Sado Island Joys


I can’t stop smiling as I toss Kappa Ebisen (shrimp crackers) into the air from the promenade deck of the large passenger ferry sailing from Niigata City to Sadogashima (Sado Island). Dozens of seagulls are tipping their wings in the sunshine, adroitly catching the chips in midair or snatching them from my fingers. Gulls in the air and children on deck laugh heartedly.

Though I have traveled to Sado four times, I have barely skimmed the surface of Japan’s sixth-largest island, measuring 855 square kilometers with 262.7 kilometers of dazzling coastline. Sado Island floats on the horizon 51 kilometers offshore from Niigata City. When I spot the island from the mainland, I remember the beat of Japanese drums and the salty taste of sea breezes.

Sado boasts a wealth of attractions: quaint fishing, shipbuilding, and farming villages, noh stages, ancient temples and shrines, terraced rice fields, bicycle trails, hiking trails, a tiny ski resort, a winery, sake and beer breweries, hot springs, a geopark, campsites, mountains, a world-famous taiko group, festivals, scuba diving sites, handmade boats, and other stunning wonders. Niigata officials expect UNESCO to add its ancient gold and silver mining sites to the World Cultural Heritage sites list. This entire island is an interactive museum of culture. Each time I go, I visit new locations, but the following places and experiences pull me back again and again.

One such experience is visiting Japan’s most famous area for oval, tub-shaped boats called tarai-bune. Locals use these barrel-like boats, built without nails or glue, when gathering abalone and uni. Snugly fitting wooden staves are wrapped with twisted bamboo. Today, only one man knows how to make them the traditional way. We can ride his handmade tarai-bune in the peaceful cove near Shukunegi Village. Cormorants and gulls stretch their wings near us while we view fish, anemones, and other sea life in the clear water.

I usually bring visiting friends and family to Shukunegi, an old but well-preserved shipbuilding and mercantile village with weather-worn but beautiful wooden homes built to last by ship carpenters. Used planks from fishing boats line the exteriors of some houses. Look carefully at the roofs. The heavy stones keep sections of the roofs from blowing off during strong winds. Narrow cobblestone alleys, hundreds-of-years-old homes, Shokoji Temple (founded in 1349), and its historic cemetery effuse antiquity.

There is also a fascinating walk along the beach in front of the village. You’ll likely see a few small fishing boats and a tunnel hewn into the rocks. Walk through the tunnel along a path leading to a beach with volcanic rock formations eerily shaped by wind, sea, and time currents. In summer, bring your swimsuit and snorkel.

Years ago, I stayed a few nights on a friend’s yacht, moored at nearby Ogi Port. My friends and I rented bicycles from the Ogi Tourist Information Center. We rode to Shukunegi, leisurely passing sparkling seacoast, farmer’s houses, scattered centuries-old shrines, and hand-carved stone monuments.

We bathed in two Ogi natural onsens in the mornings and evenings. Watching the golden sunrise while soaking in the bath of Ogi-no-Yu Onsen was spellbinding. The Japanese often chat in hot springs, so we enjoyed pleasant conversations with residents. We also met Japan’s talented one-legged dancer Koichi Omae in the outdoor bath at Onsen Ryokan Kamomeso. Omae represented Japan as a dancer at the Rio Paralympic Games. He was in Sado to rehearse dancing with Kodo, Japan’s premier taiko (Japanese percussion) performing arts ensemble.

The spiritual roots of taiko reach back over a thousand years. Kodo organizes an annual percussion festival that awakens the spirits. The Earth Celebration attracts music lovers from all parts of Japan and the world to Ogi Port. The skillful drumming of traditional Japanese drums combined, sometimes, with electric guitar, shakes the air and wooden buildings of the old town, sending vibrations up listeners’ spines. This music festival, taking place outside on the grassy parks of the pleasant old harbor, connects contemporary residents with ancient Sado.

A wealth of relics from ancient Sado still exist in relatively untouched landscapes across the length and breadth of the island. Seisuiji Temple, founded over 1,200 years ago, is one of the best. To view this artistic, cultural treasure, ascend the stone-paved staircase between rows of towering cedar trees planted 400 years ago. On sunny days, the wooden gate at the top of the path seems to glow. A thick moss-covered trail to the right of the entrance leads past a cemetery where centuries of priests, nuns, and local residents rest.

Through the open gate doors, the temple appears nestled in lush foliage. Seisuiji Temple was built on a platform, which is unusual. Decorated with statues and holding paintings created by artists equal in skill to those who produced works enclosed within the World Heritage temples and shrines of Kyoto, the building is breathtaking. Though barely unknown outside of Sado, Seisuiji Temple is as magnificent as Tokyo’s most famous holy sites. Maybe more so because of its natural mountain ambiance. The cacophony of modern life is nonexistent, the air is fresh, and history is felt.

For me, much of Sadoshima provides relaxation, smiles, and deep dives into Japanese culture. That’s why I love it so much.

Written by Greg Goodmacher

After living in five countries and traveling to about twenty-five countries, I have settled in Japan. Deep snows, refreshing Japanese sake, ancient customs blended with modern technology, regional cuisines, fantastic arts and crafts, unique traditions, and magical festivals combine to create a country that fascinates me so much that I may never return to my home country, the US. Japanese onsens, in particular, have a hold on me. So far, I have bathed in more than six hundred locations between Hokkaido and Okinawa.