All you need to know... Sado Island

Shaped like a wonky yo-yo floating in the sea off the west of Honshu, Sado Island is a place of drama. Centuries ago, the island was somewhere you were not expected to return from. Exile there was nearly as bad as a death sentence. A deposed emperor, poet and Noh artist were among those who made the stormy voyage by rowing a boat across the Sea of Japan. In the Middle Ages, the journey from Tokyo to Sado took weeks. Now, you only travel for four hours via Shinkansen and jetfoil.

Sado is a thriving island full of nature -- Photo by Barbara Buchanan
No longer a desolate place cut off from the rest of the world, Sado is a thriving island. In fact, this hidden gem is a draw for those who want to escape the city and get close to nature. Exploring Sado is a great way to get off the beaten track and see rural Japan at its best.

Flora and Fauna

Sado is awash with yellow lily flowers, tobishima kanzo -- Photo by Barbara Buchanan
The volcanic island is an expanse of verdant rice paddies as far as the eye can see, dotted with clusters of windswept cedars and pines. In the north lie the majestic Osado Mountains and in the south the Kosado Range. When I arrived, the day was cloudy and wet and the sky was an inky blue, giving it a mysterious broody feeling. With the tantalising prospect of seeing a toki, the crested ibis, I spotted long-legged birds picking their way through the paddies. The scarce species has made a comeback thanks to Sado's high percentage of organic farms that shun pesticides. At sunset, the reassuring sound of frogs croaking was a welcome contrast to the incessant ping of Tokyo's pachinko halls. The island's coasts are also home to a strange Elephant Man-style fish -- the Asian sheepshead wrasse. In late May and early June, Sado is awash with yellow lily flowers, tobishima kanzo. The second Sunday in June is a flower viewing festival at Onogame Rock with performances of traditional folk songs.

Feel the Burn

The island also has something to offer to those of sterner stuff. Its strange curvy shape with a distinct waistline forms two large sheltered bays ideal for scuba diving. Freeway Diving offer scuba trips and are certified PADI instructors. You can also burn off calories by trying your hand at punting in the taraibune at Ogi Port. The tub boats were traditionally used by locals to catch shellfish and scoop up seaweed. Nearby Shukunegi is worth a visit to see houses made from timber built by local craftsmen and shipbuilders.
If you want to give your legs a stretch, then you can hike up the slopes of Mount Donden or Mount Kimpoku, or drive along the Osado skyline road and enjoy the view. At Sado Gold Mine, you can sift for the most precious of metals. Gold was discovered on the island in 1601 and the mine was active for more than four centuries, finally closing in 1989.

Beat the Demons

For the Onidaiko dance, locals dressed as demons dance to the sound of taiko drums and the flute -- Photo by Barbara Buchanan
A good time to arrive in Sado is the beginning of the rice planting season in mid-April, when you can see the Onidaiko dance, and in October. Locals dressed as demons dance through villages to the sound of taiko drums and the flute. Villagers leave offerings to ward them off while praying for a bountiful harvest. If you can't make it, but want a slice of the action, then the Taiko Centre at Ogi Kaneta-shinden offers drumming workshops. Also, around mid-April, the Oiran Dochu takes place, a parade of courtesans in colourful kimonos walking through the streets of Hamochihongo.
Sado is famous for Noh, drama with masks and song, brought to the island by actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo, who was exiled here in the 14th century. The art received a further boost in the early 17th century with the arrival of Noh fan Okubo Iwamimori Nagayasu -- Sado's first magistrate. The island has 34 Noh stages and from April until October, torch-lit performances of the art form are held.
On a more contemporary note, Sado is host to the three-day Earth Celebration music festival at the end of August. Held in Ogi, three main concert events take place with the Kodo taiko drummers playing on the first night. The event has numerous workshops and fringe events in addition to the headline acts.

Eat your Heart Out

 Enjoying Sado's fresh fish at Benkei Sushi -- Photo by Barbara Buchanan 
Sado's fish is great value. The island is especially famous for buri (Japanese amberjack) and nodo-guro (rosy sea bass) and home to a good selection of sushi restaurants at low prices. Several of them are linked to fishmongers such as Benkei in Sawata, where you can eat like a king for a mere 1,000 yen. The island also has a French bistro, La Barque de Dionysos in Sawata run by wine grower Jean-Marc Brignot and his wife Satomi. They arrived in Sado three years ago to set up an organic vineyard. "The soil is very diverse here with volcanic soil in some places and also clay, which allows us to grow different grape varieties," explained Jean-Marc. "We studied maps and climate statistics to help us find what kind of soil we wanted to plant the Japanese koshu grape." The couple started the restaurant, which serves organic home-grown vegetables, two years ago to help finance their wine enterprise. They planted vines this March with the first harvest expected in Autumn 2019. Sado is also renowned for its igoneri -- a seaweed jelly in a Swiss roll shape eaten at family gatherings, such as festivals or for funerals. The roll is traditionally cut into thin slices and eaten with soy sauce, spring onions and grated ginger or wasabi. "It used to only be eaten during the winter, but now people are eating it all year round. It has a very cool flavour and it's high in dietary fibre," explains Mitsu Yamauchi, who runs Third Place guesthouse and whose family has a small igoneri factory producing 60 tons a year.

Temple Trail

Snow at Tsukahara, Sado Island, 1271 by Utagawa Kuniyoshi -- Photo from Flickr cc by Ashley Van Haeften
I went to Sado with my friend because we wanted to see the spot of the draughty wooden hut where the 13th Buddhist priest, Nichiren Daishonin, lived. He was exiled to the island in 1271 for writing an essay On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land. In the text, he criticised other Buddhist sects, and also Shinto, for being ritual-based, claiming they had lost the essence of Buddhist founder Siddartha Gautama's teachings. Gautama maintained that everyone, even academics and women, could attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The Daishonin wrote some of his most important essays during his two-and-a-half-year exile on Sado. He was pardoned by the government in February 1274 when his earlier prediction of a Mongol invasion looked set to happen.
Sado abounds with statues of a resolute Nichiren with palms pressed together in earnest praise. Kompon-ji in Tsukahara is the largest Nichiren sect temple and close to where he first stayed during his time in Sado. Jissho-ji in Ichinosawa is more intimate and you can see the cedar avenue leading up to the hill where he prayed daily at sunrise. Sado also has many other Buddhist temples such as Kokubun-ji, which was built in 741 and is the oldest, and 9th-century Seisui-ji modelled on Kyoto's famous Kiyomizu-dera temple.
Sado has no shortage of things to do, but getting around on public transport is slow, so hiring a car or even a bicycle will make a big difference. Ideally, three to four nights on the island will mean you can do it justice.
Getting There
  • Ferry from Niigata to Ryotsu
At Niigata Station, you can take either a car ferry (departures every three hours) or a high-speed jetfoil (departures every 1-2 hours) to Ryotsu. A one-way ride takes 2.5 hours and costs about 2,500 yen per person and 17,900 yen for an average sized car. By jetfoil, it takes one hour and costs about 6,500 yen.
  • Ferry from Naoetsu to Ogi
At Naoetsu Station, you can take a car ferry to Ogi. Ferries depart 1-3 times per day. A one-way ride takes 2.5 hours and costs about 3,000 yen per person and about 19,500 yen for an average size car. No service from late November through February.
  • Ferry from Teradomari to Akadomari
At Teradomari Ferry Terminal, you can take a high-speed boat to Akadomari. Boats depart 1-3 times per day. A one-way ride takes one hour and costs about 3,000 yen. No service from December through February.
Where to Stay
Sado Island houses several hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese-style guesthouses). If you're looking for a luxurious stay, try Aokiya or Hotel Yubaetei. Hotel New Katsura, Nanauraso, and Ryokan Kamomeso are budget-friendly alternatives. The Sado Bellemer Youth Hostel might be the most affordable accommodation on Sado Island.
When to Go
Sado Island is especially popular in spring and summer, but worth a visit all year round. Every season brings something new to experience on this beautiful island.

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Barbara Buchanan