The Gorgeous Japanese Island Where the Exiled Once Dwelled
Perhaps being sent there was a punishment in the past; going there now is a wonderful reward to yourself.
This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Japan is an island country and of the many islands that make up the Empire of the Sun, my personal favorite is Sado aka Sadogashima, an emerald islet off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, in the northern part of the Japan Sea. It is blessed with beautiful white sand beaches, fine dry sake (nihonshu) and a long and interesting history. It was once where those who fell out of favor with the shogunate were temporarily exiled or banished forever. Perhaps, being sent there was a punishment in the past; going there now is a wonderful reward to yourself.
What first took me to the island and what brings me back every few years is the Sado Island (percussion heavy) version of Woodstock known as the Earth Day Celebration. This stems from the fact that Sado Island is home to the world-famous Japanese drumming (taiko) ensemble KODO and the community that has sprung around them. Every summer since 1988, Earth Celebration (EC) has been held near Ogi city on the island. The celebration is a combination of international arts festival, street fair, and musical collaboration from artists all over the world. It is now the longest running music festival in Japan.
KODO, if you don’t know them, are a legendary act and catching their performance on the island, their homebase, is an almost magical experience. In 1969, noted percussionist Tagayasu Den founded thegroup on this relatively unpopulated island. The members came from all over Japan--people who were disillusioned with urban life. They set up a commune, living and farming together, and ran a marathon daily.
Den believed that for the members to perform well on the massive Taiko drums that they also had to be in peak physical shape. KODO drove in the point by giving an acclaimed performance in the US, in 1975, right after finishing the Boston Marathon. Their intense performances made them legendary. Even today, Kodo often performs in the traditional Japanese version of a loincloth, the fundoshi, inspiring thousands of women and men to gasp at their buns and abs of steel. Originally it was an all male troupe but as of June 2020, there were 34 performing members, which included nine women.
The Earth Celebration has evolved into a massive event over the decades, but I find that it still retains much of its charm.
I was there for the third year of the event in 1990 as a college student. I was dating a Taiwanese-American exchange student, lovely Anna L, who had also been playing with San Hose’ Taiko for several years. We camped on the white sands of Sobama Beach in a tiny tent, going to drumming workshops during the day, concerts at night, eating local food, and enjoying quiet nights, listening to the waves gently wash across the beach, while someone played bongos late into the evening. The water was crystal clear and it almost glowed blue when the sun refracted off it in the afternoon. The lack of city lights made the stars as visible as they would be in the best planetarium in Tokyo. It was one of the greatest and most romantic trips of my life.
I returned to the island most recently in 2019, for two short days, and felt lucky to have been able to get tickets to see some of the concerts. Due to the popularity of the festival, tickets sell out very quickly after going on-line, so if you plan to go in August of 2022—this year is almost certain to be an on-line only event—book early.
The concerts are usually held outdoors and the acoustics are wonderful. Be prepared to sit on the ground and be rest assured that almost anywhere you sit will give you a good view of the stage. The organizers are careful to regulate the number of tickets to keep the experience pleasant and spacious.
I particularly enjoy the Taiko drumming workshops where you are given a chance to learn the basics of playing those massive percussive instruments, some of which are much taller than you or I could ever hope to be. You can especially feel the waves of sounds coming from the nagadō-daiko (long-bodied drum). They are made from hollowed-out Japanese cedar or other hardwoods, in a cylinder shape, with cowhide over the top and held down tightly with metal pins. It’s not hard to get the basic rhythm but maintaining it with the massive drumsticks in your hands is physically exhausting. The more subtle taiko drumming mimics the inhalation and exhalation of the human body, but the whole body movement required for a long performance is literally breath-taking.
The sound of the drums are hypnotic.
This is part of the joy of Sado Island; it’s not just seeing the sights, but hearing them—and feeling them. The soundscape of the island can be as enjoyable as the landscape. The local festivals are musical treats as well.
If you’re going to the EC, Sobama Beach in Ogi town, is a wonderful place to cool off, and very close to the main venues. The long off-white sandy beach, a shoal, is far off the beaten path and stretches out for nearly four kilometers; there are no houses or hotels nearby. The water is usually crystal clear and is pleasantly cool but rarely cold. The Sobama campground nearby is free to use, and there are all the essential facilities nearby. If you feel like a hot-spring bath (not free), there are places within a short hike away. Hot showers and toilets are also available. The campground provides a wonderful place to watch the sun go down as well. During the festival period, it tends to fill up, so you might want to consider reserving a room at a Japanese inn on the island; prices are reasonable, the hospitality usually exceptional. One should also mention that the joy of camping on Sado can be diminished greatly if you are unlucky enough to encounter a typhoon.
While you are in Ogi, you can also try your hand at riding a traditional washtub boat, known as a tarai bune. They are small round boats which hold two people plus the helms-person. If you board one at Ogi Port, for about $5, you can get a ten-minute guided tour of the turquoise waters. For $10 and a bottle of sake, I once got a fisherman to take me and a friend to the other side of the island but that only worked once; getting back took hours. The island is bigger than you imagine.
Near the port, you can also visit Shukunegi, which was once a ship-building village, and is lovingly preserved. For those who plan to stay longer, you should visit the remains of Sado’s once booming silver and gold mines or the many famous Buddhist temples.
If you’re a true connoisseur of the Japanese theatrical arts, visit the places where the grandmaster of Japan’s mystical Noh theatre, Zeami, lived temporarily on the island. Zeami was banished from the Imperial Court by the shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga in 1434 and sent to Sado.
He wrote a beautiful literary diary of his time there, Kintosho--“Writings From The Isle Of Gold”.
It concludes with a poem that captures the quiet contemplative beauty of the place.
Look on these words
The plover tracks
Of one left on the Golden Island
To last as sign, unweathered,
For future generations
Be warned—it’s quite a trek to get to the island. You’ll need a plane, a bullet-train and a ferry to arrive at your destination, and probably will need to rent-a-car to really fully explore Sado. A bicycle can also do the trick.
And if you really want to savor the sights and sounds, buy a smooth dry bottle of Hokuetsu sake, which has been made on the island since 1872, and take a leisurely stroll. You’ll eventually get where you want to go.