Two hours from the nearest city by boat from Niigata's coast, Sado Island was once remote enough to serve as a dumping ground for politicians and intellectuals out of favor with the government. When gold was discovered on Sado right at the turn of the 17th century, however, the sleepy island's fate changed forever.
These days Sado is a great little island retreat best known for its association with the dynamic drumming group Kodo and the Earth Celebration, a yearly event focusing on drumming, humanity, nature and Japanese culture. Sado's onsen represent another attraction, as is the award-winning sake produced from its rice. Cycling, camping and water sports are big draws, and you can even pan for gold here.
Sado Island can only be reached by ferry.
You can take the Sado Kisen ferry from three different places, but some of them do not run all year long. The Niigata-Ryotsu route offers a passenger jetfoil and car ferry. The jetfoil is faster but more expensive, while the car ferry takes over twice as long but is less than half the price. This is the most popular option, and runs at least ten times daily.
The Naoetsu-Ogi and Teradomari-Akadomari routes only run during peak seasons and aren't as easily accessible at the main Niigata City port.
Political and intellectual enemies like Zeami and Nichiren were banished here until the 1700s
The island is home to Kodo the world-renowned taiko ensemble
Sado is famous for its endangered Japanese crested ibis
Sado has picturesque beaches, cascading rice paddies and winding mountain roads. There's great hiking and swimming to be enjoyed here. Best navigated by driving the scenic routes around the island, Sado shows a rugged side of Japan that many never see.
Although it's possible to travel to and from Sado in a day, the best island experience is to stay overnight in one of the many traditional ryokan inns, relaxing in a hot spring bath and enjoying home-cooked meals featuring Niigata's famous rice.
Niigata is known throughout Japan for its singularly delicious rice and beautiful tiered rice paddies, and Sado is no exception with its iconic Iwakubi Shoryu rice paddies.
Anywhere you go on the island will serve Niigata rice and sake, especially if you stay in a traditional ryokan inn. However, if you'd like to sample the island's award-winning sake at the source, pay a visit to the Hokusetsu Brewery. You can even savor your sake here in a music room designed to gently mellow the brew.
Sado Island is famous for its clear sea waters and rocky shores, and one of the most interesting ways to experience them is in a tarai-fune—boating in a wooden tub. On the southern tip of the island in the town of Ogi, you can take a short ride in one of these traditional boats, steered by a local dressed in an authentic period costume.
The biggest event on Sado Island is the annual Earth Celebration Festival in August, drawing huge crowds to the small town of Ogi every year. The Kodo Taiko Ensemble, locals from the island who are famous worldwide for their ground-shaking take on traditional Japanese drumming, started and run this festival.
The Kodo group pushes the limits at each performance. Musicians from around the world are invited to collaborate with Kodo, since the festival is dedicated to global unity. If you're looking for a unique Japanese music festival, this is the one to visit.
Experience traditional culture first hand by taking a taiko drumming experience session at the Sado Island Taiko Center, home to giant drums made from zelkova logs and cowhide skin. The Taiko Center is located just one minute from Kodo Village, where the world-renowned taiko ensemble is based. You can watch the professionals play and learn to create some thunder yourself.
Sado Island is home to some rare fauna. It preserves an important ecological habitat for the toki, or Japanese crested ibis. These birds almost went extinct as their feathers were used in Japanese futons, but recent rehabilitation efforts are seeing results and the population is increasing.
There are some now living in the wild on Sado Island, but your best chance to admire and learn more about them is at Toki Forest Park.
At the northern tip of the island is Futatsugame, a sandy beach with an offshore islet said to resemble two turtles. Relax here for an afternoon in the clearest waters in Sado, one of Japan's Top 100 Sea-Bathing Spots. There's also a beautiful hiking trail that takes you up into the cliffs for some gorgeous sea views.
Driving is the best way to see all Sado has to offer, and if you do a spin around the Osado Skyline is a must. The winding mountain road offers panoramas of the entire island and out to sea, and will eventually bring you to the Sado Kinzan Gold Mine.
The Sado Kinzan Gold Mine and Nishimikawa Gold Park are located on the island's western coast. You can try gold panning for yourself and learn more about Sado's gold mining past, which is what brought the island to the attention and under the direct control of the shogun.
Konpon-ji and Myosho-ji were local temples home to the famous Buddhist reformer Nichiren (1222-1282), who was exiled to Sado for two years. He created his own school of Buddhism. Myosho-ji is known for its beautiful garden.
Shukunegi is a small atmospheric old port town that is perfect for a stroll through a preserved townscape.