Sado - A Seafarer’s Tour of an Unusual Island.
Whether you see a butterfly, a strike of lightning or a simple ‘S’, Sado is an easily recognized but little-known island for visitors in Japan. While it may be famous for its history of gold-mining and political exiles, the remote island’s strongest connection is with the sea that surrounds it. A 67-km stretch of ocean between its shores and those of Niigata allowed Sado to foster its own unique culture over the centuries. From traditional tub-boats used to collect delicacies from the turquoise waters to magnificent wooden ships crafted in dedicated towns, the island has long forged a living from the ocean.
Exploring Sado’s history is a never-ending exploration of a community’s creativity and perseverance. Struck by harsh winter winds and at the mercy of seasonal change, the islanders of Sado diversified and adapted in an ever-changing political, cultural and natural climate. From opening up ancient ship-building towns to creating local dishes with biodiversity measures in mind, Sado is certainly not stuck in the past. By embracing their traditions and combining them with contemporary interests, visitors can opt for kayaks alongside tub-boats and sip tea in the restored parlors of historical towns.
Yajima and Kyojima Islands
Standing out against bright blues of the sea and sky, the arched red bridge connecting Yajima and Kyojima is a well-known landmark of the area. Perched off the coast of Ogi, the two islets create a shallow turquoise bay, frequented by traditional tarai-bune boats.
Known as the ‘island of the sutra’, the smallest of the two - Kyojima was the scene of a shipwreck back in the 13th century. Travelling to inform exiled Buddhist monk Nichiren of his official forgiveness, his senior disciple was washed ashore on the rocks and spent a long night repeating sutras until the sun rose the following morning.
Far larger and known for its rocky shore,Yajima garnered the nickname of ‘Arrow Island’ thanks to its highly sought-after bamboo. Used for arrows due to its strength, the bamboo is carefully cultivated and known as the king of bamboo. Legend has it that the samurai warrior Minamoto Yorimasa used such an arrow to defeat a mythical beast in the Tale of Heike, known as a nue.
Aside from exploring the rocky islets, the bay nestled between them offers the perfect opportunity to venture out onto the water in a traditional tarai-bune. Used by the island’s fisher-women to collect seaweed and sazae (a local delicacy known as horned turban shell) among other delicacies, the boats are made of cedar wood and bamboo. Only around 200 remain in use for fishing and tourism, guided by local women often clad in traditional dresses.
Harder to steer than they look, the boats are controlled with a single oar, requiring not only strength, but balance from those at the helm. Seen in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the tub-boats are an unusual addition to the jagged shores and clear waters - offering a glimpse into Sado’s unique traditions, both ancient and ongoing.
Address: Yajima Taiken Koryukan, 365-1 Ogi, Sado, Niigata 952-0605
Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Shonan line bus to Yajima Iriguchi bus stop. The journey takes approximately one hour and forty five minutes by bus or an hour by car.
Hours: 8am - 5pm from April to October
Admission: Boat rides cost 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for children aged four and above. The boat rides take approximately 15 minutes and can be booked at the Yajima Taiken Koryukan (address provided above).
A living emblem of the islands sea-faring history, Shukunegi is a museum unlike any other. Originally the island’s commerce hub but later overshadowed by Ogi Port’s Edo-era development, the town diversified and soon became the heart of the sengokubune (wooden ship building) industry instead. Craftsmen converged in the town along with captains and crew, enjoying the island’s heyday as a gold-exporting center.
While ship building ceased decades ago, the unique architecture of the town has been retained and preserved for residents and visitors alike. Over 200 homes, warehouses and community buildings line the narrow pathways, many still inhabited and a few carefully-maintained examples open for exploration. Designated as a National Important Preservation Area for Traditional Buildings and Architecture, the town has a vital role in showcasing the history of the island.
Following the neat stone paths, visitors can spy everyday sights enclosed in unique structures - a former post office, small cafes and plenty of family homes. Following the narrow stream which is still used for washing clothes and vegetables, walkers will be led to the well-known Triangle house, called Sankakuya. Reminiscent of a ship’s rounded hull, the building was relocated after flooding and re-shaped by skilled carpenters to fit its new corner-location. Open to the public, the building is one of the many jigsaw-like pieces in this charming maze of a town.
A little further along is the town’s Shrine and nearby Temple. With two doors marking the Temple entrance, visitors can study and decide which they believe was crafted by a shipbuilder and which by a regular carpenter - the product of a bet over 100 years ago.
Assaulted by the strong sea winds during long winters, the buildings show signs of their careful adaptation to those who look closely. Known as tsutsumi-ita and meaning wrapping-plank, a strengthened wood encloses the buildings, protecting them from the harsh winds. Unnoticed from below but clear from the second-story windows, rocks line the roofs, holding them in place as gales threaten their shingled tiles. While later replaced with heavier Noto or Iwami tiles, today many have been returned to their original shingle style to help display the town’s traditional style.
Entering some of the restored properties allows for a glance into the prosperous lives of their past-inhabitants. One of a handful open to the public, ‘Seikuro’s Residence’ showcases the opulent life of the merchant owner, who possessed two large ships in the town’s heyday. Featuring delicate woodwork finished with an unusual persimmon-based staining technique, the spacious home is a prime example of the skills which supported the town.
Address: Shukunegi, Sado, Niigata 952-0612
Access: From Ryotsu Port, catch the Shonan line bus to Ogi and switch to the Shukunegi Line, alighting at Shukunegi Bus Stop. The journey takes approximately two hours by bus and one hour and ten minutes by car.
Hours: Open all-year round although specific buildings do vary.
Admission: Free, but a 100 yen donation is requested.
Ogi Folk Museum
A short stroll away from Shukunegi, the Ogi Folk Museum is a commemoration of the major and minor elements of everyday life in the fishing communities. Housed in the retired Shukunegi elementary school, the museum showcases over 30,000 items, ranging from carpentry tools to fishing nets to lanterns. While one classroom has been left in its original state, others are dedicated to different displays - walls hung with pharmacy signs, shelves stacked with ceremonial statues and cabinets filled with curios of a time gone by.
Tracing the inevitable modernization of the communities, the sections display traditional tools alongside the modern-day appliances that would slowly come to live beside them in the homes and businesses that thrived here. Wandering from room to room, visitors can take their time admiring different collections, each piece a tangible sliver of the area’s heritage.
Next door, in a purpose-build exhibition hall, a replica wooden freight-ship is displayed in all its glory. Based on drawings of a ship named Koeimaru or Hakusanmaru, which was built in Shukunegi in 1858. Boarding the ship via steep planks, you can appreciate the sheer size of the ships produced here along with the sturdy nature of their sea hardy structures. Straddled by a curved wooden roof which mirrors the arches of the boat’s hull, the enormity of the town’s creations is only just comprehendible. While scaled-models, videos and posters go some way to explaining the history of the community, the objects themselves are what offer a true insight into the region’s past.
Address: 270-2 Shukunegi, Sado, Niigata 952-0612
Access: From Ryotsu Port, catch the Shonan line bus to Ogi and switch to the Shukunegi Line, alighting at Kotoura Iriguchi Bus Stop. The journey takes approximately two hours by bus and one hour and ten minutes by car.
Hours: 8.30am - 5pm, Closed Mondays from December - February.
Admission: Adults 500 yen, Children 200 yen
Kotoura Caves, Sea-Kayaking and Other Adventures
Today, exploring the waters of Sado is a more leisurely affair, with plenty of options for adventure along the way. Countless beauty spots dot the coastline as the clear waters slowly carve unusual formations with every wave. One of the highlights is span of Kotoura Caves, not far from Shukunegi. Most famous is Ryudo which means Dragon King Cave but is known as ‘Sado’s Blue Grotto’ thanks to its stunning turquoise waters. While intrepid kayakers can venture deep into the Dragon’s lair, it is also accessible on small motorboats, with tours available from the nearby Ogi Port.
Taking in the beautiful views of the Ogi peninsula, visitors can see a variety of rock formations and caves, all carved out over centuries by the Sea of Japan. Snorkeling and swimming options are abundant on Sado’s seven swimming beaches, with dedicated scuba diving centers as well as fishing tours for those looking to get closer to the resident sea life.
Motorboat tours: Available from the Sado Tourism Association between April 10th - November 10th. The tour costs 2,300 yen for adults and 2,000 yen for children - a minimum of two people are required. These tours can be booked via the Sado Tourism Association: www.sado-niigata.com
Sea Kayaks: Available from the Ogi Diving Center costing 5,400 yen per person - please consult in advance, especially in winter. Kayaks are also available from the Sado Sea Kayak Club from April to October, costing 5,500 yen per person.
On an island with such a close connection to the sea, it’s no surprise that seafood is one of the highlights on Sado. Whether you prefer a winter treat of snow crab, a generous slice of squid sashimi or the first yellowtail of the year (known as Sado ichibanburi), there’s plenty to choose from. The locally caught sweet-shrimp are nicknamed nanban-ebi (red pepper-shrimp) in Niigata thanks to their bright coloring and offer a mellow sweetness perfect for sushi.
If you’re keen to taste the catch of the tarai-bune fishers, then wakame seaweed, abalone and turban shells are delicious options. While the shells and abalone are the best served on a simple grill, the seaweed is often used to make igoneri (seaweed jelly). Boiled, thickened and sliced into strips, the seaweed forms noodles not so dissimilar to soba, spiked with a hint of the sea.
One of the best ways to experience the taste of Sado, however, is to combine their fishing history with their agriculture. Sado Ten-nen Burikatsu-don is a carefully designed meal which showcases the highlights of the island. A simple but delicious rice bowl, the dish uses rice grown on the Kuninaka Plain of central Sado. Carefully monitored to meet the exacting standards required for the famed brand name, Toki to Kurasu Sato, the rice is produced using 50% fewer chemicals and using biodiversity-supportive techniques. Topping the rice are hearty chunks of breaded Sado Ichibanburi. With no detail forgotten, the flour, coating and sauce are all carefully chosen - with only certain restaurants approved to serve the official dish. If you’re wondering how to tell - keep an eye out for the colorful flag that shows the certification.
Getting to Sado
Leaving from Niigata Port, you can be on the shores of Sado in just over an hour. While the fastest option is the hydrofoil, this small but fast boat is often affected by the weather. If you are planning to take the Hydrofoil to or from the island, please check the weather information and schedules in advance here.
For a more reliable and relaxed route, the Sado Kisen car ferry takes 2.5 hours from Niigata to Ryotsu Port and offers comfortable rest areas, viewing decks and the option to bring your own vehicle. With five return journeys a day, a ticket costs 2,420 yen each way for adults and half that for children in a 2nd-class cabin. Full suites are available as well as first class cabins, depending on your budget. Making the journey affordable as well as relaxing, the ferry is an ideal option for those looking to step into vacation mode as soon as possible.
To reach Niigata Port from Tokyo, you can catch the bullet train from Tokyo Station to Niigata and catch a direct bus to the port - this journey takes just over two hours.
To reach Niigata Port from Osaka you can fly from Itami Airport to Niigata and catch the direct bus to Niigata Port. Alternatively you can catch the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo and then on to Niigata - this journey takes just under five hours.
Travel on Sado Island
On the island, you can choose from car rental or public transport. For car options, Sado Island Tourism recommends Island Rent-A-Car, located near Ryotsu Ferry - although there are additional options available including Toyota, Sado Kisen Kanko and Nippon Rent-A-Car. You can view the approved options here. Alternatively, there are regular public buses running on the island, you can view the local map here and the timetables are available in English form the tourism office at each Port. There is an unlimited-ride bus pass available for 1,500 yen per day for adults. There are also two and three days passes available costing 2,500 yen and 3,000 yen respectively with reduced prices for children. These passes can be purchased at Niigata Kotsu Sado’s main office and the main offices in Ryotsu Port, Aikawa, Ogi and at the Sado Kisen information desks at Niigata and Naoetsu Ports. You can purchase a one-day bus pass when you board any regular bus in Sado but two and three-day passes must be purchased at one of the locations named above.