Japan’s isle of exiles — and gold

Though rugged and remote, Sado Island has appeals aplenty.

by Mark Brazil

Shaped like the Mark of Zorro, a rugged “Z” slashed across the Sea of Japan, Sado Island lies in the inhospitable Sea of Japan off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. Strangely, it warrants surprisingly little space in most guidebooks — which to my mind makes it an alluring place to visit.

Though it’s famed for its gold and taiko (traditional Japanese drumming), the island is actually so culturally rich — whether in terms of its history, folk events, nature, mountains, performing arts or crafts — that here on just one speck of land in the ocean a visitor can experience much of the very best that Japan has to offer.

Approaching by ferry from the east, the island rises rugged and forest-clad from the sea, at first seeming remote, even forbidding. Sado is Japan’s fifth-largest island (after Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku). It is mountainous in the north and the south, with a broad open plain in between those ranges.

Once ashore, though, that forbidding feeling fast gives way to the atmosphere of this friendly, peaceful island that’s quite apart from the bustling rush and noise of Japan’s cities. In fact, it just invites exploration — and after three visits already this year I am even now eager to return.

Once known as the “Island of Exiles,” for centuries Sado was where people (ranging from priests to noh actors and emperors) were sent if they failed to support the government of the day. Today, it is better known as the “Island of Performing Arts.” That’s because Sado now has more than 30 noh stages, and numerous shrine and other festivals that include the living traditions of Sado Okesa (Sado Dance), Ningyo Shibai (Puppet Plays) and the dramatic Onidaiko spread through the year from April to October, making it worth planning your visit to see one of them.

Sado, extending just 75 km from north to south and about 30 km from east to west, offers a wonderful opportunity for self-imposed exile coupled with relaxation. It is a place to go wandering on its many mountain hiking trails; a place to visit secluded shrines and temples (I especially enjoyed both Komponji and Chokokuji); a place to explore by bicycle or on foot; to dine on superfresh seafood; or to learn new skills such as soba-noodle making or taiko drumming.

However, for almost 400 years, until 1989, Sado’s greatest claim to fame was as a source of gold. The precious metal’s ore was discovered in 1601, and ultimately the Aikawa mine was to yield 78 tons of gold and 2,330 tons of silver. During its early centuries, the workers were in fact little more than slaves who lived and worked in appalling conditions. Today, one of the most fascinating attractions on the island is the mine museum, situated on site, just a few kilometers north of Mano town at the western end of route 453.

There, the visitor descends into cool, damp shafts and tunnels that provoke a riot of imagining what it must have been like for those poor souls hacking and hewing and heaving here in the depths. It’s a stunning sensation that clever use of robotic mannequins and sound effects brings very much to life.

After an underground visit and exploration of the museum’s display rooms, I heartily recommend walking outside for a while, to contemplate the many joys of life above ground — and freedom!

Turning uphill from the mine, Route 453 enters a narrow gorge with steeply forested cliffs. Then, lined with colorful azaleas in season, it ultimately winds up into the hills and becomes the so-called Skyline Road offering superb scenic views across the northern mountains (Osado) and the center of the island before it rejoins Route 350 to Ryotsu.

But back to the depths. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Sado’s mine was the most productive of gold and silver in Japan. However, its precious ores had to be transported elsewher to be refined — hence the island’s profusion of ports that must in the past have kept a small army of shipwrights busy.

To this day, the village of Shukunegi in southwest Sado remains an enduring symbol of the various woodworking skills of those centuries of boat-builders. At nearby Sadokoku Ogi Folk Museum, there is a full-size replica of a 19th-century vessel typical of that period’s ore trade.

The village of Shukunegi itself is situated a little further west along the island’s attractive southwestern coast, near the western end of Route 350. Set on a beautiful bay with a natural rocky harbor, Shukunegi is so tightly nestled on the limited area of flat land that the layout of its streets and houses resembles a jigsaw puzzle.

There, the houses are almost touching, the alleys between them are narrow and shaded, and the way the wooden houses are constructed leaves little doubt that boatmen built them. Utilizing every inch of space, some are on irregularly shaped plots, some are triangular, others wedge-shaped — but they are all intricately detailed and redolent of a bygone age when skills in carpentry represented the height of technology.

Woodcraft skills are still represented on the island, but these days in a very different form. Bringing to life the sound of wood is a skill that has elevated Sado, and taiko drumming, to recent world attention. Not far from Shukunegi, on the Ogi Peninsula an hour’s drive southwest of Ryotsu, is Tatako-kan, the Sado Island Taiko Centre. This great timber hall, with polished wooden floors and huge windows overlooking the forest, is the public face of the world-famous Kodo taiko-drumming troupe, whose members live more reclusive lives while they are on the island than during the half-year they typically spend on tour.

If you are lucky and visit while the troupe is in residence, you’ll find its members happy to showcase the hall and their impressive drums. The two largest, massive drums affectionately known as Butabana-chan and Yamaimo-kun (“Pig Nose” and “Mountain Potato,” respectively) weigh in at more than 450 kg each and were made from a 600-year- old Zelkova tree. To hear them resounding is truly a thrilling experience.

Apart from those two venerable stars, the troupe plays plentiful sets of smaller drums, and the Tatako-kan offers an opportunity to get closer to your own life’s rhythms at a modestly priced, ¥2,000 training workshop.

I was lucky that my third visit to Sado coincided with this year’s Onidaiko Festival in Ryotsu on May 24. Local resident and professional guide Takayuki Tsukakoshi kindly tipped me off about the festival, and so we went along to enjoy dishes of freshly grilled squid while watching the battle of the drums, as various groups gathered to perform their own versions of a local folk myth about supposedly friendly demons.

Meanwhile, the island’s biggest annual festival, The Earth Celebration, is a much more modern one that started just 20 years ago. Already, though, it is astonishingly famous and a big summer draw. It includes concerts, markets and music, ecology and craft workshops, with pride of place going to the island’s Kodo drummers, whose percussion seems to set the whole island rocking.

This year’s Earth Celebration will run from August 16-18, but if you can’t make it to Sado Island then, at the very least, check out Kodo in your local music store — just now, I am loving “Heartbeat Best of Kodo 25th Anniversary” that I bought on my last visit to the island.

How to get there: First of all (if you are not fluent in Japanese), obtain the excellent tourist map produced by MIJ International (www.mijintl.com; [0259] 23-3484), as this has information in English on the innumerable attractions of the island, as well as places to stay and eat. I have traveled from Niigata to Ryotsu by both the high-speed jetfoil, which takes an hour, and the car ferry that takes about 2 1/2 hours. For 80-kph exhilaration the former is worthwhile — though its ¥6,220 tickets put the ferry’s ¥2,320 ones in the shade. There are multiple sailings daily, though reservations are required for the jetfoil (contact Sado Kisen Ferry at www.sadokisen.co.jp). Other ferries connect Akadomari and Teradomari in one hour and Ogi and Joetsu City (Naoetsu) in 2 hours 40 minutes. Where to stay: There is a wide range of accommodation to suit most budgets, from campsites, hostels and guest houses to luxury hotels. Sado Tourist Information ([0259] 23-3300) in Ryotsu is the best place to start. I stayed at the very pleasant Ito-ya Inn ([0259] 55-2019) in Mano, western Sado, but a little more luxury, including hot springs and sea views, is to be had at the friendly Hotel Azuma ([0259] 74-0001) further to the northwest. On a rocky headland along the same coast is the more formal Hotel Oosado ([0259] 74-3300), which is more luxurious still, with superb views.