Sado Island: Iconic birds, gold mines, magic caves and art

by Eli Kirzner

Special To The Japan Times

“The people in our town, they died without ever seeing the ocean.”

Strange words to hear on an island. They are spoken by an 80-year-old woman we have met at a bus stop just after arriving at the port of Akadomari on Sado Island. She has the signature stoop of many elderly rice farmers after decades of constantly bending over, her torso leaning from her waist at a 90-degree angle even when she stands. But she seems vigorous for her age and, as she talks, it’s clear her mind is still sharp.

The town she speaks of is Hamochi, tucked away in the mountains. “My ancestors labored in the fields there for many generations,” she explains. “We didn’t have cars back then and at the end of a hard day, we never had any reason to walk the several kilometers to the sea.”

It seems unimaginable that someone could live surrounded by the ocean and never set eyes on it, though Sado is a very big island covering some 855 sq. km. Administratively part of Niigata Prefecture, off whose northern coast it sits amid the chilly waters of the Sea of Japan, it is the sixth largest island in Japan, following the main island of Okinawa.

As we board the bus, the woman tells us to keep our eyes out for toki (Crested Ibis), which apparently perch in the trees around her town. With a white body around 76 cm long, a white crest, red feet and face, and a long narrow beak, this bird — once common in Japan, Korea, China and parts of Russia — was nearly driven to extinction by hunting and pollution of its habitats. It vanished completely from Japan after the last five in the country, which lived on Sado, were captured for a failed breeding program that ended in their deaths. However, the world’s last seven wild specimens — found in China’s Shaanxi province in 1981 — have since multiplied into hundreds due to protection initiatives, and dozens have been given to Japan and reintroduced to Sado. With strict regulations on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the island is now home to a second-generation population.

Though we don’t spot a toki, the ride offers a good introduction to Sado’s coastal scenery. Lush trees just spill down the mountains to our right, with the ocean stretching out endlessly on the left, and in every town we pass through the houses are all traditional wooden ones with clay-tile roofs — there’s not a Western-style building anywhere.

After saying farewell to the women as she gets off, we arrive at a beach called Sobama where we spend the rest of the day snorkeling and the night in our tents. Next morning, we catch the bus for Sado’s ancient gold and silver mine — Kinzan. On the way, I spot a toki perched in a tree and alert my companions with a shout of excitement, but by the time they look our bus has pulled us out of sight. The glimpse was fleeting, but there’s something rewarding about seeing such a rare creature brought back from the brink.

Soon we arrive at Kinzan, a forested mountain near the west coast. Mining began here in 1601, just before the first Tokugawa Shogun seized the reins of power his dynasty would retain through the feudal Edo Period (1603–1867). Throughout that time, Kinzan’s bounty financed the regime, with rice and gold coins (many minted on Sado) serving as the two types of currency. Operations only stopped in 1989, when the mineral veins finally ran out, but since then two shafts have been converted into a museum.

The first is the Sodayu Tunnel, a relic of the Edo Period. Descending a stairwell through a dark passage into the belly of the mountain, the temperature drops 10 degrees. Wooden beams prop up the walls and ceilings to stop cave-ins just as when the mine was in use and women and children were among the workforce. Through the lantern-lit gloom, we pass many placards explaining historical facts, as well as displays where humanoid robots reenact the grueling labor of the pre-industrial era when everything had to be done by hand: hewing tunnels through solid rock with hammers and chisels; pumping in air to prevent suffocation; and draining the steady accumulation of spring water on alternating 24-hour shifts. Here and there, too, are tanuki-ana (racoon-dog holes), frightfully narrow crawl tunnels dug to search for new veins.

Although the pay was good, life spans were short and the work was so disliked that unregistered denizens of distant Edo (present-day Tokyo) were sometimes rounded up and hauled off there.

The other tunnel, named Doyu dates from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when mining began anew under Mitsubishi’s management using modern technologies. Rails for electric trolleys that once carried rock and ore run along the floors, with red and green traffic signals in place here and there. At the end, we climb a hill outside to view the peak of Kinzan, which has been split right open into a gaping crater. Oh, the power of our species!

Next, we hitchhike to nearby Aikawa, an old town that flourished during the mining era, to visit Sado Hangamura Art Museum. Housed in a grand building used as a courthouse in the Meiji Era, this hosts fine displays of hanga (woodblock prints) carved mainly by residents of the island. These exquisite works depict an array of Sado’s icons — taiko drums, noh theater, Shinto rituals, toki, Kinzan and barrel-boating — giving us a great taste of the local culture in art form.

And here comes the turning point for our trip. As we swim near our new campsite in the bay of Sawata, a strange local man engages us in conversation. Looking to be in his 60s, he is in good shape and has a rich tan. We think him a bit odd at first, but still we’re delighted when he strolls into our campsite at 8 o’clock the next morning and offers to give us a tour.

It turns out he is a retired clothing designer turned painter by the name of Hiroshi Kominamidate. Apparently, he has been awake since 4 a.m., painting and drinking beer, so he will be unable to drive — though he’ll show us some must-see spots if one of us will take the wheel.

We head north along the west coast, stopping periodically at shops where our guide gets cans of beer, which he chugs down with relish one after the other while chatting about his younger days.

Our first stop is at a cave where Hiroshi says that Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren Sect of Buddhism, performed ascetic practices when he was exiled on Sado, which served for centuries as a place of banishment for inconvenient political rivals. Inside, water drips from the ceiling to pool on the stone floor, while deeper in a colony of bats huddle together in a clump, shrieking faintly. The perfect place to seek enlightenment, I’d say.

As we take pictures, a farmer woman working in the adjacent rice field comes over and offers to show us another cave that our guide was unaware of. In the dim
cavern are shallow ponds where she tells us to wash our eyes as the water has magical properties that improve vision. We enter and splash the water in our eyes as instructed. My vision is 20/20, but I thought it couldn’t hurt.

Driving further along the coast, we pass many striking rock formations and drink fresh mountain water at Seisuiji Temple before stopping at a sandy beach facing two massive offshore outcrops named for what the’re said to resemble, Futatsugame (which means “two turtles”). The water is crystal clear and we spend two hours snorkeling.

Afterward, we drive high into the mountains to Sado-Yahiko-Yoneyama Quasi-National Park for a brief walk through an ancient pine forest shrouded in milky fog. “The forest is fed by the mist,” Hiroshi explains, and proceeds to pick us some raspberries.

Finally, we stop off briefly at our guide’s house to see his paintings — most of them female nudes. After he kindly lets us pick two each as souvenirs, we waste no time getting back in the car and speeding to the ferry, which we board with only minutes to spare.

Though we were grateful for the chance to cover as much ground as we did on our three-day trip, I felt like we hardly scratched the surface. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to really appreciate such a profound place as Sado Island. Certainly, our fleeting impressions will never compare with the experiences of those who never needed to see the ocean.

Sado Island can be reached by ferry from Teradomari, by ferry or jetfoil from Naoetsu, and by ferry, jetfoil or plane from Niigata City, all in Niigata Prefecture. English sightseeing information is available at www.mijintl.com.