Japan City Guides: Shukunegi Village
Shukunegi Village 宿根木
Sado Island, the mountainous island shaped like a rough Z located in the Sea of Japan off the Niigata Prefecture coast, can brag of being the largest isolated island in the country. It has an area of 855 km², a coastline of 280 km and is two-thirds the size of the Okinawan mainland.
Sado's northern range, dominated by Mt Kinpoku, which rises to 1,172 m, is separated from its southern range by the extensive Kuninaka Plain. The mountains of the south are lower with the highest, Mt Oochi rising only to 645 m. It is the plain between that is famous for rice cultivation and recently for the farming of ibis friendly rice.
Though historically most famous for gold, today the island is famous for tourism and the captive breeding and release of the Crested Ibis.
Once extinct in the wild, thanks to captive breeding and supportive agriculture providing wet rice fields unharmed by pesticides, the reintroduced ibis are thriving and their population is beginning to recover.
Sado's climate is comfortable year round because the warming Tsushima current ameliorates its winter climate and keeps it slightly cooler than the mainland in summer. Sado's industries include dairy, rice, fruit and mushroom agriculture, forestry, fisheries, folk crafts (pottery, bamboo crafts) and tourism, with many visitors drawn here by its festivals and in particular by its famous Kodo taiko drummers.
Surprisingly, Sado's population of 67,384 in 2005 was considerably less than its population nearly three hundred years ago; in 1741 its population was 90,334.
The Sado population peaked in 1950, when 125,597 people lived on the island; its decline by almost half since then is an example of the rapidity of Japan's on-going rural depopulation.
Archaeological evidence indicates that people have lived on Sado Island for at least 10,000 years, while history reveals that the island has had its own governor and local government since about 750 AD.
The island was to become a place of exile, however as it was primarily for those caught up in political intrigue many of those banished here were nobles, intellectuals and well-educated people including poets and playwrights, as a result they brought with them their sophisticated learning and helped provide the basis for the arts, architecture and culture that is retained to this day on the island.
Sado rose to fame following the discovery of gold and silver in considerable quantities on the island and for a while in the early 17th century its gold production was the greatest in the world. The influx of wealth and population associated with the mining placed Sado firmly on the map for commerce and the development of its harbour towns, though by the middle of the 19th century the precious ores were running low and the island went into a period of decline.
The historical legacy on Sado provides fascinating distractions for visitors bent on touring this attractive island. There are lots of places to visit including old temples and shrines, a surprising number of Noh theatres, the gold and silver mines, the Crested Ibis breeding centre, and historical villages to explore.
Down in the far southwest of the island is the unusual village of Shukunegi. This coastal community developed in the latter part of the 17th century (1661-1678) as a home to shipbuilders.
As the mines flourished, there was increasing demand for vessels to transport it away and to carry in the necessary goods to support it. The craftsmen, skilled in ship-building applied those same skills to the construction of their houses and what the visitor sees today is a collection of personal dwellings and shops crowding together in a small patch of land beside an inlet.
The alleys between the houses are stone-paved and wandering between them one is treated to views of traditional houses constructed very much as if they were marine vessels, with similar styles of architecture. More than a 100 such buildings survive and two of them have been restored and are now open for the public to visit.
Sadokoku Ogi Folk Museum
Nearby, in what used to be the Shukunegi Elementary School, is the Sadokoku Ogi Folk Museum. Here more than 50,000 artifacts are on display, preserving some of the history of daily life through everyday objects in this isolated backwater of Japan.
Most dramatic though is the display of the Hakusan Maru, the first fully restored junk or sengokubune, which one can wander through.
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