This journey's a bit off the typical tourist path: if you don't speak or understand enough Japanese to get directions, you might run into bit of trouble should you lose your way. OTOH as trips off the beaten path go, this one doesn't have a high difficulty level -- you would honestly have to really try to get lost in Iwami, because there are big ass hills in the middle of it (and all around it) with no maintained roadways so you have to go around them. Side streets are few (and short).
Main road that goes past Iwami Station - it does not have a name and is marked "155" on maps.
Generally, when it comes to travelling in Japan, your best friend is Hyperdia - it's got apps available for iOS and Android, and it will tell you up to 10 available routes at any given time. Jorudan is another way to get train timetables on the go but it can be a bit minimal. If you are not sure about using these tools, here is a detailed guide.
You also need a guide to station names to use these well -- neither application has a "here is the list of stations in City XYZ you can choose from" function, so you need to know what stations are around you (and at your destination). A local map will usually have all the stations clearly marked with a little train symbol beside them.
A map of Iwami and surrounding stations (from Google Maps).
Online maps work too if you have internet access - pocket wifi rental is available at airports (you might need to pay extra to ensure coverage in non-central areas like Iwami, though -- mine completely did not work there, like, it didn't even try to work). You'll see "Free WiFi" signs a lot in Japan, but in many cases you need to be a paid subscriber to use those services.
Regarding costs in general, Hyperdia will tell you the cost of tickets when you look up routes, but it will not tell you when JR trains run along non-JR tracks (which is possibly relevant to this trip), so even though a route might look like it's all eligible JR trains, it might not be. The JR Pass site lists the handful of exceptions for you, though: cross-check it with your route and you'll be okay.
Getting to Tottori City
There are a number of ways of accomplishing this, depending on your point of origin, time constraints, and budget -- you can fly, take a train, or take a bus -- the city of Tottori has a helpful breakdown (in English) of all the possible ways you can get there. You will have to do some research to figure out your best approach but I'll provide a few details on some ways to get there.
Buses are typically much cheaper than trains -- the Tottori site provides links to bus company sites but if you can't read Japanese then try Willer Express to search for routes and prices in English. A bus can be a great way to see some scenery -- the trains move quite fast and go through a lot of tunnels, so while you can see some breathtaking things, they're often blink-and-you-missed-it.
I must have taken about 50 shots while on the train journey there but only 10 or so turned out somewhat presentable.
Basically if you have a JR Pass and limited time in Japan, trains are the way to go. If you have money to burn and limited time in Japan, just fly everywhere - ANA and JAL have English sites you can use to look up and book flights.
If you are in Western Honshu and have a JR pass, the Super Hakuto is a good bet for reaching Tottori. It originates in Kyoto and makes stops in Osaka, Kobe (Sannomiya), and Himeji before heading up to the northern coastline. You can also travel along the San'in Main line from Kyoto to Tottori via Sonobe, but that journey will take you about 5 hours instead of Super Hakuto's 3 hours, plus you'll have to change tracks a bunch of times. If you are travelling from Okayama, you can take the Super Inaba.
The Super Hakuto
The Super Inaba
|[Images from Wikipedia]|
Note that the Super Hakuto and Super Inaba run through non-JR tracks between Kamigōri and Chizu, so you have to pay separately for that portion even if you have the JR Pass (as explained here). The cost for this segment is about 1800 yen one way.
You cannot pay the extra charge in advance: the train conductor will sell you the ticket you need (cash only, as far as I could tell). If you have anxiety about this sort of thing and prefer to have a ticket in your hand that you can show the conductor right away, be aware that JR will not sell you tickets that only cover a private railway segment. So if this is a real problem for you, you'll have to pay for the whole journey out of pocket, because you can't buy tickets just for a private railway company's line unless you're at one of their stations (I suppose a work-around could be to get off at Kamigōri, buy a ticket to Chizu on the next Super Hakuto, and then resume your journey, but you'd lose time that way).
I am going by JR West's information, so please feel free to correct me if this is inaccurate and it's in fact possible to purchase Chizu Express tickets outside Chizu Express territory without also paying for the JR portion of your trip.
If you are not using the JR Pass, you can just buy tickets for the entire journey at any ticket office or machine at your departure station: if paying for a return trip, you will receive two tickets for each leg of your journey (4 tickets in total) and you'll need to show both to conductors.
The journey will take you through hilly terrain like this, with settlements in the lower elevations.
Note that some sites claim there is a night train (Izumo) that runs directly from Tokyo to Tottori -- it does go to Tottori prefecture but not Tottori City! You can take the Izumo to Yonago (well west of Tottori), and then it's another 1-2 hours from there to Tottori via the Jr San'in line that runs along the coast. The time depends on which train you take -- a super express will get you there in an hour, but a local train will take a little under 2 hours. If you are coming from Eastern Honshu, this is probably ideal because you can arrive relatively early in the morning.
This is what Tottori City station looks like from the outside.
Getting to Iwami
Tottori City station is not large or confusing; everything is marked clearly. If you have a JR Pass, just find out where to board the JR San'in Main line bound eastward and go to the platform. If you don't have a JR pass, the ticket from Tottori to Iwami costs 320 yen, and you can buy it at a ticket machine.
If you are travelling from Yonago, you will be taking the San'in Main line already, but it is not possible to just go through Tottori City. You will have to get off the train there and switch tracks to another train. The Iwami-bound train will be tiny - one or two cars, and the journey will take you approximately 25 minutes (3 stops).
Outside Tottori Station (with bonus shibe).
After you leave Oiwa station (the one before Iwami), if you look towards the north (the windows on the train's left side) you will see the fields through which Rei and Nagisa jogged in the show (they're not exactly the same but it's the same general idea).
You have to imagine the flowers and butterflies and cute anime joggers.
If you're feeling really dedicated, you could get off at Oiwa and try to follow their path to Iwami, but I don't think there is a road that runs along the tracks, and traipsing through fields is probably not such a great idea if you aren't sure what is private property and what isn't.
If you do decide to chance it, have a physical (paper) map with you just in case -- the layout of the area is pretty straightforward, and there are mountains all around it, but you could lose an hour or two if you wander into the wrong direction for too long. As I mentioned, network signals in this area are not the best unless you have a Japanese mobile phone subscription (or can afford to pay for data roaming charges wherever else you're from).
Speaking of Rei and Nagisa, here's another image you'll recognise. ^_^
[As an aside, if Oiwa is where Rei got off to run to school, that means he (and Nagisa) actually live in Tottori City. The stop before Oiwa -- Fukube -- used to be an independent village but it became annexed to Tottori in 2004. Fukube is also the first stop after Tottori City, and there are several more stops in the city all along the same rail line. Oiwa is where they disembark to go jogging, so they must board the train somewhere within Tottori City limits.
I haven't been able to figure out exactly where Samezuka is supposed to be, but judging from it being a school famous for swimming, it's probably in the city. We know it doesn't take too long to get there, at any rate, so it probably isn't to the east of Iwami (it's all tiny towns nestled in the mountains until you hit Fukuchiyama 3 hours later). Of course, there are limits to how far the fictional universe maps onto the real one -- cf. the Iwatobi High school inspiration being in a completely different city -- but if anyone knows what building Samezuka's grounds are based on, hmu!)
BUT I DIGRESS.
Most travel options will put you in Iwami around the noon hour. If you take the sleeper train from Tokyo or a night bus, you might end up here around 9-10AM if you luck out with connecting trains.
Pulling into Iwami Station.
If you'd like a super early start, you'll have to overnight in Tottori and take an early morning train to Iwami. This is far from a bad option -- Tottori City is a very charming place with a soothing, pleasant atmosphere you can feel as soon as you step out of the station. I don't have any first-hand recommendations or advice on places to stay, but any major travel site or Japan guide can help you there.
Cherry blossoms in Tottori City.
Getting around Iwami
This is the easiest part! Iwami has just a couple of wider "main" streets, and you can reach every one of the Free! locations by following along them. If you are feeling adventurous, you can take some shortcuts via side streets, but there are, like, two such opportunities in all. ^^;
Iwami Station building.
When you get out at the station, if you're lucky, you'll spot a mobile bakery (well they call it a mobile bakery but really it's a minivan with baked goods for sale in the back) -- or the young people who run it will approach you and invite you to have a look. The prices are reasonable and the baked goods delicious (try the cheesy bread).
From the station, head for the Iwami tourism office: look to your left, and a little ways off you will see a one-storey building with brightly coloured posters in the window; that'll be the place.
These be the posters. :D
Iwami town has completely embraced its own status as an anime pilgrimage destination (you will see posters and pictures from the show in the most unexpected places as you make your way around). If you can read Japanese or can parse machine-translated English, please check out Iwami's Free! site. And while you're on the site, look at other things you could do while you're in town, because provided that you're smart about how you move around (i.e. you don't walk everywhere like we did >.>), you will be done with the location tour in just a couple of hours.
There are special maps available for Free! fans at the Iwami tourism office that have all of the locations, as well as public restrooms, restaurants, bus stops, etc marked along the route.
Free! location guide map -- incidentally, it doesn't cost anything. /slaps knee
I am not going to go through the locations one by one, because part of the fun was using the guide map and finding the perfect viewing spots based on the screenshots given. Plus, I haven't been to all of the locations. Because it was getting late, we didn't make it to the two farthest locations from Iwami Station (a reason to go back when I can!).
The Iwami tourism office also has a mini-museum where you can learn about the town's history (in Japanese). In the same room there is a shop selling local specialty items as well as plenty of Free! merchandise.
Exhibit A: A human sized Iwatobi-chan (not actually part of Iwami's history).
If there is only one of something on display for sale, they will probably have more in the back -- just ask. (I don't know if anyone there speaks English, though). At the time we went, they were handing out free character coasters as thanks for merch purchase; you might also get a little "Iwami Town" sticker for free (I did, but I'm not sure if that was tied to the amount I spent or not).
It was okay to take pictures inside the office/shop when we went (I asked), but that might not always hold. If they happen to have something exclusive on exhibit that is meant to draw tourists (Free! fans or otherwise) to the area, they might not want you to photograph it. So please ask before you take any pictures inside.
Various magazines featuring the Free! characters and staff -- not for sale.
A really cool thing in the tourism office were guestbooks in which visiting fans of Free! are encouraged to leave messages, drawings, etc. There were five books at the time we visited, all full, so there will probably be even more in the future! There are a couple of stools near the table with the guestbooks, so you can sit down if you want. (I don't know if it's okay to take pictures of the inside of the books -- it didn't cross my mind to do it so I didn't have a need to ask.)
You could spend a good half hour just going through these if you wanted -- some of the drawings are incredible. Some people brought their own drawings and glued them in scrapbook style.
If for whatever reason the tourism office is closed or they're out of maps, I took some photos of the guide map and the printed screenshots that you can grab here (click on the "Original" links to get to the full-size photos). I'm sorry about the poor quality -- I am crap at taking indoor pictures with my phone and I don't have access to a colour scanner. :( The map is only available in Japanese but the relevant screenshots are marked clearly with their numbers, so you will be able to follow it even if you can't read Japanese. You will notice that the map on the Iwami Tourism site and the map in the photos are different: the website version only has 8 locations, whereas the paper map has 21.
Here is the Google version of the path, more or less:
It takes you from Iwami Station past all the locations marked on the guide map, and to Oiwa Station, where you can board the train headed back to Tottori City. There is no point heading back to Iwami Station from here unless you really want to try and puzzle out Rei and Nagisa's jogging route or you still need to return your rented bicycle and don't feel like doubling back to the rental place marked north of Oiwa station.
Along the route, raised sidewalks aren't everywhere (in fact, only the one main road by the station has them, iirc). You will be walking or cycling along the side of the roads -- cars will typically give you a wide berth when they can (even if you're well away from the side of the road), but please be careful.
Typical street corner.
Just walking along the locations route without stopping for any reason would take you about 2-2.5 hours. Some of the locations (like the Family Mart the gang went to for ice pops) are easy to access -- you'll just be walking along, and then there you are. It's a really enjoyable walk, though -- Iwami is a beautiful place.
Beautiful and a little bit lonely.
The beach front is a nice place to take a break - there are some wide stone steps you can sit on (unless it's really cold), and you can come right down to the water if you want. Just be careful with food in this area -- there are very large birds hanging around who will not hesitate to steal your food by swooping down so cleanly you don't even notice them until your cheesy bread is gone. Not that I know anything about such a thing happening. Cough. (Okay, okay, so a bird stole the last bit of my lunch in Iwami. Stupid bully bird. :D)
The beach and its stone steps under clouds.
You can rent a bicycle for 500 yen (for a full day) at the Iwami Tourism Office or any other spot where the guide map shows a little white bicycle in a blue square. This will greatly increase the speed with which you can move about the town (and it's totally what I'm doing next time I go).
Some sections of the town are so deserted you could probably zip along on your bike going nyooooooooooooom (or possibly singing this under your breath xD)
To get around Iwami proper, there is just the municipal bus: it runs once every hour or so (at least when we were there) -- you need to be able to read Japanese and know the kanji for nearby locations to figure out both which stop you're at and which direction the bus will be going from that stop.
The prettiest bus stop.
It cost just over 200 yen (220 or 240, I forget) to get from Tajiri Port to Iwami Station, but that's about all I can tell you about the bus -- other than that there are quite a few stops on its route and they are clearly marked on the map (but the bus only if there are people waiting to get on or off). Also, it's not so much a bus as it is a minivan.
You probably won't be able to flag a taxi down on the street, unless you're at one of the train stations. If you're super tired and need to call a taxi to get you to the station, you'll need Japanese knowledge and access to a phone. There are two taxi companies you can call:
日本交通 (Japan Transportation) : 0857-72-1321
観光タクシー (Tourism Taxi): 0857-72-0285
According to the Iwami tourism site, it takes about 10 minutes and costs about 1300 yen to go from Tajiri Port to Iwami Station.
Tajiri Port area.
If your Japanese is up to snuff and you have the confidence (and appropriate license) to drive in Japan, you could rent a car (in Tottori or online) and drive to+around Iwami, stopping at strategic locations to walk around -- parking locations are marked on the map with the usual big P.
All the lots we saw were largely empty, but we were there outside of bathing/surfing season, and I think the town is much, much livelier in the summer. I don't know anything about renting cars or driving in Japan, so please consult the Japan Guide for information if this is something you'd like to do, and get directions from Google Maps or similar. This is most likely the most time-efficient way to see Iwami if you're just after the Free! locations, though -- you could probably be done in under an hour, even!
This gazebo is about 20m above sea level.
For some locations, you will need to climb stairs -- sometimes steep, sometimes not so steep, usually with railings. The Tajiri Shrine (what the shrine near Haru's house is based on) is only accessible via stairs, and it's either few/no railings (on the sea side) or very steep stairs (on the town side, with sturdy metal railings on both sides).
These are the stairs back down to the docks (Makoto not pictured).
If you have anxiety or phobias related to heights, navigating some of the locations by yourself could be challenging, so please be sure you are mentally (and/or chemically) prepared. Especially while traversing the Tajiri Shrine area, there are some unexpected drop-offs along the side of the pathway. It's perfectly safe (unless you climb over the railings or do something equally stupid) but anxiety is what it is, so just take care.
Be ready to encounter giant Japanese hornets if it's the season for them (early spring - mid-autumn). Your best bet in such an encounter is to remain very still and hope it goes away (running from flying things will create air pull behind you that'll encourage them to follow you, not because they hate you but because you're making it easier for them to fly). Well, actually, the hornets do hate you, probably. Bring a big can of bug spray. I don't know. /o\ (If you don't know what giant Japanese hornets are, please don't bother finding out because this is one of those cases when ignorance is truly bliss).
If I were you, I would not attempt walking the route in high summer, unless you go super early in the morning before the sun and humidity really have a chance to start doing their thing. Spring weather was lovely for walking, and I bet there are some beautiful colours to be seen here in autumn. According to Google, it doesn't snow much in this region and the temperatures don't go too far below 0C, so you could probably even do this in winter, if that's your thing.
These are just the challenges that came to mind -- if you have questions about other types of difficulties you might encounter, please don't hesitate to ask!
You will probably run into other people doing the same tour! My friends and I ran into 3 pairs of young women along the way who were taking the same pictures we were taking. And we made the trip the middle of the work week (schools were on break) during off-peak season when the original show was months in the past and no real hype for the second season had begun yet. So depending on when you go, you might have to line up and wait your turn to see the locations or to take photos.
You might have to wait a bit to get a no-other-people-in-your-frame snap of this area, for example. (And please remember that people do live here; it's a real town with real people, not just an anime filming location.)
Before you leave, be sure to leave some of your cash behind -- pick up some souvenirs or eat a meal if any of the restaurants are open (they weren't when we were there). I can personally recommend the pear-flavoured waffles from the beach-side souvenir shop.
One last snap from a train about to depart for Tottori City.
...and that's all she wrote. As above, let me know if there's anything you'd like added. ^_^
ETA: I had posted specifically Free!-themed pictures of our visit on Tumblr while I was still in Japan -- 9 Free! locations lined up to match the screenshots, Iwami loves Free! Pt 1, and Iwami loves Free! Pt 2.