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A sculptor at the Sand Museum in Tottori, Japan, works on a sand sculpture based on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Ko Sasaki/The New York Times
Jim McMahon
This sculpture shows the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Ko Sasaki/The New York Times
The Tottori Sand Dunes, Japan’s largest dunes, feature tall hills, pools of water, and patterns in the fine sand caused by the wind.
Ko Sasaki/The New York Times
Celebrating America in Sand
The United States is the subject of this year’s sand sculpture festival at the Sand Museum in Tottori, Japan.

By Paul Cates

The stony expressions of the four U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore will likely last for centuries. But at a newly opened exhibit in Japan, you can catch them only for about eight months. The annual sand sculpture event at the Sand Museum in Tottori, Japan, is focused on the United States this year.

This is the 10th anniversary of the sand sculpture event. Artists came from 19 countries to shape mounds of sand into complex sculptures that represent events in U.S. history and American landmarks. Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence were all carefully re-created from about 3,000 tons of sand.

“There is no other place like this in the world,” Jon Woodworth, a first-time sculptor at the event, told The New York Times.

TOTTORI ATTRACTION

Tottori is a remote (far away) city in western Japan. In the past, not many tourists traveled to it. To attract more visitors, Tottori officials decided to use a natural resource: sand. The city is located near the Tottori Sand Dunes, a 10-mile stretch of sand dunes along the coast. The officials decided to create a sand museum that would house a series of sand sculptures based on different geographic areas of the world. The sand from each year’s exhibition is used again the next year, conserving the precious fine-grained sand.

The project has been a success. Approximately 500,000 people visit the museum during the eight months it’s open. Some return year after year to see the new sculptures.

SCULPTING IN SAND

The city is now a popular spot for sand sculpture artists too. Sculptors from around the world come to Tottori each spring, spending a few weeks working on their masterpieces. They use special tools to smooth the sandy surfaces, cut angles, and carve intricate (complicated) details. They use only sand and water to create the massive sculptures, some of which tower over their creators.

Originally, the artists built their creations outside. But the fragile works lasted less than two months outdoors. So the museum built a permanent structure to house the artworks, which extended their life to eight months. Now many more tourists get to see the sculptures. Still, the fact that this art is not permanent is part of the appeal. The temporary sculptures reflect the Japanese value of appreciating the fleeting (not lasting long) nature of the world.

The upside for the artists is that the changing seasons offer them other opportunities too. Tottori is not the only Japanese town that showcases temporary art like this. Sapporo, in northern Japan, hosts a similar exhibit in the winter, using snow instead of sand. That will be just about the time that the U.S. sand sculpture exhibition is taken apart, and the sand is saved for next year’s show.

This article first appeared in Scholastic Art magazine’s News and Notes on May 1, 2017.