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.