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Sado Island


Just as the arts flourished in the rest of Japan during the period of isolation (sakoku), Sado also has benefitted a great deal from its isolation. One thing that will strike visitors to the island is the sheer amount of unique culture to be found in the form of theater, festivals, food and drink. But, more striking than the culture itself, is the passion of the people who keep it alive. As someone said to me, “I’m not so interested in the tradition and culture of the island in itself, but the way it brings the community and people of the island together, that I am interested in.”

Noh Theater / Noh pun intended

With approximately 35 Noh stages on the island (making up a third of the total number of stages in the whole of Japan), Sado Islanders are passionate about this art form which is rich in tradition and history.
The large presence of Noh stages on the island, and the passion of the local people for it, can probably be put down to 2 reasons. The first being that one of the big names of Noh from the 15th century, Zeami Motokiyo, was sent to Sado as a political exile taking his art with him. The other being that the population of Sado maintain this ancient art form as a form of social entertainment. I was informed that children still learn Noh in schools on the island, and it is very much bound up with local tradition and entertainment.
During the spring and summer months, arts festivals and events are rife on the island, and in June, Noh plays can be seen throughout the island every weekend.

(Pictured stage) 562-1 Takeda, Sado, Niigata Prefecture 952-1302

Bunya Ningyo | Get dolled up

Possibly the most interesting highlight from my trip to Sado was my introduction to the art form known as bunya ningyo - a form of puppet show using large dolls. After I enjoyed a large, and extremely good value lunch at a local cafe, "Tokiwa kan" I was introduced to the owner, Honma san, who is a big promoter of the performing arts.
We went up to her stage area, where visitors can have parties and watch doll performances. Honma san began to tell me all about the history of the art form:
"In Kansai, they usually have 3 people operating 1 doll, however, on Sado we usually have just 1 person per doll. This makes for more movement in the performance. 1 person can move more freely, and this is great for action sequences."
I watched in awe as she demonstrated how with a little flick of her wrist and a pull on a string she could bring an inanimate object to life in a second. Lifeless figures were transformed into pirates, maidens and warriors - right in front of my eyes. It's a long time since I've been so impressed.
In June there are special events that tie in with Noh performances, as well as candle-lit events.

104 Izumi, Sado, Niigata Prefecture 952-1212

Taraibune | A barrel of laughs

Sado is bustling with things to do in the warmer months. The world famous taiko drumming group Kodo hold the Earth Celebration music festival on the island in August (2015 dates: 21st-23rd), and due its hilly topography, there are a number of sporting events including the Toki Marathon (2015 date: April 26th), Bike races and triathlons. Sado also has great provisions for diving - and lovely clear visibility as well.
For those looking to try something unique to Sado, taking a ride in a taraibune (a small boat made from a barrel) is well worth a look. Traditionally used in fishing for abalone and other sea creatures that dwell in rocky areas, the barrels allowed for easy access to areas that other boats were not so maneuverable in.
The girl rowing my barrel moved gracefully and easily through the water using the paddle with a strange side to side rowing action (which I really could not get my head around). She let me have a go and I'm ashamed to say that I ended up just spinning us round in circles.
I found out later that she had once travelled in a taraibune from the island all the way to the mainland!
I think I'll stick to the Jetfoil…

Ogi, Sado, Niigata Prefecture

Shukunegi Village | Ship-shape and Bristol fashion

Shukunegi village is a well-preserved old town, with a distinctive feel to it. When wandering the windy streets, one might start to notice the peculiar curves that these old wooden buildings have to them. It’s all tied in with Shukunegi’s history as a port town inhabited by ship craftsmen, hence why the houses have a ship-like feel to them.
As well as hidden cafes and restaurants, the village is host to many stories. Legend has it, that when one of the doors of Hakusan Shrine was broken, the people looked for a Shrine Carpenter to fix the door. However, they couldn’t find him that day and had to ask a Ship Carpenter to do the job instead. Look closely at both doors: can you guess which door the Ship Carpenter repaired?
As you wander through the streets, you may notice some houses with small doors. This was due to a taxation law based on the size of a house's door – thus people made their doors smaller to pay less tax. Crafty!

Shukunegi, Sado, Niigata Prefecture

Obata Shuzo Sake Brewery | First class sake

Niigata prefecture is famous for its sake, but what is not so well-known is that Sado is also a great producer as well. I had the privilege of taking a look around the brewery and being introduced to the production process. Unfortunately, at Manotsuru brewery, there is not much space, so the production site is usually off access for visitors, however, in the front end of the brewery there is a tasting area and shop where visitors can sample and buy some of the finest sake Sado has to offer. Manotsuru actually makes sake which is served in the first and business class sections on Air France flights. The people at the brewery are extremely helpful and friendly, willing to put on an English language DVD explaining the production process of sake, as well as handing out tons of free material written in English explaining some of the finer points of the alcohol, as well as the history and philosophy behind Manotsuru.
A local tip for sake lovers: look out for the Niigata Sake Festival, which will be held on the mainland in Niigata City. At the festival, visitors can try as many Niigata brands as they like and have a chance to chat with the makers for a small fee (Booked tickets: 2,000 yen, Price on the day: 2,500 yen). Brewers from Sado should be making the trip across for the festival as well, so this could be a good chance to sample what Sado has to offer too!

449 Manoshinmachi, Sado, Niigata Prefecture

Hospitality | People, Warmth & Food

Perched up on top of a cliff, overlooking the Sea of Japan, Hotel Oosado is a true getaway; being in this hotel felt like we were a world away from everyone and everything else. After a busy day sightseeing around the island, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and shown to our rooms. Just like the rest of the hotel, the rooms were spacious, clean and comfortable, but the most impressive feature was the stunning view from the window. Watching the sun slip below the horizon, while sipping green tea and snacking on a traditional rice cracker provided by the hotel, was the perfect way to unwind. On our way to our private dining room, we were very fortunate to catch a glimpse of Sado folk dancers and traditional musicians performing the graceful Okesa dance. What a treat! For our dinner, we were presented with an array of exquisite, fresh seafood dishes that included crab, winter yellowtail, blowfish, oysters, hot pot and more. All of this food is locally sourced and was mouth-wateringly delicious. What better way to relax before going to bed, than soaking in a hot bath? The hotel’s onsen features a large shower area, medium-sized bath, spa bath, sauna, and outdoor bath from which you can look out to the sea and feel the cool, ocean breeze wash across your face.


Welcoming us at the entrance of the Sado Island Taiko Centre was the very cheerful Shin-chan Sensei, a member of the internationally renowned Kodo group. His bubbly nature and enthusiasm were immediately obvious and I knew we were in for a fun experience! As we entered the practice hall, I was struck by how beautiful it was; the building was made entirely out of timber from the island. Scattered around the hall were drums of all shapes and sizes, but two in particular stood out. Hand-carved from a 600-year-old Japanese elm, with ox skin used as the drumhead, these giant drums were the star attractions. Shin-chan Sensei wasted no time putting drumsticks in our hands and letting us play around on the drums. We started with small sticks, before switching to bigger ones, and then bigger ones still, until we were standing there with drumsticks so big I could hardly lift them over my head! The deep, powerful sounds these drums make sent shivers down our spines. After getting a feel of the drums, and watching the master himself demonstrate how it’s done, we learnt some simple tunes Shin-chan Sensei had created. “Sado, sado, sado, sado, sado-ga-shima. Yay!”

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