled each year to build new sculptures. The transient nature of these intricate works makes every annual visit to the museum a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The brainchild of Katsuhiko Chaen
In keeping with its diverse vision, most artists who craft sculptures at the Tottori Sand Museum hail from places outside Japan. In the museum, you’ll see a life-size photo display of the international team. At the center of it is the museum’s executive director, Katsuhiko Chaen, a Kagoshima native who spearheaded sand festivals in his hometown before city officials enlisted him to bring his skills to Tottori.
Chaen personally chooses sculptors for the Sand Museum, and they work with designs they’ve adapted from him. He’s a world-champion sand artist who has created sculptures for the Japanese royal family, the official promotion of Star Wars, the 2006 Torino Olympics and everything from Pinocchio to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
While such things might not be the first thing you think of when you come to Japan, the Tottori Sand Museum makes for a memorable visit that provides a window to the world, executed with a local Japanese vision.