Japan Guides: Sado-ga-shima
A Guide to Sado Island 佐渡島
Sado-ga-shima ("Sado Island") is a large S-shaped island lying off the coast of Niigata. In fact, Sado is Japan's sixth largest island after Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa with an area of 855.26 square kilometers. The island is bounded by the mountains ranges of Osada and Kosado with the Kokunaka Plain sandwiched between.
Historically Sado was used as a place of exile and such important figures as the Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242), Nichiren (1222-1282) the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, and Noh master Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) were exiled here. The influences these men brought with them into exile has meant that Sado Island has developed and maintained its very own rich cultural and religious life incorporating puppet theater, okesa folk songs, ondeko drumming and demon dances and Noh theater.
Sado's relatively mild climate - it is warmer than mainland Niigata Prefecture in winter, and though still hot in summer, the heat is less intense than on the Japan Sea coast - means that it attracts visitors throughout the year to enjoy walking, cycling, hiking and swimming.
Sado's biggest draw is the annual Earth Celebration hosted in August by the world famous taiko group, the Kodo Drummers.
Sado is also known for its gold mines, Sado Kinzan, in Aikawa, which have been mined since 1601, and helped to finance the Tokugawa shogunate.
Just outside the Sado Gold Mine Museum shop is a lovely garden to relax; the Doyu-no-wareto outcrop clearly shows where it has been cut away by human hands in search of gold.
Sado's main town and major point of entry is the port of Ryotsu on the east coast of the island, where the ferry and jetfoil from Niigata both dock. The small town is also close to Sado's airport and makes a good base to explore the island. Ryotsu is convenient to hire a car, a bicycle or catch a bus out to Sado's many attractions.
Close to Ryotsu is the Sado No-gaku-no-sato Museum located on the south shore of Lake Kamo with Noh costumes and masks and a Noh performance by robots. Also near Ryotsu is the Toki-no-mori koen (Tel: 0259 22 4123) dedicated to a symbol of Sado, the Japanese Crested Ibis (toki), which became extinct on the island, but is being reintroduced with birds from China.
Driving west along national Highway 350 on Sado's central plain from Ryotsu brings you to Sawada (Sawata) and its beach Sawada Beach. North of here is the town of Aikawa and the Sado Gold Mine and Museum. Sado Gold Mine was Japan's largest gold mine and was in operation from 1601 until 1989. At the peak of gold mining operations on Sado, Aikawa had a population of 100,000, more than the entire present population on the island nowadays.
A view of the Edo Period tunnels and a mine worker, Sado Gold Mine, Sado Island.
During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Sado Gold Mine was under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate and the massive amounts of gold and silver mined here helped support the Tokugawa government. Visitors can enjoy a visit to either the Edo Period tunnels, the Meiji Period (1868-1912) tunnels or both.
Aikawa's other places to see include the restored Sado Bugyosho (Tel: 0259 74 2163), where the gold mining was administered and the Kitazawa Floatation & Power Plants, the largest gold ore concentrator in East Asia by the 1930's.
Also in Aikawa is the Aikawa Folk Museum & the Aikawa Exhibit House of Folk Crafts (Tel: 0259 74 4313) with more exhibits from Sado Gold Mine and hands-on pottery and sakiori weaving classes in the Exhibit House.
The Sado Hangamura Museum (Tel: 0259 74 3931) is housed in an old court house and exhibits wood block prints made on Sado.
The skilled gold miners themselves enjoyed better working conditions and salaries than the lowly drainage workers.
There are some beautiful temples and shrines on Sado many of them in the Mano area of the island. Sado's most famous temples include Myosenji (妙宣寺) a Nichiren temple believed to have been built in 1278 by Endo Tamemori, a devotee of Nichiren with an impressive five-story pagoda.
Myoshoji (妙声寺) constructed in 1275 is also associated with Nichiren and also has a five-story pagoda.
Jisshoji (実相時), near Myoshoji, is also connected with Nichiren, and it was here that he would daily worship the rising sun. Google Map of Jisshoji Temple
The five-story pagoda and a wooden gate at Myosenji Temple in Mano, Sado Island.
Lotus pond and pathway at the serene Kokubunji Temple, the oldest Buddhist site on Sado-ga-shima.
Konponji Temple (根本寺) was built in 1607 and is dedicated to the life and work of Nichiren. The Konponji (aka Komponji) temple grounds contain a bell tower, a statue of Nichiren, and a pagoda. Admission is 300 yen.
Google Map of Konponji Temple
Kokubunji Temple (国分寺) is the oldest temple on Sado and dates from 741. Kokubunji is possibly Sado's most beautiful and serene spiritual site. Recently restored to its former glory, Kokubunji has some beautiful thatched gates and a tranquility that will stay with you for ever. Google Map of Kokubunji Temple
Rengebuji Temple (蓮華峰寺) is considered one of the three most important temples in esoteric Shingon Buddhism: the other two are Kongobuji in Wakayama and Murouji in Nara. The present temple buildings at Rengebuji date from the 14th century. Google Map of Rengebuji Temple
Chokokuji Temple (長谷寺) has rather obscure origins. The exiled Emperor Juntoku is said to have renamed the temple with the same kanji characters as Hasedera Temple in Nara or the Hasedera in Kamakura. Tel: 0259 2052.
Google Map of Chokokuji Temple
Mano-gu (真野宮) is the tomb of the exiled Emperor Juntoku and is next door to the Sado Rekishi Densetsukan (Sado Historical Folklore Museum), where Charles R. Jenkins, a US army deserter married to a Japanese woman kidnapped from Sado by North Korean agents, presently works as a greeter in the summer.
A statue of the Buddhist priest Nichiren and the entrance gate at Konponji Temple, Sado Island
Restored, tiled walls at Kokubunji Temple, Sado-ga-shima, Niigata Prefecture
Many of Sado's other museums are situated near the port town of Ogi on the south west coast. These include the Sado-koku Ogi Folk Culture Museum with its replica of an 1858 wooden, sailing boat and various relics from Sado's past including clothing, tools and old photos. Close to Ogi and the Kodo Village (Tel: 0259 86 3630) is the Sado Island Taiko Center (Tel: 0259 86 2320), where groups of five people or more can enjoy a hands-on taiko drum session. Ogi is also the place to take to the sea in a tarai-bune, a wooden tub boat made from a barrel. Rides in tarai-bune are also available in the fishing villages of Yajima and Kyojima, the latter having glass-bottomed boats.
The area of Shukunegi near Ogi was once a prosperous ship building center connected with the gold trade to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Now two wooden buildings are open to the public to demonstrate the boat-building techniques of the time. Nearby Shokoji Temple is dedicated to a deity offering protection at sea.
In Iwaya-san Cave, close to Ogi, are Buddhist images carved into the walls.
Between Sawada and Mano on National Highway 350 is the Sado Museum (Tel: 0259 52 2447) with a comprehensive range of exhibits of the island's art, botany, crafts, geography and zoology.
Sado Island has hundreds of festivals, large and small occurring throughout the year. Most popular of them all is probably the three-day Earth Celebration in August organized by the Kodo Drummers, which features musical performers from around the world, workshops, flea markets and arts exhibitions. Details on the next Earth Celebration can be found at kodo.or.jp.
Sado's festivals often include onidaiko drumming and okesa dance performances. Onidaiko or ondeko are drum performances accompanied by demon dances to drive out evil spirits. Each district on Sado has its own individual style.
Some notable festivals are the San-no-Matsuri at Hiyoshi Shrine in April, the Minato Matsuri in Ryotsu on May 5, the Yoi-no-mai Dance Parade in Aikawa in June, the Ryotsu Matsuri in mid June, the Ryotsu Tanabata Matsuri on August 7-8, the Shisigajo Matsuri in Sawada on August 11, the Ogi Minato Matsuri at the end of August, the Shimmachi Matsuri in Mano on October 16 and the Aikawa Festival on October 19.
Sado also plays host to the Sponichi Sado Long Ride cycling event in May and the Sado International Triathlon in September.
Noh Drama & Bunya Ningyo On Sado
Sado has more Noh stages per head of population than anywhere in Japan and performances are held regularly from April to October. Some venues to see performance of Noh on Sado Island include Shiizaki Suwa Shrine, Myosenji Temple, Kanai Nohgakudo Hall and Daizen Shrine.
Bunya Ningyo is a type of puppet theater found only on Sado. The performances are accompanied by shamisen music.
Okesa dancing and squid are two symbols of Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture
Sado is known for its rice along with the rest of Niigata Prefecture, seafood and also its sake. The Hokusetsu Sake Brewery (Tel: 0259 87 3173) includes among its clients the internationally acclaimed Japanese chef Nobu and the actor Robert de Niro.
Specialties of Sado visitors may like to sample are its rice-crackers (sembei), sushi (available all over the island) and persimmons. Oysters (kaki), Japanese amberjack (kanburi) and squid (ika) are three types of seafood particularly associated with Sado.
Sado has two mountain ranges, the Osado (Ōsado) Mountain Range in the north of the island, and the Kosado Mountain Range in the south.
The highest mountain on Sado is Mount Kinpoku in the middle of the northern Osado Mountain Range at 1,172 meters high. The Osado (Ōsado) Mountain Range, with the higher mountains, is therefore more popular with hikers and mountaineers, and in winter with skiers and snowboarders.
A Japanese Crested Ibis sign and ema votive plaque on Sado Island
The Osado Skyline is a highway that traverses the western part of the Osado mountain range and is a popular scenic route if you're driving on Sado Island. The highest point on the Osaka Skyline is 942m above sea level, offering grand views of the whole of Sado Island.
The Osado Skyline (Route 463) can be accessed from the main highway that runs across Sado Island, Route 350, at the Osado Skyline Iriguchi (Skyline Turn-Off) intersection in Kanai. On the other side, you will come to the Sado Gold Mine and Museum on the way down.
Bus tours of the Osaka Skyline are also available from Niigata Kotsu Bus Co. Ltd., tel. 0259-52-3200.
On the slopes of Mount Kinpoku and neighboring Mount Myoken, accessible via the Osado Skyline, are the Daira Ski Slope and Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado.
Daira Ski Slope
Daira Ski Slope is a ski and snowboard slope with four courses: "Family," "Jet," "Utopia," and "Through the Woods." Daira Ski Slope is open from May to March, 9am-4pm, open Thu-Sun and on public holidays (in March, weekends and public holidays only). Closed during this season from December 28 to January 7. Ski and snowboard tuition also available. Daira Ski Slope has parking for 130 cars (no parking fee). Daira Ski Slope tel. 0259 63 4050.
Access to Daira Ski Slope
Daira Ski Slope is accessed by road, about 50 minutes from Ryotsu. The road near Daira Ski Field is controlled by the Japan Self Defense Forces, so on most days you will have stop at one point and use the roadside telephone to gain access. You must also use the roadside telephone at Daira Ski Slope to let the Self Defense Forces know when you are leaving. Tire chains required.
Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado
Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado is a ski and snowboard slope with four courses ranging between 300 and 1000 meters long. Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado is open from late December to early March, 9am-9pm. Especially towards the end of the season, it may not be open every day, so please telephone ahead to make sure. Ski and snowboard tuition also available. In the summer months, horse riding, golf practice, and camping are also possible here. Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado has parking for 100 cars (no parking fee). Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado tel. 0259 63 4649.
Access to Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado
Wonder Valley Snowpark Sado is accessible by road, about 20 minutes from Ryotsu. Tire chains required.
Tourist Information Offices
There are tourist information offices in Ryotsu Ferry Terminal (Tel: 0259 23 5030), Aikawa (Tel: 0259 74 3321), Mano (Tel: 0259 55 3589) and Ogi (Tel: 0259 86 3200).
There are good places to stay on Sado in a range of accommodation types including western style hotels, Japanese ryokan often with an onsen hot spring bath, hostels and camping sites. Some notable hotels include the Aikawa Yamaki Hotel, Hotel of Lakeside Yoshidaya, the Hotel Meoto near the Meoto-iwa Rocks beauty spot and the Hotel Mancho. The Sotokaifu Youth Hostel in Iwayaguchi on the northern coast has become increasingly popular with foreign and domestic travelers. The Nikko Hotel in Niigata is right next to the Sado Ferry Terminal.
The Sado Historical Folklore Museum, Mano & Bugyosho, Aikawa, Sado Island
The main point of access from the main island of Honshu to Sado is from Niigata. There are 3-4 propeller flights a day (depending on season) from Niigata to the airport in Sado (SDO) near Ryotsu operated by New Japan Aviation Company. A local bus takes 15 minutes from Sado Airport into Ryotsu or 10 minutes by taxi.
Niigata Airport has flights from Osaka (Itami) (8 daily), Tokyo, Nagoya (both Komaki & Centrair), Sapporo, Hiroshima and Okinawa as well as Seoul (daily), Shanghai, Xian, Harbin, Guam, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk and Vladivostok.
View Sado & Niigata Map in a larger map
From the ferry terminal in Niigata city there are two options to get to Ryotsu on Sado-ga-shima: the quicker, more expensive Jetfoil which takes 65 minutes (traveling at 80kph) or the slower, cheaper car ferry which does the journey in two hours and thirty minutes.
Both boats are operated by Sado Kisen.
Niigata Ferry Terminal is reached by bus from Bay #5 of Niigata Bus Station or take a taxi from outside JR Niigata Station for around 1000 yen, which completes the journey in about 20 minutes depending on traffic.
There are also ferries to Sado from Terodomari in Niigata to Akadomari on Sado and from Naoetsu to Ogi on Sado.
Niigata is connected to Tokyo Station and Ueno Station by the Joetsu Shinkansen in two hours via the ski and onsen resort of Echigo Yuzawa. If you are coming from Osaka take either the Raicho train via Kanazawa to Naoetsu or Niigata or the quicker shinkansen route via Tokyo.
Getting Around Sado
Hiring a car or motorcycle is the best way to get around Sado, though the health-conscious may prefer bicycle. Bicycles can be hired in Ryotsu, Ogi, Aikawa and Akadomari.
There are 16 fixed route bus lines and passengers can usually get on and get off without using a bus stop except on the busy Honsen Line between Ryotsu and Sawata. A weekend bus pass costs 2000 yen. Sado taxi operators offer sightseeing tours for small groups.
Jetfoil and car ferry are the two options for getting to Sado-ga-shima by boat from Niigata Ferry Terminal