You might have been surprised when local people tell you they had never been to famous nearby tourist spots or had never tried many local foods. Sado Island, one of Japan’s largest islands, is located near the coast of Niigata Prefecture and is renowned for being an historical gold mine. Sado Island is well known from our history classes as a place where exiles were sent for over 1200 years, but I had never visited there before. After finally deciding to visit Sado Island and driving the coastal route that offers some of the best coastal scenery in Japan, I was hooked and immediately began to think about when I could return. Now, with several visits behind me, I’m able to put together a list of the best Sado Island activities which will hopefully inspire you to come and visit. Here they are.
The Neighbourhood: Highlights of Shukunegi Area
Shukunegi is located in western Sado Island and prospered as a ship building town and a transit port for merchant ships from Hokkaido to Osaka from the 17th century. Shukunegi has been designated as a National Important Preservation Area and one of its most stunning highlights is its exceptionally well-preserved old houses and streets lined with small waterways. There are inns, cafes and private houses open to the public from which you can discover the area.
Isaburo’s residence was built out of lumber in 1892 for the captain of a trading ship, and is beautifully appointed with vintage furniture made by highly skilled carpenters of that time. When you enter the room, you’ll soon notice the height of the ceiling, windows at the top of the wall and a household Shinto altar. Well maintained glossy lacquered beams and cupboards tell us how the owner has been caring for the house with all his heart. If you’re a fish eater and want to try the local fresh offerings found on Sado Island, then save yourself a trip to the local market and head straight to Isaburo’s fully equipped kitchen to cook for yourself. The kitchen has all the cooking utensils and crockery you could need to feed a group of your family and friends. When we visited in early May, it was still cold in Niigata Prefecture. The good news is that the main living room has a hearth constructed in the floor and this keeps the house at an extremely cozy temperature.
Around the House: Fishing and rice-planting
We checked in to Isaburo’s residence more than five times for two or three nights at a time, and this allowed us to explore the local nature at great length. The owner of Isaburo’s residence kindly told us where we could find edible wild plants on the mountain and he even taught us how to fish at the nearby stream with a stick and fresh earthworms he’d just caught. He also gave us a chance to see rice-planting near his house. It was a great opportunity for my children not just to be served as guests but to learn how to fish for the first time from an experienced, knowledgeable person.He explained that he had grandchildren the same age as my children, so he seemed very comfortable taking care of small children. Generally speaking, grandfathers tend to see only good aspects of their grandchildren’s characters and the owner was exactly that kind of person who saw only good aspects of my children. Even they spread ashes from the hearth.
Sankakuya Triangle House – This triangle house is certainly worth a visit to see how people built houses with plate walls made from ship planks. The village formed naturally without any planning, and some of the land was triangular-shaped that people built houses on.
Sadokoku Ogi Folk Museum – The size is small but we could get on a Hakusanmaru Ship and understand how a captain and crew lived on board.
Sado Hot Spring Oginoyu – If you want to experience the Shukunegi area in a different way, why not consider visiting a local hotspring. Isaburo’s residence has a renovated clean bathroom, but Sado Hot Spring Oginoyu is quite popular for locals.
Where to Go & What to Do
Sado Kinzan Gold Mine – Sado Kinzan Gold Mine was first mined at the beginning of the 17th century and served as a major source of finance for the Tokugawa Shogunate. This mine was operating as recently as 1989. The excavation network extends for a total of 400 km and is partly open to public viewing. You can learn about its operation from life-size displays and walking through the mining tunnels. Some people came here as convicts and worked as miners at Sado Gold Mine. The exhibitions showed us the work condition was hard to survive. We tried gold panning at Nishimikawa Gold Park and got one or two pieces of gold. The amount was so small, but we all became so serious and stopped our conversations.
Tub Boat in Ogi Town – Ogi Town is known for its tub boat experience and offers an insightful look into this coastal village’s historical past. The tub boat, known as “taraibune”, was originally used for collecting seaweed and shellfish from the shallow waters. You can take a short ride in a traditional tub boat. These boats were made of wood and there is no rudder or keel, so it seemingly could be easily tipped over. However, each boat had a skillful instructor who guided us to the sea and the boat’s size was bigger than I had imagined. Sado Island Taiko (Drum) Center (Tatakokan) – Important people, emperors, buddhist monks and Noh dance masters were exiled and these figuese contributed to the development of Sado Island’s own culture of folk songs, drumming and dances. In such a cultural background, Kodo, a dynamic drumming group, began drumming programs and opened Sado Island Taiko Center (Tatakokan). They host the Earth Celebration, an annual music festival that features different guest artists performing with Kodo. The three-day music festival is held in mid to late August.
You can enjoy a Japanese drum experience at Tatakokan located on the hill. My kids naturally ran into the hole of the huge hand-carved drum, made from a 600-year-old keyaki, Japanese zelkova log. Our instructor told me every child or baby liked to crawl under the drum and it might have a natural attraction for children.
Toki Forest Park – I misunderstood the Japanese Crested Ibis (toki), called Nipponia Nippon sometimes, was Japan’s national bird, so I had a sense of duty to visit Toki Forest Park. When we arrived at the park, we discovered our national bird is actually the pheasant which I occasionally bump into in residential areas all over Japan. The crested ibis became extinct in Japan, but is beginning to inhabit Sado Island again with recent breeding efforts and birds imported from China. At Toki Materials Exhibition Hall, we learned how reintroducing the ibis into the wild had been enhanced by supportive agricultural techniques. We were supposed to see only a few ibis but surprisingly saw lots of them up close.
Trekking in Mount Donden – The most popular trek is the “Donden circuit” consisting of three mountain ranges over 900 meters and here visitors can enjoy wild grasses and flowers.
Where to Eat
There are many restaurants and cafes on offer on Sado Island. But first you must choose whether you wish to eat local fish, sushi or fusion meals with local produce.
Un Grand Pas – A nice local European style restaurant with fresh produce from Sado Island. This place is also conveniently located on the way to Sado Gold Mine from Ryotsu Port.
Nagahama-so – My favorite fresh local seafood place on the way to Shukunegi. It is located along 350 prefectural road facing the Japan Sea. If I could have chosen one Sushi place to visit on my trip to Sado Island, it would be Nagahama-so. You can enjoy both nice views and fresh fish from the fish-tank.
Sabo Yamashita – They provide large sized spaghetti and pizza with local fresh produce. A reservation is needed. If we could pick just one must-visit cafe in the Shukunegi area, Sabo Yamashita would be it. The Italian food with local fresh ingredients is delicious, the service is friendly and the space made us want to spend a few hours there.
Getting here & Around
Getting to Sado Island is reasonably seamless once you’re in Japan. Get on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Niigata (2 hours). Then head to Niigata Port by bus or taxi (15-20 minutes) and take the jetfoil for a one-hour ride to Ryotsu Port on Sado Island. Sado Island has an area of 855 km², a coastline of 280 km and a population of 57,000.
Driving is the best way to see all around the island. It takes about one hour from Ryotsu Port in the center of the island to the Shukunegi area, located on the west side of the island. We expected it to be a small island, but it is half the size of Tokyo so a well planned schedule is needed. To get the best experience it’s best to stay one or two nights, though it’s also possible to travel to and from Sado Island in a day.