[From May Issue 2011]
Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture draws on a rich and distinctive history. Once considered suitably wild and remote enough to make it a place of exile for former emperors, outcast men of religion and common criminals, the island later became the site of an Edo-era gold rush. Today, it’s known as much for its tempestuous beauty and performing arts as it is for its past.
An hour’s hydrofoil ride off the coast of Niigata, Sado is a fairly large island, almost 30km across at its widest, with two low mountain ranges protecting its central plain from the brutality of the Japan Sea. In winter the weather is harsh and unforgiving, yet in summer it can swelter – so it’s of little wonder why a stint in exile here was considered punishment. But Sado can be spectacular whether rain or shine.
For many visitors, a jaunt to Sado begins with Konpon-ji Temple, the most compelling remnant of Nichiren, founder of the eponymous Buddhist sect and his time in exile on Sado from 1271 to 1274.
The calming temple compound, defined by its thatched roofs, oversized wooden gateways and giant, robed statue of Nichiren, was built by his followers not long after he was allowed to return to the mainland. It is one of several worthwhile temples in central Sado with connections to this influential monk.
In Sado, noh performances remain popular, where more than 30 distinct noh stages make up roughly half of the total number across Japan. Noh’s history is also tied to yet another one of Sado’s illustrious exiles: Zeami. Credited with formalizing noh theater in the 15th century, Zeami spent the last eight years of his life on Sado, after having fallen from grace at court. Annually, about 20 noh performances are hosted by the islanders. However, especially fantastic are the evening performances of takigi noh which have become quite popular among foreign tourists.
Located in the Mano district is the Sado History and Traditional Museum. Here you can see real-looking, life-size robot replicas of Zeami, Nichiren and several Buddhist monks. And while they move only slightly, they help explain the island’s extreme historical importance.
Leaving the central plains behind, many then head to the tiny southern coastal village of Ogi. This is where, every August, Sado hosts their Earth Celebration, a three-day festival attracting percussionists from around the world, bringing the village’s otherwise sleepy streets to life with pulsating, primeval rhythms.
The event is organized by the island’s world-renowned Kodo Drummers whose dynamic taiko performances are a highpoint of any island visit. You may even be inspired to try your own hand at taiko through one of the regular workshops held by drummers at the Sado Taiko Experience Exchange Hall (Tatakou-kan).
While in Ogi you may also encounter one of Sado’s more unusual traditions: tarai-bune. Taking to the water in what resembles a half-cut Kentucky whiskey barrel might not seem like the steadiest way to stay afloat, yet for centuries these distinctive boats were the vessel of choice for islanders collecting seaweed and shellfish along the treacherous, jagged shorelines. Today, Ogi’s fisherwomen earn their living by taking visitors out on the water for 10-minute spins.
For something less touristy, venture to the calmer northern coast, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning coastal vistas including Futatsugame, as well as ample opportunities for picturesque cliff-top walks. Although these days it is quiet, the population of northern Sado rocketed to almost 100,000 after gold was discovered in the former hamlet of Aikawa in 1601, just two years prior to the onset of the Edo era.
Now, with the gold gone Aikawa slumbers once again and one of the former mine shafts has become the Sado Kinzan Museum, where the only prospectors are mechanical robots who offer a glimpse at the horrific conditions Sado’s largely convict miners were once forced to endure. Fortunately, more than 400 years later, today’s conditions on this beautiful island are far more appealing.
From the port of Niigata, take either a 1-hour hydrofoil or a 2.5 hour passenger ferry ride to eastern Sado’s port of Ryotsu. Once there, you can reach most destinations on the local buses which crisscross the island. Alternatively, the Ryotsu tourist office can also suggest several car or bicycle rental options.
Text: Rob Goss