Niigata is a port city on the main Japanese island of Honshu. With a rich history, fine museums and a raft of fantastic cultural experiences on offer, you’ll never be stuck for things to do in Niigata. This spellbinding itinerary takes you from Niigata City to Sado Island, cast adrift in the Sea of Japan. Sado, like Niigata, is known for its rice fields, but also for its superlative local arts and crafts, traditional performing arts and oyster farms. Here’s how to spend 7 days in Niigata and Sado.
Niigata – and the enchanting island of Sado – are among the best places to visit in Japan. The old streets of the port-city of Niigata are a joy to wander. Here, you’ll find handsome historic facades along the riverfront and low-strung wooden buildings in the former Red Light District. Museums, breweries, shrines and stellar cultural experiences await visitors here, while Sado Island, just a short ferry-ride away, has plenty of further charms. From discovering the island’s traditional crafts and performing arts to harvesting oysters and exploring a community that provides work opportunities for people with disabilities, Sado is full of adventure. Jump right in.
Niigata is well connected by air, rail and sea. From Tokyo, the easiest way to reach Niigata is by bullet train, which takes around two hours. Buses make the same journey in four to five hours, and also connect Niigata with most of Japan’s other major cities. The main attractions in Niigata itself are largely located in the city centre and are therefore accessible by foot, while local buses will take you to anything further afield. The Niigata to Sado Island ferry departs every couple of hours and accommodates cars; journey time is about two and a half hours. You can also make the journey by jetfoil – a much faster option.
The first part of your Niigata and Sado tour will be spent exploring the port-city of Niigata and its wealth of engaging sights. Start with a walking tour around Niigata Old Port Town, run by EDGE OF NIIGATA, which provides an excellent introduction to the city. The route begins along the Shinano River, flanked by a number of prominent historic buildings including the Daishi bank and the Old Customs Building, the first stop for yesteryear’s travellers and traders who arrived on Niigata’s shores. In its heyday, Niigata was laced with canals that have since been paved over, but by walking its streets visitors can still get a sense of life as it once was. The tour also takes in several unique shrines and Saito Villa, a traditional Japanese house with tea rooms and lovely views over the nearby gardens. Niigata’s old Red Light District is another fascinating area, which adjoined the city’s canals for easy access. There is still an active geigi (female-entertainment) school in the district, which is now best known for its clutch of fine-dining restaurants.
After your walking tour, refuel the tank with a Geigi Appreciation Lunch at Kappo Hotaru in the old Red Light District. Wooden buildings line the area’s narrow streets. Lunch is a full-course meal (veggie options available) of rice, fish, soup and a number of sides and drinks. While tucking in, you can watch a private geigi performance (known as geisha in Tokyo, and geiko in Kyoto). Geigi in full kimono and stylized white make-up perform highly choreographed dances to the sound of the shamisen, often making use of props such as leaves, fans or fabrics. Geigi are sometimes available for a Q&A session at the end of the performance, when guests have the opportunity to ask about their training, costumes and performance.
On the afternoon of Day 1, make for the Northern Culture Museum. The complex of museum buildings and manicured gardens was built by the Ito family to preserve and showcase the cultural heritage of Niigata. Only a portion of the impressive 6000-piece collection is on display at any one time. You’ll find mainly Japanese artefacts, but also exhibits from China and Korea. The fine, sturdy house and the sublime gardens alone are worth a visit; be sure to check out the praying stone in the centre of the garden. The museum also gives visitors the chance to make mochi, created by pounding rice into a sticky paste using wooden mallets. At the Northern Culture Museum, the mochi pounding is undertaken by three people, in contrast to most other places, where it is only done by two. Guests can watch experts at work before having a go themselves. There’s no better snack than freshly made mochi!
Start Day 2 of your Niigata and Sado itinerary with a zazen experience. Zazen is the basic practice of Zen – a mental discipline and spiritual practice to purify the mind and body. Its aim is to foster mental unification through sitting and breathing in a way that imitates the Buddha’s practice before he reached enlightenment. While zazen can be undertaken anywhere, it’s more effective in a quiet, temple environment. At Daieiji Temple, Buddhist monks live and abide by the practices of Zen. When it’s open to the public, come to see the temple grounds and try zazen for yourself. You’ll receive clear instructions on the correct posture, where your eyes should rest and how to position your hands.
Next, pay a visit to the Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery for some more hedonistic pleasures. Founded in 1767, Imayotsukasa is one of the oldest breweries in Niigata Prefecture. Its informative tours take visitors through all stages of sake production, from washing to steaming, mashing to pressing, adding yeast to aging. It goes without saying that you’ll get to taste some sake yourself, as well as browsing the brewery shop for a bottle to take home as a gift or souvenir.
The main Niigata to Sado Island ferry departs from Niigata City and arrives at Ryotsu. Car ferries and jetfoils ply the route. The journey takes about two and a half hours one-way by car ferry, and just over one hour by jetfoil. After disembarking on Sado, start by exploring some of the island’s gorgeous landscapes, in particular its rice fields. The paddies sit at the foot of Sado’s mountains, and the once nearly extinct crested ibis can often be spotted in flight or perched on the rice fields. If you come in July or early August, look out for the dramatic examples of “rice field art”, which first graced the area in 2017.
Spend the afternoon of Day 3 of your Niigata and Sado itinerary at Sanno Shrine, a Shinto shrine of great importance on the island. The local community gathers here for traditional Japanese demon-and-drum festivals in spring, but the shrine is also the setting for various school events throughout the year, such as Sports Day. The shrine was built partly for the monkey, the messenger of the gods. Statues of these cheeky creatures can be seen around the grounds – characterized by trees and greenery – and in the eaves of the buildings.
The remainder of your trip will be spent on Sado, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. The island is a bastion of local and traditional crafts – spend day 4 getting your creative juices flowing. Start by trying your hand at painting masks or puppets at one of the island’s cultural centres. Noh theatre is popular here, and has been since the arrival of commissioner Okubo Nagayasu in 1604. It is said that Okubo himself practiced Noh, and he brought two Noh actors with him to Sado from Nara. The island now has the largest number of Noh theatres of any region in Japan. Visitors can paint their Noh masks however they like, but the traditional method involves embellishing a beautiful face with white, black and red paint. Paint, brushes and pallets are all provided, and once the masks are painted, guests can mount them on a bamboo block and inscribe them with Japanese characters. Tiny puppets can also be painted; used in traditional puppet theatre, they feature a family of tiny characters, each with its own colour.
If you’re captivated by traditional crafts and puppet painting, head for Sadoya Nippon next. The organization is dedicated to preserving the arts and crafts of Sado, including the creation of textiles and Japanese dolls. Small tours include a stop in a room full of dolls that represent the various classes within Japanese society, from peasants to nobility.
Nearby – and the next stop on your Niigata and Sado itinerary – is a small centre that creates waraji: traditional Japanese sandals made from rice straw. Though the sandals are rarely worn nowadays, they still feature as part of traditional costumes for festivals, for example as the footwear of Onidaiko performers. The straw from which they are made is also used to create good-luck charms and decorations in Shinto shrines, and the centre here also crafts demon (oni) masks for use during Sanno Shrine festivals. The process of creating waraji involves rolling the rice straw into braids before tying them together.
After discovering the best of Sado’s arts and crafts, bed down at the Ryotsu Yamaki Hotel, a gorgeous traditional Japanese ryokan. Set in the hills with superlative views over Lake Kamo and Ryotsu Bay, guests are treated to spacious, tatami-floor rooms (with free Wi-Fi and TV) and tantalizing meals of tempura, fish, rice and vegetable dishes. But the real draw here is the ryokan’s hot-spring baths, which are communal and separated by gender. There are pools both inside and outside, plus reflexology and massage treatments on offer. If that wasn’t enough to recommend the Ryotsu Yamaki Hotel, there’s complimentary parking, a karaoke room and a tea-ceremony lounge decorated with Japanese art. What more could you want?
After a good night’s sleep, kick off Day 5 by discovering Sado Island’s most famous traditional performing art: Onidaiko, or “demon drumming”. Demon drumming is performed in around 120 districts on the island, and is said to usher in a good harvest and to drive away evil spirits. At Niibo Budokan, a centre for martial arts such as kendo, visitors have the chance to not only watch Japanese drumming (taiko) and festival dances, but to learn them. After a brief demonstration of the basic rhythms of taiko, guests can take a pair of heavy drumsticks called bachi and play while dancers move to the beat. Performers are decked out in traditional demon (oni) costume, and dance with another performer who represents Sado itself. Visitors can join in with the dance, too – an instructor is on hand to teach the proper steps.
From Niibo Budokan, dance your way to Akitsumaru for an oyster-farming experience to remember. Hop aboard the Akitsumaru boat, owned by a local oyster farmer, and head out to the waters of Lake Kamo to learn all about oyster farming. The lake is the largest in Niigata Prefecture, and is a mixture of fresh and seawater after a channel was built out to the ocean to prevent Lake Kamo from flooding. The resulting brackish waters create a distinctive flavour and growth pattern for the oysters of the lake, whose larvae are attached to five-metre ropes that dangle from racks that float on the surface. The oysters are planted in spring and harvested in the late autumn until winter. During the harvesting season, farmers use a machine that pulls the ropes up and separates them from the oysters. Visitors are invited to participate in the entire process. Once back on dry land, you can crack open the shells and fish out the goods: a full-grown oyster inside. Afterwards, tuck into a delicious home-cooked meal of miso soup and rice balls that are made using Lake Kamo’s freshly caught oysters.
Your last day on Sado Island (Day 6) is dedicated to exploring the community of Tateno Fukushikai. Tateno is an agricultural area of the island that provides work opportunities for people with disabilities. The focus here is on living a full life, and it is affirming to see young people with disabilities helping the elderly, participating in community-driven work and contributing to the revitalization of the community. Typical work ranges from harvesting tea to shovelling snow in winter and clearing rice-field irrigation canals. After an illuminating introduction to the area at a local community centre – where you’ll be treated to tea and locally made snacks such as cake and biscotti – the tour takes visitors through the nearby farming community. You’ll see tea fields carpeted with 60-year-old multigenerational tea plants, and find a small café full of local fruits, vegetables and treats to buy. It’s a great place to pause and take stock of your experiences on Sado, Niigata, Japan.
After spending your last night on Sado Island, it’s time to return home. Take the ferry back to Niigata to begin your return – or onward – journey.
This 7-day itinerary, from Niigata to Sado Island, takes in the area’s many highlights. With lovely landscapes, atmospheric spiritual sites and a range of unique cultural experiences, you’ll yearn to come back.
Top image: Sado Island © Richard Milner
This article was created in partnership with TOKIMEKI SADO NIIGATA TOURISM ZONE (itinerary organization), EDGE OF NIIGATA, Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau (sponsorship)
Helen worked as a Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and Insight Guides, based in the London office. Among her favourite projects to work on are inspirational guides like