Sado - Inland Adventures of an Exile Culture Sado - Inland Adventures of an Exile Culture

Sado - Inland Adventures of an Exile Culture



Sado - Inland Adventures of an Exile Culture

With an unusual culture of import and export, Sado is an island of relaxed towns, rich history and delicious food . Once an isolated island it soon became a hub of visiting ships, ready to transport the gold the island offered up and leave behind the mainland’s unwanted characters. Adopting the cultural immigrants, unwilling criminals and unfavorable creatives, the island has developed a unique heritage of unusual elements.

From Kyoto-inspired temples to networks of mining tunnels, the fingerprints of history have left few corners unmarked. Sado is no museum though - the traditional homes have become community cinemas and the mining ruins are now haunting landscapes to be admired. A day spent in the North West of Sado is one filled with history, culture, and plenty of outdoor adventures.

  • 01

    The Sado Kinzan Mine: The Island’s Underground Fortunes

    Reaching deep into the core of Sado, the Aikawa Gold and Silver Mine was the primary source of Sado’s ancient prosperity. As the most productive precious metal mine in Japan, the mine drew workers from across the country and allowed the local town and the island as a whole, to flourish.

    During the feudal era of Japan, veins of gold were discovered in the region, and the Tokugawa Shogunate left no time in placing the surrounding town of Aikawa under their control. Operations at the mine began at the dawn of the 17th century, with traditional opencast mining performed by hand until modern innovations were introduced. One of the most striking reminders of these early mining days is actually visible long before the mine’s entrance comes into sight. Hewn in two by the worker’s dedicated efforts, the doyu-no-wareto mountain serves as a looming reminder of the impact of man on the environment.

    Below ground, the mine’s history of development and growth are visible from the first few steps. Visitors can choose one of two paths - the Sodayu course displays the Edo-era mining skills while the neighboring Dohyu tunnel shows the Meiji-era developments in the industry. With two distinct chapters in the mine’s history, hand-carved tunnels and modern railways are equally fascinating, with models and robotic miners used to display the working conditions.

    Walking through the narrow tunnels and glancing into closed-off passages is an unnerving experience - the mine’s careful depiction of the worker’s lives is especially interesting. From the rest areas to religious ceremonies held to celebrate new veins, the mine melded with Japanese life in a multitude of ways.

    While much of the mine is below ground, as you may expect, there is plenty to see in the fresh air as well. Mining carts, storage areas and abandoned transport paths offer a chance to follow the extracted metals as they made their journey from the depths of the mine to the hands of the Shogunate.

    Closing its doors for good in 1989, the mine delivered around 78 tons of gold and over 2,300 tons of silver over the centuries. As a keystone of the island’s heritage, it has been carefully protected and in 2010 was added to the UNESCO list of tentative sites, with locals endeavoring to have the area approved to ensure its ongoing protection.

    Address: 〒952-1501 1305 Shimo Aikawa, Sado City, Niigata
    Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Honsen line bus to Aikawa and then catch the Nanaura Kaigan Line to Sado Kinzan bus stop. The journey takes approximately one hour and fifteen minutes by bus or forty-five minutes by car.
    Hours: April - October: 8am - 5.30pm, November - March: 8.30am - 5pm.
    Admission: 900 yen (single tunnel), 1400 yen (two tunnels) 1600 -2400 yen (guided tours)

  • 02

    The Former Aikawa Jail - A History of Exiles

    The perfect antidote to exploring dark tunnels, the walk to the small town of Aikawa is as refreshing as it is interesting. Following quiet streets, you’ll soon come across an unusual element of the town’s history hidden. Empty since its closure in 1972, the former Aikawa Jail was once home to prisoners and exiles of post-war Japan. Opened in 1954 as a branch of Niigata Prison, the prison is now open to the public, but is entirely unmanned.

    For those who don’t mind a little solo-exploration, the ivy-covered gates are left unlocked and the three buildings - an office, cooking space and holding block - have been left as they were. Behind heavy metal doors visitors can explore the small cells, complete with frayed tatami for the more important residents. Dusty bottles and long-forgotten scales are the only remaining inhabitants - with little information available on those who once resided here.

    Haunting at times but surprisingly peaceful, the prison is a nod to the long history of exiles on Sado. Difficult to reach and with harsh weather conditions, the island’s isolation made it the perfect place for those perceived to be troublemakers. Buddhist monk Nichiren, Noh dramatist Zeami Motokiyo and Emperor Juntoku were all banished here, lending the island a unique and rich history. As romantic as dethroned emperors and monks may sound, there was a darker side to the tradition of banishment. Criminals, creatives and ‘undesirables’ were also sent to work in the gold mine, with a memorial now in place to commemorate their fates. For those looking for more on Sado’s past, the island’s History Museum is located in Mano Shinmachi.

    Address: 24 Aikawa Shingoromachi, Sado, Niigata 952-1523
    Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Honsen line bus to Aikawa and then catch the Nanaura Kaigan Line to Sado Hangamura bus stop. The journey takes approximately one hour and fifteen minutes by bus or forty-five minutes by car.
    Hours: Open during the day, but unmanned
    Admission: Free

  • 03

    Kyomachi, Aikawa - A Contemporary Take on an Ancient Street

    Stepping out of the cold confines of the now calm prison, the quiet streets are a welcome return to normality. Continuing along the road, you will find your way to the preserved Kyomachi street in Aikawa town. Once the district’s downtown area, the street connected the gold mine with the commissioner’s office and was a bustling hub for the community. While significantly quieter these days, it still is host to the annual Yoi-no-Mai dance parade held in June.

    Dotted with occasional locals on everyday errands, the street is now a well-preserved mix of tea houses, craft shops and even a community cinema located in the former home of the Gold Mine Captain. Narrow offshoots and alleys reflect the rapid and hap-hazard growth of the town during its rise in prosperity, with a few Edo-era relic still in place. Having previously relied on traditional taiko drummers to announce times, in 1712 a time-bell was cast and hung at the foot of Kyomachi. Perched on the corner of what was once the town’s court, the building is now a museum exhibiting works of Sado Hangamura (print art). The bell’s rings were silenced in 1871, but have recently been re-started by volunteers, announcing the arrival of both morning and evening.

    Alongside the unusual red-brick wall that borders the old courthouse, these reminders of Aikawa’s prosperous past are a pleasing sight. Maintaining but repurposing traditional buildings means the street avoid the open-air museum feel of many ancient towns

    Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Honsen line bus to Aikawa and alight at Aikawa hakubutsukan mae bus stop. The journey takes approximately one hour or forty minutes by car.

  • 04

    Sengaku Bay Cycling Tour: A Breath of Fresh Air

    If you’re feeling the urge to brush away the cobwebs and prefer a more active exploration of the island, a short cycle tour of Sado’s shores could be in order. Perfect for an afternoon adventure from Aikawa, the Senkakuwan Bay ride is manageable for most, especially with the help of electric bikes.

    Formed by five small bays and stretching just 3km, the route is one of the island’s highlights, considered similar to coastlines of Norway. The area is surrounded by a marine park, ensuring the ecosystems and landscapes are protected from harm. While boat tours are also available, the cycle route allows you to burn off some energy and explore the coast up close.

    Stopping off at viewpoints and beaches along the way, you can admire the unusual formations of the coastline as well as spotting signs of the ancient mining trade. The trail will take you through rice fields and along roads, although thanks to island life there’s not much traffic to compete with. The final stop is the Sado Osaki Lighthouse - a great place to catch your breath and admire the bay before heading back to Aikawa.

    Bicycles are available for rent from Sado Tourism Association and cost 6,000 yen per person for a three hour trip from Kirariumu Sado and Senkaku Bay. Enquiries can be made here:

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  • 05

    Seisuji Temple and Daizen Shrine: Sado’s Adopted Cultures

    While many were sent to Sado unwillingly, there were also those who chose to visit, either as messengers, missionaries or simply to escape mainland life. Bringing with them traditions and culture from Honshu and beyond, these visitors contributed to the unique heritage of the island. A key example is the Sei-suji Temple. Located in the center of the island, it makes for a pleasant half-hour journey by car in-land from Aikawa, or a relaxed afternoon of cycling. Founded by Buddhist Missionary Ken’o Hoshi in 808, the temple’s design was inspired by Kyomizudera in Kyoto. Along with shared kanji and the familiar wooden balcony, both are spaces to worship the thousand-armed Kannon Bosatsu, the goddess of mercy. Now in disrepair, surrounded by cedar trees and rarely visited - the temple is a solemn but beautiful spot to visit.

    Address: 124-1 Niibo Ono, Sado, Niigata 952-0109
    Access: From Ryotsu Port the temple is a 30 minute drive by car.

    Nearby, Daizen Shrine is a further example of the island’s history of exile and willingness to adopt the arts of their visitors wholeheartedly. Often compared to Nara thanks to the rolling lawns and surrounding hilly landscape, it enshrines exiled court noble Sukemoto Hino along with the god of food, Miketsuokami. Perched in the grounds, however, is to the oldest Noh stage in Sado. With an imposing thatched roof and beautiful painted scenery, the stage is used for local performances in April and June along with school performances. One of Sado’s most notable exiles was the famous Noh playwright Zeami Motokiyo, who’s presence no doubt influenced the love of the ancient performed art within the community. Banished by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1434, Zeami spent seven years in Sado, and documented his time in his final published work, released shortly before he died.

    Address: 562-1 Takeda, Sado, Niigata 952-0302
    Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Minamisen or Shonan Lines and alight at Takedabashi bus stop. The journey takes approximately 40 minutes by bus and 30 minutes by car.

  • 06

    Sado’s Night Views: A Glimpse of the Past

    Clear skies and beautiful sunsets are par for the course on Sado, with an endless supply of stars to admire. For a more unusual evening display, however, the island’s industrial heritage is key. As the day ends, the Port Ruins of Oma are a fantastic place to watch the sun go down. Crumbling and abandoned, the towers form a unique landscape and serve as a strong reminder of Sado’s past.

    Later in the evening, the Kitazawa Flotation Plant offers an eerie display with evening illuminations. The layered flotation plant was the first to successfully use techniques usually reserved for copper on gold and silver. Now a designated Historical Site, the looming structures are an unusual sight - a reflection of a once-busy site, now left to return to nature.

    Access: From Ryotsu Port you can catch the Honsen line bus to Aikawa and alight at Aikawa hakubutsukan mae bus stop. The journey takes approximately one hour or forty minutes by car.

  • 07

    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.


  • 08

    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.