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The island of Sado, located to the north of mainland Niigata Prefecture, rarely ranks among Japan’s top tourist destinations. But travel consultant Alesha thinks that its rich history and abundant natural beauty make it a fascinating place to visit.
Although nowadays Sado is a great place to visit, for many years it was actually a place of banishment! Some of Sado’s famous exiles include the Buddhist monk Nichiren, the former emperor Juntoku, and the Noh dramatist Zeami.
During the Tokugawa Era the island changed somewhat after becoming valuable for its production of gold and silver; the mines continued production through the 20th century, right up until 1989. While Sado retains its rural charm, the island is now well-connected with the mainland by ferries.
Last summer I travelled via a jetfoil ferry from Niigata to explore modern Sado.
Here are my top five recommendations for what to do in Sado:
1. Drive along Sado Island’s stunning coastline
Renting a car to explore Sado is a must. While there is a public bus system, the routes do not extend all the way across the island. Bus departures can also be infrequent, making rental cars the most convenient method of transport.
Most of the rental car offices are based around the Ryotsu Port area (the main access point from Niigata), but it’s also possible to rent a car in Niigata and take it on the car ferry to Sado. While driving around, you might be lucky enough to spot a flock of toki (Japanese crested ibis). These birds are often found in Sado’s numerous rice fields, and you have the best chance of seeing them early in the morning.
Drivers might also spot this owaraji (giant straw sandal) located just off Highway 350 on the west side of the island.
2. Stay in a ryokan
Ryokan certainly aren’t unique to Sado. But what better way to experience island life and sample Sado’s delicious seafood than to stay in a traditional Japanese inn? I stayed at the Yoshidaya Ryokan. This large inn near Ryotsu Port has excellent views of the adjacent Lake Kamo, and a public rooftop onsen with striking night-time views.
The real highlight of my stay though was the food.
Dinner was a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) meal showcasing the island’s seafood specialties. It included crab, fresh vegetables, rice, seaweed salad, oysters, sashimi, and – my personal favorite – ika soumen (squid noodles). Dessert was a frozen persimmon, and the whole thing was topped off with a glass of locally-made plum wine.
Breakfast was similarly spectacular, and after eating my fill of rice, fried fish, and crab miso soup I was ready to continue exploring the island!
3. Visit the Sado Kinzan Gold Mine
Sado Kinzan once produced the highest quantities of gold in Japan, and was a great source of revenue for the Tokugawa Shogunate. Gold production stopped completely in the late 20th century and today, visitors can explore the well-preserved mine located in the northwestern district of Aikawa.
Sado Kinzan offers visitors two courses to experience the mines – Sodayuko and Doyuko. Sodayuko was mined during the Edo era, while Doyuko is a more modern Meiji era mine. Life-size mannequins in Sodayuko demonstrate just how gruelling the work of a gold miner was. In Doyuko, you can also trace the path of mine-carts used during the mine’s industrial heyday.
After exploring the mines, I recommend walking to the adjacent gift store, which features an impressive array of gold-themed snacks.
Sado Kinzan Gold Mine
1305 Shimokawa, Sado-shi, Niigata-Ken 〒952-1501
4. Take a ride in a Taraibune
Ogi Port, Sado Island’s southern access point, is famous for its taraibune – wooden barrel boats. Visitors can take a 10-minute ride in one of these unique modes of transport, steered by local fisher-women whose traditional outfits include flat straw hats and brightly-coloured dresses. During the boat ride, you may even be able to try your hand at paddling the boat — a surprisingly difficult task! (Hint: aim for a Figure-8 stroke!)
Ogimachi 1950, Sado-shi, Niigata-Ken,〒952-0604
5. Try your hand at Taiko Drumming
Sado Island has a rich cultural legacy and has developed unique variations on Japan’s traditional performing arts. Today, Sado is best-known for Kodo – a professional taiko drumming troupe that tours the world each year.
While on Sado Island, I recommend visiting the Sado Island Taiko Centre (Tatakokan) near Ogi Port. Advance reservations are required.
And if you are lucky enough to visit Sado during one of its local festivals, you may see members of the Kodo Troupe performing.
Sado Island Taiko Centre
150-3 Ogikaneta Shinden, Sado-shi, Niigata-ken 〒952-0611
Bonus: Check out one of Sado’s sake breweries. Niigata Prefecture is famous for the high quality of the rice it produces, which means the sake is top-notch!
Explore Japan’s little-visited rural areas on our Northern Highlights self-guided adventure.