Exploring Japan’s Sado Island in Niigata (Exile Island)

Off the coast of Niigata Prefecture is one of Japan’s biggest islands: Sado Island (佐渡島). It’s quite a distance from mainland Japan and has a long and perplexing history. At one time, this was a place of exiled political dissidents. 

However, it has become a tourist hotspot. Not only is there beautiful nature and other typical sightseeing but there’s also gold mines, taiko drumming and so much more.

Geography and Wildlife

The whole island is a testament to the beauty and power of nature unique to Japan. It’s symmetrical in shape and also appears like the Japanese character for “work” and the English letter “S.”

While very beautiful, it also displays a side to the country that’s more rugged. There are idyllic beaches, rice paddies that cascade down mountainsides, and long winding mountainous roads. The Ōsado Skyline route is one such remarkable sight.

Dakota airplane on the beach on Sado island

Two Mountain Ranges

There are two mountain ranges on Sado Island running parallel to each other in a southwest-northeast orientation, which encircle a central plain called Kuninaka (国中).

This plain is the most densely populated region and opens on the eastern side via the Ryōtsu Bay (両津湾) and Lake Kamo (加茂湖). Mano Bay (真野湾) sits in the west where the island’s longest river is, known as Kokufugawa (国府川).

Sado Island Official Tourism Website

The Ōsado (大佐渡) nestles in the north and has the island’s highest point at the peak of Mount Kinpoku (金北山). This stands at 3,845 feet (1,172 meters).

There’s also Mount Myōken, Mount Kongō, and Mount Donden. In the south is the Kosado (小佐渡) range, which faces the Honshu coast. The highest point here is Ōjiyama (大地山) at 2,116 feet (645 meters).

Sado Island Location Via Google Maps

The Toki

Sado Island is also home to a near-extinct bird, the Toki, or Japanese Crested Ibis. Unfortunately, these birds almost went extinct due to their feathers used in futon mattresses.

In fact, it has an endangered status because of overexploitation.

At one time, none of these birds lived wild. It was only until recently that a flock of birds has reestablished their wild home.

Before then, they only thrived in captivity due to a successful and meticulous breeding program that involves local agriculture.

Activities

The whole island offers plenty of outdoor activities like cycling, camping, or water sports along with hiking and swimming. Sado Island is famous for its onsen, or hot springs, which are a huge attraction all year round.

Sado Island Bicycle Rental Site

Travel by bicycle Sado island

Tarai Bune

But the town of Ogi has a unique sailing experience. You can traverse the island’s rocky seashores in a wooden tub boat, called a tarai bune.

Once used to store things like miso paste, it’s a huge barrel. The boat’s agile design gets into narrow, rough, and difficult-to-reach areas.

This is ideal for collecting things like abalone and turban shells as well as seaweed. What’s more, a local dressed in authentic period costume captains the boat.

Washbin Boats Taraibune are traditional boats on Sado Island 

Food and Dining

As with most areas around Japan, food is a big deal and Sago Island is no exception. They’re famous for Buri Katsudon, which is a deep-fried fish called amberjack.

But rice is Sado Island’s crowning feature and they are famous for their superb sake in a style known as Manotsuru. The methods and profits of rice farming operations ensure the continued protection of the Ibis birds.

Sado Island Rice Terrace

The cascading rice paddies are a very traditional and ancient method of farming. But they accend the mountainsides as their design and engineering work with the landscape. Everywhere you go on Sago Island, they serve rice and sake produced from these agricultural operations.

Actually, you can do a tour of the Hokusetsu Brewery. Here you can sip on sake in a special room filled with music, which gently mellows your experience.

There’s also the Obata Sake Brewery as well. This brewery has been in existence since 1892 and burgeons with the island’s history.

Earth Celebration

One of the biggest draws about Sado Island is their grand Earth Celebration. This is a music festival they have every year in August and is hosted by Kodo, the famous drumming group. It honors humanity, nature, Japanese culture, and drumming.

Taiko Drums

Taiko is a special kind of giant drum made from cowhide and zelkova logs. The main purpose of this kind of drumming is to drive away evil spirits and encourage crops to grow.

It allows the performer to develop a spiritual relationship between the physical and ethereal realms of existence. There are several styles of taiko drumming, one of which they call “Ghost Taiko.” 

Visitors can get a true taiko drumming experience by observing a session at the island’s Taiko Center. Professionals perform and then teach the audience a few tricks.

A History of Exile and Gold

Three of the most famous exiles to the island were the former Emperor Juntoku, a famous actor and playwright named Zeami Motokiyo along Nichiren, a Buddhist monk.

The first exile happened in 722 when a poet criticized the emperor. The last one was in 1700.

Political Dissidents

Emperor Juntoku became a resident after his role in the 1221 Jōkyū War. It was a rebellion led by another retired emperor, Go-Toba, who didn’t get approval from the ruling shogunate for naming his line of successors. Juntoku lived on the island for 20 years until his death.

Nichiren lived on the island from 1271 to 1274. After his exile and subsequent death, the Buddhists on the island built several temples in the places where he lived, prayed, and meditated.

These are Konpon Ji Temple, the Myosho Ji Temple, and the Jisso Ji Temple.

The prayer hall of Daizen shrine in Sado

The Art of Noh

Noh is a drama-dance form developed by Zeami Motokiyo and he wrote many treatises on the subject. So, when he went into exile for unknown circumstances in the 14th century, he brought this art to the inhabitants already living there. 

This led to the development of a distinct culture around Noh on the island, which locals still practice today. There are more than 30 Noh stages there, which means this is the most Noh stages per capita in Japan.

Daizen Shrine Official Website

Noh stage of Daizen shrine in Sado

The Discovery of Gold

Once the discovery of gold came to light during the Edo Period in the 17th century, exile stopped and mining operations began.

This became a major source of income for the Tokugawa Shogunate. The severe conditions of the mines led to a shortage of labor.

Sado Island Gold Mines Official Website

Sado Island Gold Mine Equipment

This resulted in the second wave of exiles. But, this time it wasn’t due to political dissidence, it was the growing populations of the homeless.

They worked as water collectors and miners under difficult and harrowing conditions. The mine closed in 1989. Today, tourists can pan for gold in Nishimikawa Gold Park.

Sado Island Gold Mine

Getting to Sado Island

From the coast of Niigata, you get to Sado Island by traveling via car ferry for 2½ hours or by a ferry then jetfoil, which takes just over an hour. While the pure ferry is longer, it is much less expensive than adding jetfoil.

Sado Island Ferry Official Website

Sado Kisen ferry parked at the port of Sado island 

It’s interesting to note that before modern advancements in transportation, this would take much longer by boat and, therefore, made an ideal place for those who fell out of favor with the imperial government.

A Virtual Look At Sado Island

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.