Sado Island: A Hidden Gem Of Rich Traditional Culture And Breathtaking Nature | CoolJapan

Onogame landscape at the north-western tip of Sado Island

The striking coastal landscape of Onogame at the north-western tip of Sado Island. 

The alluring Sado Island (also known as Sadogashima) is situated off Niigata Prefecture's coast. With a total land area of about 854 square kilometers, the site is famed for its breathtaking scenery and rich traditional culture.

Its remoteness makes it a perfect getaway for travellers who enjoy an off-the-beaten-track experience. That being said, Sado Island can easily be reached by taking a ferry from Niigata Port. A car ferry journey is a leisurely 2.5 hours, and a jetfoil ride takes only an hour.

There is plenty to explore on Sado Island, but here are five amazing things to do, especially for the nature and culture enthusiasts!

1. Enjoy an evening Takigi Noh performance

Noh, or Nogaku, is a traditional Japanese theatrical art form that involves music, dance and drama. On the island, Noh culture gained popularity during the Edo period(1603-1868) and evolved into the unique Sado-style Noh dedicated to the shrines.

This beautiful tradition has been proudly passed down through generations. Today, there are still over 30 Noh stages remaining, and it is known as a “noh for the common people”.

Takigi Noh performance
A traditional Noh performance on an outdoor stage. (Photo from: Wikipedia, Yoshiyuki Ito/CC BY-SA 3.0)

During the warmer summer nights, the evening performance of Takigi Noh takes on a captivating atmosphere. Surrounded by bonfires and the silence of the night in an outdoor theatre setting, the audience is treated to a cultural visual feast.

Among the many splendid Noh performances held across the island, the one at Daizen Shrine is one that you must experience. Rebuilt in 1846, this wonderfully-restored grand stage is said to be the oldest Noh stage still in existence on Sado.

Takigi Noh performances can be enjoyed from June to the early autumn month of October.

Check the 2023 Sado performance schedule here (tentative).

2. Try a taiko drumming experience

The rousing beats of the Taiko can be heard resonating across the island, especially during the peak of summer. Rural as it seems, Sado Island is the home base of one of Japan's most internationally-acclaimed taiko performing arts ensemble, KODŌ.

The annual Earth Celebration music festival has hosted by KODŌ since 1988.

Every year in August, music lovers from all over the world come to Sado Island for an exciting three-day music festival called Earth Celebration hosted by KODŌ. There are cultural workshops and local activities lined up for visitors to explore the charms of Sado but the highlight would be the electrifying performances put up by various members of the KODŌ group.

For those who want to get more involved, head over to the Sado Island Taiko Centre (also known as Tatakokan) for fun taiko drumming experiences that are available all year round.

Sado Island Taiko Centre

Let the beats of an immersive taiko experience energise your soul at Sado Island Taiko Centre. 

The taiko experiences are held in a beautiful wooden hall made using wood from Sado Island itself. In this excellent acoustic space that radiates with the warmth of nature, visitors can learn the art of Taiko from the KODO experts themselves. No experience is required, so everyone is invited to drum to your heart's content!

While you are here, do also check out two enormous taiko drums that are hand-carved from a 600-year-old Japanese Zelkova tree.

3. Spin around on a traditional tub boat ride

A peculiar sight greets visitors over at Ogi Town, a quiet little town located on Sado Island's southern coast. Round wooden boats, known as tarai bune, skillfully operated by female boatmen dot the turquoise waters of the Ogi coast.

Originally used as washtubs, these small wooden boats are believed to have been invented in 1868. During the olden days, people who lived on the Ogi Peninsula used them as an essential fishing tool to collect seaweed, abalone and shells. Today, these tarai bune still play an important role in the island’s culture, but in the form of sightseeing boats instead.

There are three spots where you can experience this unique tradition of Sado Island.

Tarai Bune experience

Female boatmen in a traditional outfit make the tarai bune experience all the more special. 

At Yajima Taiken Koryukan, the boat floats in an idyllic inlet with picturesque views of Sado Geopark and Sado-Yahiko-Yoneyama Quasi-National Park. The tub boat ride at Shukunegi Hangiri is set against the nostalgic backdrop of Shukunegi fishing village, where you will meander along rocky shores. You can also cruise out to the beautiful sea of Sado at Rikiya Kanko Kisen and even try your hand at rowing the boat, if you are up for a small adventure!

4. Trek among flowers on the Donden Highland Route

Sado Island is blessed with a rich variety of natural landscapes, from majestic cliffs to pristine primeval forests. It is even home to Japan's largest gold and silver mine (now a valuable heritage site) with a history that goes back 400 years.

There are so many things to do in this nature’s haven. During summer and autumn seasons, one recommended activity is the scenic Donden Highland Hike!

Flowers at Donden Highland Hike

Mount Donden, officially named Mt Tadaramine, is made up of three mountains rising above 900m. This round-top mountain is located at the heart of Osado Mountains and is a treasure-trove of alpine plants and wild flowers.

Donden Highland

More than incredible daytime scenery, Donden Highland is also an excellent stargazing spot when the sun sets. (Photo from: PIXTA)

The flower-studded 3.5KM circular route lets you enjoy the splendours of Donden Highland on gentle terrain. From Donden Highland Lodge, take a walk along forest roads surrounded by the prettiest mountain flowers and gaze at the mirror-like beauty of Donden Pond. Hike up to the summit of Mount Shiritate, the highest peak on Donden Highland, and feast your eyes on stunning panoramic views.

It is a relatively safe route with few elevation changes, which is great for beginners.

5. Get up close to nature spots on electric bicycles

There is no better way to connect with nature on Sado Island than on a bicycle. This stunning island, with a variety of scenic cycling routes, is a cyclist’s paradise. Stunning panoramas of mountains and rice paddies, and sweeping sea views envelop cyclists along the journey.

Kamo Lake Course

The Kamo Lake Course has little ups and downs, which makes it perfect for leisure cyclists.

The warmer months are great for cycling. Travellers who are seeking an easy but enjoyable experience can rent eco-friendly electric bicycles for an effortless day of sightseeing.

On the Kamo Lake Course (21KM), pedal around the idyllic Lake Kamo, visit some sacred shrines and meet the beloved Japanese Crested Ibises at Toki no Mori Park.

Nabekura Falls

Nabekura Falls

Go for the Rice-field Ridge Satoyama Course (23KM) to immerse in the diverse nature that Sado Island has to offer. Ride past sprawling rice fields, seek out the healing spot of Nabekura Falls in the lush forest, and end your journey at the popular Sawada beach.

There are three types of electric bicycles that you can choose from: the power-assisted “City Type”, the “Sports Type” for long distances and the “Sports Type Mini” that is lightweight and easy to use. Electric bicycles can be rented from the tourist information centre.