Sado-ga-shima? Tell an Osaka or Tokyo resident your holidays plans include spending time on this godforsaken chunk of rock in the Sea of Japan and they might be nonplussed. Northern Hōnshu – the region off whose coastline Sado lurks – is bad enough, regarded by many as the sticks, a mountainous, isolated swathe of harsh, rural living with little going for it.
But bobbing in this backwater’s wash, 80km off Hōnshu’s coast, anvil-shaped Sado-ga-shima is really beyond the pale. It was to this wild, weather-battered island that the country’s unwanted were shipped out for centuries. Step ashore and you’ll be following in the footsteps of banished monarchs and monks, criminals and castaways. And far from lending the place a romantic edginess, Sado, to many Japanese minds, is a black hole in the distant galaxy that is northern Hōnshu.
But like black holes, the place has a strange, irresistible power. You’ll feel the lash of sea spray and explore eerily atmospheric corners. You’ll witness timeless rituals and performances; not least the island’s very own “demon drummers”. There’s seafood so fresh it practically swims into your mouth, and sake brewed from the island’s pure water. Sado is an unforgettable trip. Here are a few reasons why you should make it part of your Japan itinerary:
To feel the call of the wild
Sado is actually pretty big – it’s the sixth largest island in Japan. And with two mountains ranges making much of it uninhabitable, there are countless undeveloped stretches to explore – especially in the north – plus lots of interesting little corners, from caves and gold mines to a shorefront Buddhist “children’s limbo” cemetery or Sai no Kawara, where the souls of dead children are said to be locked in a struggle to cross the mythical Sanzu River into the afterlife.
Along the way, look out for the rare crested ibis, a bird native to Sado which reached the brink of extinction, only to be enjoying increasing numbers again. You might feel yourself coming alive again on Sado, too.
Go to get away from it all
Most Japan itineraries don’t give Sado a look-in. It’s as if the map has “Here be monsters” scrawled across it in the island’s vicinity. But while there are no monsters, there aren’t many tourists, either. In winter, especially, you can have the place mostly to yourself. And in Japan, where the population is crammed into a relatively small area, making certain areas of the country amongst the most densely populated in the world, that’s quite a thing.
Getting away from it all can take some doing here, but the blissful peace and quiet of Sado can easily be reached from Tokyo, by train and then hydrofoil.
Go to express yourself
It was often those with a tendency to speak out (or out of turn), who found themselves dumped on Sado – so it’s a pleasing irony that this is now one of Japan’s hubs of self-expression.
Sado’s isolation has made it a cultural incubator, with traditions developing away from the disruption of mainland influences. Zeami, one of the central figures in the early development of Noh theatre – an ancient dramatic form of slow, stylized gestures – was exiled here in 1434, and the island has been associated with Noh ever since.
It was a perfect match, really – supernatural beings are at the core of Noh, so Sado’s wild, elemental atmosphere was just right as a backdrop.
Today there are some thirty stages on the island – around a third of all that exist in Japan. Between spring and autumn, catch a night-time outdoor performance, the light provided by a flickering bonfire – spooky stuff.
Internationally, it’s another one of Sado’s performance art forms that has garnered most attention – traditional Japanese drumming. Attracted by the island’s association with Noh and with its unique, indigenous tradition of “demon drumming” (ondeko), which features performers in grotesque, goblin-like masks, the Kodo troupe set up their headquarters here. The group is now world famous, and visitors can take part in classes with Kodo masters.
The experience is powerful. You’ll stand in their beautiful wood-built drumming studio, the island’s rugged terrain visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows as the master demonstrates. Then it’s your turn. Brandishing a stick of dinosaur-bone proportions, you attack the drums (hand carved by Kodo members from 600-year-old keyaki trees), and it’ll feel like all of Sado’s primal power is surging through you.
If you’d rather just watch, the annual summer Earth Celebration, an international arts festival produced by Kodo, is the event to aim for. In fact, there are numerous festivals on Sado – it really is as if those eighty kilometres of ocean represent breathing space from the sometimes restrictive moeurs of the mainland.
At fertility festival Tsuburosashi, for instance, performers with quite astonishing phallic appendages frolic about in scenes that might bring to mind the graphic fertility rites acted out in the Wicker Man movie. That, of course, was an exaggerated fiction, whereas this festival, unique to Sado, is quite real – nothing could seem further from the popular image of Japan as a nation allergic to causing offence.
To enjoy the fruits of nature
You can eat wonderfully well on Sado – and for bargain prices. Particularly good is the seafood. Look out for oysters (kaki), squid (ika), crab, prawns and a fish called kanburi (Japanese amberjack) – the Urashima ryokan does a magnificent seafood spread.
Then there are the edible seaweeds and wild plants, warabi (bracken) and fukinoto (butterbur sprout) among them. You also see trees laden with what look like creamy orange baubles – persimmon (okesa kaki) – which you might also spot hanging from the eaves of houses to dry.
There are also around seven sake breweries on the island (that crystal-clear mountain water going to good use) so it’s worth taking a tour of a few and sampling their wares. In recent years, legendary winemaker Jean-Marc Brignot has exiled himself from his native France to explore his craft on Sado, so soon the island might have some interesting wines to enjoy.