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Sado Island

I am frequently asked what my favourite places are in Japan. Many come to mind, the hikes outside of Kamakura, Hakodate is an absolute gem. Any first time visitor must stop in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and the Fuji region. But when I decided to do some back-packing of my own in 1999, I wanted to find that one place in Japan still relatively untouched by Western society, remote enough to feel disconnected but intriguing enough to make the trip worthwhile. That place was Sado Island.

Sado Island lies in the Japan Sea about 35 KM off the largest of the Japanese islands, Honshu. What drew me to Sado in the first place was its stunning shoreline but as I started to research the island more I discovered an island rich in history. 

In the ancient and middle ages, Sado was used as the place for exiles and “the unwanted”. Some of the well known exiles include a Buddhist priest Nichiren Shonin and the father of Noh theatre, Zeami Motokiyo.  A gold mine was discovered on Sado in the 1600’s and many criminals and homeless people were ordered by the government to move to Sado and work in the mines. The teachings of the political and cultural exiles and the tragic stories of miners is very much alive in the culture of Sado today.

I travelled to Sado Island on the Jetfoil boat from Niiagata. I arrived at the Ryotsu port and took a long walk along the waters edge to photograph the decaying shoreline and rocky beaches. It was only a twenty minute bus ride inland to the Green Village youth hostel  where I stayed for two nights.

Day one, I borrowed a bicycle and visited the many temples and shrines within a 15 KM radius. First stop, the Konponji temple, where Nichiren first stayed upon his arrival on Sado Island. It is an important religious headquarter for the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. Riding a little farther I found the Chokokuji temple, a beautiful old temple hidden in a growth of Japanese cedars. It is ideal for meditation, while drinking hot tea and enjoying sticky osembe crackers. Last but not least I visited the Myosenji temple, another important place for the Nichiren sect. This temple houses a five story pagoda over 21 meters tall – stunning.

Ogi Peninsula
The next morning I hopped on a bus across the island and south along the water to the Ogi peninsula. From the fishing museum to the taribune (tub boats) to the Sawazaki lighthouse, any maritime enthusiast will be at home here.

While in Ogi I learned about the importance music plays in Sado’s history as well.  Since my arrival on Sado Island, I’d been humming a strange tune. It was when I stopped into a gift shop near the taribune exhibit that I picked up a tape of the Sado Okesa. Sado Okesa is a variation of a Hanya folksong. This popular song is the unofficial song of Sado Island and is piped into every store, restaurant and street corner. Even if you never stop to listen to the song, it will become an important part of your trip to Sado whether you consciously acknowledge it or not.

Sado Island is also the home of Kodo, a world famous group of Japanese taiko drummers. I also picked up one of thier tapes and listen to it occasionally when doing a big load of dishes. Find out more about Kodo

If you find yourself in Japan for a longer stay, take a trip to Sado Island and experience a Japan far from the grand shrines and geisha gift shops of Kyoto, far from the bright lights and pachinko parlours of Tokyo. Tune into the Sado Okesa and take a bike ride along the ocean and across the lush green fields.

Check out a website created by a group of English teachers on Sado Island: 

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