Off the coast of Niigata Prefecture lies an isolated S-shaped island, Sado. As one of the largest islands in Japan and home to the endangered Japanese crested ibises, it speaks to centuries of Japanese history and is said to be occupied as early as the Jomon Period (about 1000BCE). Up until the 1700s, Sado island was designated as a land of exile being home for many historical figures like the Emperor Juntoku, Nichiren Shonin (日蓮) and Noh dramatist Zeami Motokiyo. Sado island is also where American deserter Charles Robert Jenkins, who after being detained as a North Korea prisoner, resided and stayed up until his time of death. In retrospect, present day Sado is home for the modest population of around 56,000 people who carefully guard and cultivate their trove of richness, from history, culture, produce, to crafts.
01. The Ferry
Your journey to Sado Island starts way before you step foot on the island, it starts at the ferry.
TIP: Opt for the car ferry to Ryotsu port from Niigata instead of the jet ferry. Even though the journey is longer, its labyrinthine interior will provide you enough adventure to last throughout the journey.
With 5 different levels of seating options, your basic ticket allows you to enter the tatami room, where you can sleep and rest throughout your journey in tatami-style rooms, and you can also rent blankets and pillows at the concierge. If you travel with kids, you can enjoy the arcade full of classic games, and if you’re hungry, visit the atrium attached with a diner, styled in 90s Wes Anderson-esque interior.
02. Mano Park
Mano Park (真野公園) is where you can find the best cherry blossom viewing spot in Sado Island. Located at Mano region, at the central part of Sado, it boasts over 2000 cherry blossom trees around the park and along the river. Pink paper lanterns called the “Hattan Bonbori” can be spotted trailing rhythmically along the cherry blossoms, giving the trees a warm glow at night.
Before or after your tarai bune ride, stop by Shukunegi for a stroll along this nationally-preserved village on the coast of Ogi port. Characterized by its narrow alleys and canals, the 200 year-old houses were built by the ship-builders with wooden planks using similar methods of ship-building. Two of such houses are open for the public to take a peek, or you can opt to stay the night in the few local inns.
TIP: Grab a guide pamphlet from the nearest tourist centre to get a thorough guide on walking along Shukunegi, and the sights to see.
04. Tarai Bune at Ogi Port
One of the poster images that is synonymous with Sado Island is the Tarai Bune (Tub Boat). If you’ve watched Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, you’d probably find the boat familiar. It’s the same type of boat used by Rin to ride Chihiro to the tram station. Its origins date back to the Edo period (early 1800s) where they found that the tubs are durable and easy to be manoeuvred along winding coves. Exclusively rowed by women, the boat is used to harvest mollusks and seaweed. If you travel to Ogi Port, you can experience a ride for ¥500.
05. Myosenji Temple
Located near Mano Park is a quiet temple, where the only five-story pagoda in Niigata stands tall. The temple is linked to the Nichiren sect and was built by Tamemori Endo – a close follower of the revered monk – who opened his home together with his wife, a Buddhist nun, as a temple in 1278. It was moved to Mano from another location in 1589, and the pagoda was built in 1827, where it took 30 years to complete. Enjoy the serene temple grounds with its lone cherry blossom tree, and the Japanese garden central to the grounds.
06. Mumyoi-yaki / Red Clay pottery
Rich in its craftsmanship, one of the defining craft mediums of Sado is its bamboo weaving and pottery. Signature to the island is the “Mumyoi-yaki” or “Mumyoi” pottery art, referring to the red clay found in the surrounding Sado Gold Mine. Rich in iron oxide, this clay is said to be traditionally used in Chinese medicine to staunch bleeding. Pottery made using Mumyoi becomes very hard and makes a distinct metallic clang when hit.
TIP: You can learn how to make your own pottery with red clay at Mumyouiyaki Gyokudou Kamamoto, a gallery and gift shop for pottery.
07. Kaiseki breakfast
At first glance, a kaiseki meal greets you with an assortment of elegantly plated dishes. Its core lies in the Japanese principle of shun, a tradition that “every food should be eaten only in its proper season and only when it is at the peak of its flavor.” A kaiseki meal is a good way to highlight local cuisine and the produce of the season. Typically it comprises of 6 dishes, Sakizuke (appetizer served with sake), Nimono (a simmered dish), Mukozuke (a sashimi dish), Hassun (an expression of the season), Yakimono (a grilled course) and Hanmono (a rice dish). In a Sado kaiseki meal – in this case, breakfast – various local produce is presented in a simple manner, in its purest form, like the tofu and fresh shitake in dashi as the Nimono (simmered dish), or the fresh squid sashimi with freshly grated ginger as the Mukozuke (sashimi dish). One of the most distinct produces from Sado during spring is seaweed, namely wakame and iwanori, and is presented in the Hanmono, where the seaweed is cooked with rice to make seaweed porridge.
08. Sushi at Ishihara
Other than its fresh seafood, Sado Island’s rice occupies a big part of their agriculture. On par with the award-winning Uonuma rice, rice grown in Sado are sustainably grown to protect its local biodiversity. The Sado rice are pearl-like and glistening, and gives an earthy but light fragrance. Amazing rice coupled with the freshest seafood makes sushi here, naturally, amazing. There are many small establishments that provides sushi, a notable one is Ishihara, a humble and understated place within walking distance of Ryotsu port. It is family-run, with the father as the head sushi master, and his wife prepping and taking in orders. The tamago (egg) in Ishihara is made daily by the grandmother.
Seafood is refreshingly clean at first taste. So robust that it speaks for itself, none of that slimy and wet texture we’d get in modern sushi chains… I’d recommend the salmon roe (ikura) and mackerel (aji), and if you’re not too comfortable with eating raw seafood, you can opt for the tamago, or freshly roasted anago (saltwater eel).
09. Modern Ryokan: Hotel Azuma
There are many kinds of establishments in Sado island that caters to every kind of preference and budget. We chose Hotel Azuma, located on the central western coast of the island, near Aikawa, where the Sado Kinzan gold mine lies. They offer traditional tatami rooms, and both public and a private onsen, which overlooks the sea. The establishment is located at the coast, and is known as “the place closest to the sunset”.
If you’re travelling mainly by public transport, it is best to visit Sado during the weekends as buses towards main attractions only operate during that time. Visit the tourist centre at the ferry terminal / port and grab a bus timetable, for both weekdays and weekends (these are not available online anywhere), and ask the guide how to go certain places if you’re unsure. Be mindful that the island is big and travelling time from one place to another can take a while, and buses are limited so try not to miss the bus timings.
TIP: Bring an umbrella as Sado is known to rain unpredictably, and bring a windbreaker to combat the strong wind.
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