Japan Guides: Sotokaifu Youth Hostel, Iwayaguchi, Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture
Sotokaifu Youth Hostel 外海府ユースホステル
The last time I went to Iwayaguchi, I ended up drinking away the night with an American traveler who told me that he likes nothing better than being at the last bus stop at the most remote places he could reach. That's exactly where we were: at the Sotokaifu Youth Hostel in the tiny village of Iwayaguchi, in front of which the Kaifu Line of the Niigata Kotsu Sado bus company ends.
Starting out in Sawata city in central western Sado and traversing the ancient town of Aikawa, the Kaifu Line bus follows the rugged, rocky Sotokaifu Coast, the outward coastline of Sado along the Sea of Japan. It doesn't stop at the Sado Gold Mine which is another short bus hop further inland just north of Aikawa. Instead, it goes through one old village after other, all of them consisting of nothing but weather-beaten vintage wooden houses with the fishing gear hanging out to dry. The views to the rocky bays along the way are breathtaking.
A view of Sotokaifu Youth Hostel, Iwayaguchi, Sado Island.
After a two-and-a-half hour ride, you arrive in Iwayaguchi, the final one of the vintage fishing villages to the northeast. If you want to go further from here, to the famous Futatsugame Rocks at the northeastern end of Sado for example, you will have to walk or try your luck with hitch-hiking. The same holds true if you want to connect to the Uchikaifu Line (Inner Coast bus line) which goes up the other side of the northeastern peninsula from Sado's main port of Ryotsu but terminates service at Masaragawa - very much in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.
The last Kaifu Line bus to Iwayaguchi leaves Aikawa at about 6pm, getting you to the final stop once darkness has set most of the year. Step out of the bus and walk straight into the hostel.
But wait, the little grocery store right next to it will still be open even though its lights might be off by now. Just knock on the door and the lights will turn up again. That's the place to stock up on cheap beer, cigarettes and other daily necessities.
Sotokaifu Minshuku, the hostel's Japanese name, is actually a much more correct term to describe it as it isn't at all one of those over-regulated teenage traveler dorms found commonly in Western cities as the English words Youth Hostel might imply.
Minshuku translates to family-run inn and that's exactly what it is. Rooms are available both in Japanese and in Western style. The inn features a big open robata (fireplace) where guests can gather in the evening. The food served concentrates on local ingredients, with the rice grown on paddies belonging to the inn and many of the vegetables coming from the large garden right behind it.
The bay in front of the inn is great for swimming and fishing and famous for its sunsets over the open Sea of Japan. Sometimes, guests who enjoy angling offer their catch of the day to the inn's kitchen, to be shared by all the guests.
Behind the inn, paths lead into the forests and highlands of the Sado mountains.
Various waterfalls are in walking distance to the hostel as are two caves. The caves serve as local shrines and have strange old legends attached of them. One goes like this: a dragon mother had a blind child. To cure the child's eyes, she took the eyeballs to wash them in the water of the cave. A farmer walking by inadvertently disturbed here and she fled, leaving the eyeballs behind. The farmer took them and handed them over to a monk. The monk, moved by the love of the dragon mother, washed them very well and placed them back into the cave. The dragon mother however never showed up again. Today, at dark and with some imagination, you can still see those eyeballs shining deep in the cave.
The Futatsugame Rocks and the coastline at Iwayaguchi on Sado.
The lovely Iwayaguchi coast and the Iwayaguchi Cave, which is the setting for a local legend.
The Sotokaifu Inn has been in existence longer than anyone in Iwayaguchi cares to remember. Its current position as a destination both for Japanese and a great variety of international visitors however has been shaped by the current manager, Hisae Yabe.
Yabe was working as fashion designer in Niigata city in the early 1970s when she first visited Iwayaguchi. She soon fell in love not only with the inn but also with the eldest son of the family running it. Once they married, the family shifted the responsibility of running the inn to the young couple. Yabe is in charge of the hostel. Japanese hostels, ryokan and minshuku are by tradition almost exclusively managed by women. Yabe has been running it ever since.
She continuously raised the profile of the place, attracting guests from ever farther afield. A fire that devastated most of the inn in the 1990s didn't stop her in her tracks. She had the place build up again as it was before and continued on with the business.
Staying at the Sotokaifu Youth Hotel grants access to the beautiful northern coast of Sado Island.
Rice paddies close to the Sotokaifu Youth Hostel on Sado Island.
An attraction the Sotokaifu Inn is particularly proud of is the herb bath which is offered only here. Yabe herself collects the wild herbs for it in the mountains and then prepares the bath according to her own recipe.
Yabe doesn't speak much English but she is attuned to the needs of her customers and very experienced in accommodating foreign guests. Over the years, she has developed her own way of being able to easily communicate with everyone - no matter what language they speak.
Today, in a busy night you might end up drinking cups of sake at the fireplace with a Tokyo professor while a European classical musician takes over the piano close by in the dining area while at the same time a guy traveling Japan by bicycle relates his adventures to another one who tries the same by hitchhiking.
Right outside the beach is waiting and what could be better than a late night swim under the bright stars over the Sea of Japan to finish the day?
Phone: 0259 78 2911
Fax: 0259 78 2931
One night for regular guest, including 2 meals: 6000 Yen
The same for guests with Youth Hostel membership card: 5300 Yen
The herb bath is included in those prices.