A quite large rural island a few hours off the Japan Sea coast
Sado Island is a quite large rural island a few hours off the Japan Sea coast from Niigata city, north (across several mountain ranges) of Tokyo. The island is made up of two parallel but offset mountain ridges, with a fertile valley in between (Map). There are forested mountains with wild flowers, desolate stretches of dramatic coastline, quiet bays and lakes, and a few minor cultural attractions. Here's a general Sado Island Info Page (English)
The main interest here is just in wandering the island, visiting quiet fishing villages, rugged coastline, and several beaches. If this sounds good, Sado is large enough to spend several days at it, and a week-end is barely enough to really get into the relaxed island atmosphere. With a car, you could cover most of the many roads around the island in two or three days (once you get there), stopping where you pleased. Buses also run most everywhere, you just have to pick your spots ahead of time, and wait for the next connection.
Since the construction of the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Niigata, and the advent of hydrofoils out to the island, it is no longer a long day's journey to Sado from Tokyo, and there will likely be many more tourists than before. Still, there are dozens of little villages that are not on the tour bus routes, and islands are only really popular with Japanese tourists in the high summer months.
Sado was long a penal colony, or more accurately an island of banishment for enemies of the ruling lords. It figures in several historical dramas, where forsaken heroes lamented their lonely and desolate fate. Among the more famous exiles were the Emperor Juntoku and the celebrated Priest Nichiren, both of the 13th century. Sado is also famous for it picturesque folk dances, accompanied by the melancholic ballad, Sado Okesa (photo, left, clickable).
If you just want to get the lay of the land, or don't know where else to go, you can take a half-day or full-day bus tour from the ferry dock at Ryotsu (両津), the main town. A tour will take you around the central part of the island, visiting several of the historical sites and heading up in the mountains and along some of the coast line. This is a pretty easy way to hit the sights, but a Japanese bus tour can be a fast-paced and exhausting experience. At some point, you have to head out to explore on your own.
First you have to pick your routes. From the main port town of Ryotsu, you can set out in one (or more) of five directions. Two of them head off through the central valley to Sawata and Mano (真野), on the opposite, windward shore. The route to Mano passes several of the most historical and cultural sights on the island, including the Homma-ike Noh theater at the end of Homma-ike lake, Konpon-ji temple, Myosen-ji temple, and the Mano Mausoleum. The mausoleum is that of the Emperor Juntoku, and nearby is a museum of relics from the emperor, as well as of the priest Nichiren.
Having reached Mano, you have several choices. You can head south along the coast and over to Ogi (小木), another port with ships heading back to Naoetsu and Kashiwasaki (on Honshu), somewhat south of Niigata on the Echigo Main line. Or go north up the coast around Mano Bay to Aikawa and on, and on.
The mountain route from Ryotsu goes across Myoken-zan (1000 meters/3300 feet) and down to Aikawa on the coast north of Mano Bay. Just before Aikawa is the site of several feudal-period commercial gold mining operations, and you can take a tour of the Sadoyu-ko mine. From Aikawa you can take a side trip south down the Nanaura Kaigan (coastline), toward Dai-no-hana point. There is some fine scenery along this stretch, with numerous islets off the shore. Here you will find a few villages with some lodgings, few tourists, and not as many buses. We stayed at a nice little town about three-quarters of the way down, whose name I can't read; I think that was as far as our bus went, so there we stayed.
From Aikawa or Mano, you can head straight north up the long western coastline, facing the open Japan Sea. It's a long ways and there is plenty of picturesque rocky coastline, several nice beaches, and only small villages along the way. The northern most part is the most scenic and we stopped at a nice beach at little Ogawa on the Soto-kaifu Coast.
Towards this northern tip of the island, the coast gets very rugged, the roads worse, and the buses fewer. At the very tip are two dramatic points, Washizaki (鷲崎) and Hajiki-zaki. There are a few little villages here where you can stop over for a meal or the night, and there are some interesting walks along the coastal cliffs and into several caves in the rocks. We found one seaside cave that was full of little Jizo shrines -- well tended -- to the souls of dead children.
Rounding this northern point, the road heads back south down a long quieter coastline back to Ryotsu. The only real town is Uragawa, about half-way down. You could also start out from Ryotsu and head up this eastern coast in the opposite direction. This northern "leg" of the island covers a lot of distance, and is not nearly as touristed as the southern areas. There are a couple of rugged roads across the mountains, not served by buses.
The fifth route out of Ryotsu is south along the coast and out toward Hime-saki point. We stayed at a little inn at another village called Ogawa, before the point. Beyond Hime-saki, the road south down the eastern shore is poor and there may be few or no buses at all.
There are a few other regular roads across portions of the island, and several little side-roads and mountain tracks that you could explore by car.
Sado is usually reached via Niigata city (新潟). The regular Takasaki - Joetsu line from Tokyo to Niigata is a dramatic trip through real snow country, especially in Gumma Prefecture. But nowdays it only takes about 2 hours to Niigata on the new Joetsu Shinkansen, which tunnels through much of the high mountains.
You can still take the slow train if you really want to, but they are mostly at night now. A train leaves Shinjuku Station in Tokyo about 11pm, arriving in Niigata about 5am. Otherwise, you take a train from Ueno, and change a couple of times at Takazaki and Nagaoka.
If you are already on the Japan Sea coast, you can just head up on the Hokuriku and Echigo Main lines from Kanazawa. Along this coast is Naoetsu, from where regular boats ply to Ogi, on the southern tip of Sado Island. In warmer months (April to November) there is a hydrofoil service on this route that takes one hour; the regular ferry service runs all year that takes two and a half hours.
From Niigata, the regular car ferries take about two and a half hours to Ryotsu (両津) on Sado; for quite a bit more money you can take the hourly hydrofoil ("jet-foil") in just one hour. This is a most popular route and there will be quite a queue during the summer. Here's a timetable
to some Sado Ferry Schedules.
Ryotsu is a good-sized town with plenty of tourist hotels, but it will be much more fun to head out into the countryside and find a nice little inn in more pastoral surroundings. Any of the little villages will have a minshuku of some kind or another, but some of them will be closed in the off-season. Most of the really scenic areas will have several inns, and at least one will be able to take you in.
JNTO pdf guide : Sado Island & Niigata
This text was published on Randy Johnson's Favorite Getaways In Rural Japan, which is probably the most comprehensive guide for serious travelers in Japan. Reproduced with the permission of the author.