Sado Island, just a little bigger than the area of Tokyo city, has only 60,000 inhabitants compared to Tokyo’s 10 million. That’s a lot of space per person! I’d say the residents are living the ultimate remote, peaceful ‘island life’. The kids run around making their own fun, while the teenagers take the ferry over to the mainland to go shopping and hang out. Once they’ve finished high school, most of them leave the island to study at university or look for work. But interestingly, many rediscover the comfort of their island home and end up coming back to settle down. Sado Islanders are proud of where they come from, and with good reason.
In January, I took the 5-hour trip up to Niigata Prefecture and out to this relatively unknown (outside of Japan) place. As we drove through the centre of the island, we could see rice paddy fields stretching for miles, with mountains in the distance providing a dramatic backdrop. The air was biting cold, but there was hardly any snow on the ground. I was told the fields are usually covered in a thick blanket of snow, but thanks to the El Niño conditions this year they were brown and bare. But not to worry – this was one trip where I wasn’t interested so much in the landscape.
Sado is known for a bunch of random different things: sake; gold; crested ibises; Noh theatre; oysters and seafood; the taiko group, Kodo; and being the place where an Emperor, a monk and various others were exiled to. Intriguing!
Our first port of call was the Sado Island Taiko Centre. The centre featured a big practice hall made entirely with timber sourced from the island. It had a very earthy, organic feel to it, which was obvious not only visually but also came through in the vibrations made from the taiko. I love the deep and powerful sounds Japanese drums make and when you see a group of professionals performing together, it’s really something special. There were 2 giant drums in the centre – both made from the same tree – with ox skin rather than cow skin used as the drumhead. The one sitting on the ground had a pig’s nose-shaped hole on the side, and when you put your cheek up against it and someone struck the top of the drum, it was as though the tree was letting a big one rip in your face! Lucky it didn’t smell… Seriously though, the force was pretty incredible.
After warming ourselves up on the drums for an hour or so, it was time to go panning for gold! In the Edo Period (1603-1868), underground mining began at Sado Kinzan, Japan’s largest gold mine. It was a huge mining boom and ran for over 300 years, financing the government. At its peak, the gold mines on Sado produced 400kg of gold a year. The mines have since closed down, but we can still try our luck either in controlled troughs, or in the river outside. I managed to get a tiny fleck of gold which is apparently worth about $40. I wonder if I can cash that in somewhere…
With all the rice growing in the area, it’s no wonder the Sado Islanders have gone into the rice wine, or sake, business. The breweries are a fun place to visit and do some taste testing. Each have with their own tastes and some have even won international awards. The key to their success is apparently the locally grown rice grains, the locally sourced mountain water, the generations of dedication and experience, and the magical touch the island itself offers. Whatever the ingredients, the sake here is seriously good.
Aside from music, drinking and gold mining, the wildlife is also a major reason the island is popular amongst local tourists. The Japanese crested ibis, known as toki, was once found all over the country. But they were hunted and as the country developed they lost their natural habitat. In 1960, they were officially designated a protected bird and breeding programs were set up to keep them alive. Similar species were sent over from China and a few chicks were born before the last wild toki, Kin, died in 2003. Now, the Toki Conservation Park is home to many crested ibises and they periodically release them into the wild. It’s been a success, but one which should not have been necessary in the first place.
I feel like I learnt so much while exploring Sado Island! I’ve heard the ocean turns into the most beautiful, crystal clear, turquoise blue during summer and I’d love to go back one day when it’s not so cold. It’s always fun to discover new places and venture off the usual tourist path, don’t you think?