Explore Northern Honshu
For centuries, the rugged, S-shaped island of Sado-ga-shima (佐渡島) was a place of exile for criminals and political undesirables; though even today it has a unique atmosphere born of its isolation and a distinct cultural heritage that encompasses haunting folk songs, nō theatre and puppetry, as well as the more recently established Kodô drummers. It’s a deceptively large island, consisting of two parallel mountain chains linked by a fertile central plain that shelters most of Sado’s historical relics. These include several important temples, such as Kompon-ji, founded by the exiled Buddhist monk Nichiren, and a couple of bizarre, hi-tech museums where robots perform nō plays and narrate local history. The Edo-period gold mines of Aikawa, on Sado’s northwest coast, make another interesting excursion, but the island’s greatest attractions are really its scenery and glimpses of an older Japan.
Sado also has a packed calendar of festivals from April to November. Many of these involve okesa folk songs and the devil-drumming known as ondeko (or oni-daiko), both of which are performed nightly during the tourist season in Ogi and Aikawa. Throughout June, nō groups perform in shrines around the central plain, while the island’s biggest event nowadays is the Kodô drummers’ international Earth Celebration, held in Ogi.
Since before the twelfth century, Sado was viewed as a suitably remote place for exiling undesirables. The most illustrious exile was the ex-emperor Juntoku (reigned 1211–21), who tried to wrest power back from Kamakura and spent the last twenty years of his life on Sado. A few decades later, Nichiren, the founder of the eponymous Buddhist sect, found himself on the island for a couple of years; he wasted no time in erecting temples and converting the local populace. Then there was Zeami, a famous actor and playwright credited with formalizing nō theatre, who died here in 1443 after eight years in exile.
In 1601, rich seams of gold and silver were discovered in the mountains above Aikawa. From then on, criminals were sent to work in the mines, supplemented by “homeless” workers from Edo (Tokyo), who dug some 400km of tunnels down to 600m below sea level – all by hand. In 1896 Mitsubishi took the mines over from the imperial household and today they’re owned by the Sado Gold Mining Co., which continued to extract small quantities of gold up until 1989.Read More
Ryotsu and around
Ryotsu and around
Sitting on a huge horseshoe bay with the mountains of Sado rising behind, RYŌTSU (両津) is an appealing little place and makes a good base for a night. The town revolves around its modern ferry pier (両津埠頭) and bus terminal, at the south end, while there’s still a flavour of the original fishing community in the older backstreets to the north, among the rickety wooden houses with their coiled nets and fishy odours. Much of the town occupies a thin strip of land between the sea and a large saltwater lake, Kamo-ko, which is now used for oyster farming.
The Sado Nō-gaku-no-sato museum (佐渡能楽の里), on the south shore of Kamo-ko lake, celebrates Sado’s long association with nō. There’s nothing in English, but the masks and costumes are enjoyable, as is the short performance by remarkably life-like robots, who are admirably suited to nō’s studied movements.
Sado’s central plain is the most heavily populated part of the island and home to a number of impressive temples, some dating back to the eighth century. Two routes cross this plain linking Ryōtsu to towns on the west coast: the main highway cuts southwest from Kamo-ko to Sado airport and on to Sawata, served by buses on the Hon-sen route (line 1), while the quieter, southerly route takes you through Niibo (新穂), Hatano (畑野) and Mano (真野) along the Minami-sen bus route (line 2). The majority of historical sites lie scattered across this southern district – for many of them you’ll need your own transport or be prepared to walk a fair distance. One solution is to rent a bike.
Sado’s most accessible and important temple, Kompon-ji (根本寺), is located a few kilometres south of Niibo village; buses from Ryōtsu run here fairly regularly during the day. Kompon-ji marks the spot where the exiled Nichiren lived in 1271, though the temple itself was founded some years later. If you can get there before the coach parties, it’s a pleasant stroll round the mossy garden with its thatched temple buildings filled with elaborate gilded canopies, presided over by a statue of Nichiren in his characteristic monk’s robes.
On the eastern outskirts of MANO (真野), Myōsen-ji (妙宣寺) was founded by one of Nichiren’s first disciples and includes a graceful five-storey pagoda. Nearby Kokubun-ji (国分寺) dates from 741 AD, though the temple’s present buildings were erected in the late seventeenth century. If you follow this side road south, skirting round the back of Mano town, you come to a simple shrine dedicated to Emperor Juntoku. He’s actually buried about 800m further up the valley, but the next-door Sado Rekishi-Densetsukan (佐渡歴史伝説館) is more interesting. This museum is similar in style to Ryōtsu’s Sado Nō-gaku-no-sato, though in this case the robots and holograms represent Juntoku, Nichiren and other characters from local history or folk tales. The museum lies about thirty minutes’ walk southeast from central Mano and about ten minutes from the nearest bus stop, Mano goryō-iriguchi, on the route from Sawata south to Ogi (line 4).
A few kilometres north along the coast from Mano, SAWATA (佐和田) serves as Sado’s main administrative centre. Sawata is not the most alluring of places, but if you happen to be passing through around lunchtime, pop along to the Silver Village resort, on the town’s northern outskirts, to catch the fifteen-minute display of bun’ya, a form of seventeenth-century puppetry performed by a couple of master puppeteers.
Ogi and around
Ogi and around
Sado’s second port is tiny OGI (小木), situated near the island’s southern tip. This sleepy fishing town is best known for its tub boats, which now bob around in the harbour for tourists, and the annual Earth Celebration hosted by the locally based Kodô drummers, during which the village’s population almost doubles. But the area’s principal attraction is its picturesque indented coastline to the west of town. You can take boat trips round the headland or cycle over the top to Shukunegi, a traditional fishing village huddled behind a wooden palisade.
The tub boats, or tarai-bune, were originally used for collecting seaweed, abalone and other shellfish from the rocky coves. Today they’re made of fibreglass, but still resemble the cutaway wooden barrels from which they were traditionally made. If you fancy a shot at rowing one of these awkward vessels, go to the small jetty west of the ferry pier, where the women will take you out for a ten-minute spin round the harbour. The jetty is also the departure point for sightseeing boats which sail along the coast past caves and dainty islets as far as Sawa-zaki lighthouse.
Buses run west along the coast as far as Sawasaki (line 11), but the ideal way to explore the headland is to rent a bicycle. After a tough uphill pedal out of Ogi on the road to Shukunegi, turn right towards a concrete jizō standing above the trees. From here continue another 300m along this sideroad and you’ll find a short flight of steps leading up to the Iwaya cave (岩屋) – the old trees and tiny, crumbling temple surrounded by jizō statues make a good place to catch your breath. Further along the Shukunegi road, next to a still-functioning boatyard, the Sadokoku Ogi Folk Culture Museum is worth a brief stop. It contains a delightful, dusty jumble of old photos, paper-cuts, tofu presses, straw raincoats and other remnants of local life. Behind, in a newer building, there’s a relief map of the area and beautiful examples of the ingenious traps used by Ogi fisherfolk.
From here the road drops down steeply to SHUKUNEGI (宿根木) fishing village, a registered national historic site tucked in a fold of the hills beside a little harbour full of jagged black rocks. The village itself is hardly visible behind its high wooden fence – protection against the fierce winds – where its old wooden houses, two of which are open to the public in summer, are all jumbled together with odd-shaped corners and narrow, stone-flagged alleys.
Sado’s northern promontory contains the island’s highest mountains and some of its best coastal scenery. Aikawa, the only settlement of any size in this area, was once a lively mining town whose gold and silver ores filled the shoguns’ coffers. The mines are no longer working, but a section of tunnel has been converted into a museum, Sado Kinzan, where yet more computerized robots show how things were done in olden times. North of Aikawa there’s the rather overrated Senkaku-wan, a small stretch of picturesque cliffs; it’s better to head on up the wild Soto-kaifu coast to Hajiki-zaki on the island’s northern tip. Not surprisingly, this area isn’t well served by public transport, particularly in winter when snow blocks the mountain passes; to explore this part of the island you really need to rent a car or be prepared to do a lot of cycling.
Children of the drum
Children of the drum
In the early 1970s a group of musicians came to the seclusion of Sado-ga-shima to pursue their study of traditional taiko drumming and to experiment with its potent music. A decade later the Kodô Drummers unleashed their primal rhythms on the world, since when they have continued to stun audiences with their electrifying performances. The name Kodô can mean both “heartbeat” and “children” – despite its crashing sound, the beat of their trademark giant Ōdaiko is said to resemble the heart heard from inside the womb.
The drummers are now based in Kodô village, a few kilometres north of Ogi, where they have set up the Kodô Cultural Foundation. Apart from a two-year apprenticeship programme, the drummers hold occasional workshops (Kodō juku) which are open to anyone with basic knowledge of Japanese. Each year, usually the third week of August, they also host the three-day Earth Celebration arts festival when percussionists from all over the world and a friendly multinational audience of several thousand stir up the sleepy air of Ogi. Details of Kodô scheduled tours and the next Earth Celebration are posted on their website (wwww.kodo.or.jp).