Exploring Sado Shima 佐渡島
Although I am neither a taiko musician nor a devoted fan, when I went to Sado Shima with my taiko-crazed relatives, the island's phenomenal geographical, biological, and cultural treasures astounded me so much that I have made plans to return eleven months in advance of the next Earth Celebration. Our journey to the island was one of the best trips I have taken within Japan in over twenty years.
The fun started after we drove our van into the car holding area of the humongous multi-storied ferry that sails between Niigata and Sado Shima. After exploring the boat, like most travelers, we sat in a tatami-floored room and picnicked while the ferry slid into the open ocean.
A phalanx of hungry seagulls flew and dived in the light blue sky like a school of fish in the dark sea. They were catching pieces of bread and a popular shrimp-flavored snack called Kappa Ebisen that ferry passengers were tossing toward the birds. My wife and I extended our arms outward while holding small pieces of bread crusts. The bravest of the seagulls flew alongside us and plucked the bread from our fingers with their yellow beaks. Everyone, from the babies to the elderly, was delighted by the brazen acrobatic birds.
Sado Shima, Japan’s fifth largest island, soon became visible. The coastline is approximately 227 kilometers, so before arrival we sailed alongside the island, which reminded me of a long arm on the sea. The rise and fall of mountains and valleys flowed like rippling muscles, and the thick vegetation looked like thick hair on the arm of a green giant.
Two and a half hours after departure the ferry arrived at Ryotsu Port. We admired the reflections of small yachts and fishing boats in the calm sea, and then we headed across the spacious wide-open island. Our goal was a lodge at a campsite on another side of the island. The road went through tiny farming communities and hugged the winding coast. We drove for an hour without encountering stoplights.
Compared to much of Japan's seaside, which is "protected" by ugly concrete tetrapod-shaped structures, Sado Shima’s coastline is still fairly undeveloped. Wave-and-weather-sculptured rocks rise like massive sentinels from the sea. Some nestled tiny shrines. On the other side of the two-lane coastal road, stand sun bleached wooden homes with tangled nets and other fishing paraphernalia drying in the sunlight.
Shukunegi Historic Area
We searched for the Shukunegi Historic Area because my coffee-connoisseur brother-in-law had read about a special coffee shop named Saboo Yamashita. The shop was inside one of the old buildings which still remain in the village that developed in the seventeenth century. The outside walls of the homes and shops were made from the reused planks of old fishing ships. Shukunegi was a center of ship building.
The coffee shop must be the only one in the world whose tables were made from the traditional circular boats of Sado Island. The boats, called tarai-bune, were usually made from old barrels. The creative coffee shop owner turned aged boats upside and covered them with a thick veneer of red lacquer. The friendly staff serves coffee, juice, black tea and matcha with Japanese sweets.
After our refreshments, we explored the tiny "streets" of Shukenegi. The village was built before automobiles, so there are only walking paths. All of the buildings are constructed of wood and many have rocks placed on the roofs, perhaps to hold them down during periods of strong winds. It is a quiet place. Sparkling clean water flows in a small stream through the village. Shokoji Temple, whose deity protects mariners, is a fascinating place to visit. The old burial ground is full: funerary monuments have been placed in niches cut into the cliff next to the temple.
I wanted to swim and the calm sea and rocky coastline near Shukenegi looked inviting. A considerate local pointed out a cave in a small hill on the seaside and suggested that we swim in a protected bay on the other side. Careful not to bump our heads, we walked on a smooth path through the lit cave for about one hundred meters and found a gorgeous beach, a comfortable walking trail, and bizarre crusted lava formations in the shapes of waves.
There were no roads, buildings, or other people visible. A sign informed us that we were within the Ogi Peninsula Geopark. The strange rock formations had been lifted from under the sea after a large earthquake. The underwater visibility was clear enough to see a variety of fish swimming more than seven meters around underwater rocks and seaweed. I had a great time marveling at the pillow lava and other geological formations in the sea and on the rocky beach.
Another fascinating cave we experienced was Iwaya-san. Reaching it takes a short walk through a thick and humid bamboo forest. The dimly-lit cave is full of centuries-old Buddhist statues. It is a foreboding place for some. I walked inside by myself because my companions felt uncomfortable entering. An aura of great age and ancient customs exuded from the cave.
Before the sunset on our first day on Sado, we arrived at the Suhama Camp Site. Our accommodation was a lodge on a hill above the sea. The outside looked like a wooden bungalow in North America, but the main floor was covered with Japanese tatami and inside there was plenty of aromatic hinoki, the wood from the Japanese cypress tree. The immaculate lodge came with cooking facilities, bathroom, and a wooden deck. Just below us was small flat area with a few tents. The slope descended sharply to a wide bay with soft sand beaches. We watched the sun dip into the sea. At night, dripping rain and wave sounds relaxed us into deep sleep.
The next morning was clear and bright. Our neighbors, taiko musicians from Osaka, were also enjoying breakfast on their deck. They gave us sweets from Osaka, and we shared a watermelon with them. Before checking out, we walked up and down the beach in our bare feet, plunged into the cold water, and splashed with childlike joy in the water. The lodge cost the four of us just under 20,000 yen, which is a reasonable price for the busy season in Japan. There are many campsites around the island, as well as places to set up tents for free.
All over the island, we encountered helpful locals and friendly visitors. For one lunch, we entered a busy seafood restaurant near Ogi Port called Matsuhama. There was a long wait because of the Earth Celebration, but three friendly Germans invited us to join their table. We shared our tales of island travel and our impressions of the Earth Celebration while tightly pressed next to each other. The Sado seafood and vegetable dishes were delicious. Our new friends told us of places on the island that we had not yet visited, and those sites are waiting for our return to Sado Island.
Sado Shima was settled by people from various parts of Japan, so it is a rare place in that historic customs and artworks from variety of regional cultures exist there. The people of Sado Shima are rightly proud of their diverse attractions. The island has a historic gold mine, a local type of clay that makes a very special type of pottery, ancient shrines and temples, a center for the protection of endangered birds, rare architecture, unusual geological features, indigenous flora and fauna, fantastic scuba and snorkeling locations, impressive vistas, exceptional fishing locations, unique customs, and more. I am eager to return to explore more of Sado Shima, and I strongly recommend that you visit, too. Whether you have lived in Japan for twenty years as I have or whether you are just passing through Japan, Sado Shima will amaze you.
Map of Sado Island
Access - Getting to and from Sado-ga-shima
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.
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.