Sado Island: A miniature Japan floating in the Sea of Japan
Sado Island (佐渡ヶ島 Sadogashima) belongs to Niigata Prefecture and is located off the coast of Niigata City. It is one of the most easily accessible islands to travel to from Tokyo.
With an area of approximately 855km2, it is one of the largest islands in the Sea of Japan. You would expect a large population on the island given its land mass. However, the population as of 31 May 2020 stands at 53,572. Can you imagine the island being bigger than Singapore but having a population of a 100 times lesser?
In Part 1 of this Sado Island series, I will introduce you to the unique performing arts which I really enjoy. Subsequently, I will introduce Sado Island’s local festivals and delicious food in Part 2, and finally, some of the exciting things that you can do on Sado Island in Part 3.
Unique performing arts
There are many performing arts on Sado Island. I would like to introduce you to two of the more prominent ones – Nōgaku (能楽) and Onidaiko (鬼太鼓).
Nōgaku, also known as Nō, was originally an art form which was learned by the samurai and did not achieve widespread popularity on the island until Ōkubo Nagayasu (大久保長安) came to Sado Island during the Edo era (1603–1868). Another famous figure whose presence is undeniable on Sado Island is Zeami (世阿弥), a playwright and performer who developed Nō to perfection.
Atmosphere of a Nō performance. (Image credit: Jasper Soh)
I remember the first time I watched a Bonfire Nō (薪能 Takigi Nō) performance. It was a warm summer evening at Kasuga Shrine (春日神社 Kasuga Jinja). As the ambient sound of the cicadas started to fade, the lights dimmed, and the bonfire lighting ceremony began. The cackling of the firewood could be heard, and the musicians and the Nō player made their appearance. I was blown away by the extravagant costumes and the gracefulness of the movements. Even though I could not understand much of what was going on, the overall atmosphere of the performance and the Nō player drew me in with his soulful chanting.
A scene from Nō play Funa-Benkei (船弁慶). (Image credit: Jasper Soh)
Watching a Nō performance is something you definitely must do if you ever find yourself visiting Sado Island and can be done mostly in the months of June, July and August.
Did you know? There are more than 1/3 of the remaining Nōgaku stages in the whole of Japan can be found here on Sado Island?
Onidaiko, literally translated to demon taiko, is a quintessentially unique traditional performing art of Sado Island. It is offered on many occasions, rituals and festivals in Sado, to pray for a good year’s harvest and for the well-being of families.
Generally, the festivals will take place in each settlement and what happens in most festivals is that a dance will be dedicated to the gods of the shrine. After that, the dance will be performed in a door-to-door fashion for the families living in that settlement.
Oni dancing to the beat of the taiko. (Image credit: Sado City)
The main character performing this ritual, the demon, is said to be an incarnation of god and possesses super powers to rid the world of evil. There are over 120 Onidaiko groups on the island and no two groups have the same dance steps. Depending on which area you are in, the dance may include lions (獅子 Shishi), which are very similar to the lions you see in the lion dance groups we have here in Singapore, just that they have a slightly different outlook to them.
Kids having a go at Onidaiko. (Image credit: Jasper Soh)
Being blessed by the shishi. (Image credit: Jasper Soh)
Onidaiko is a very exciting performance to watch as the demon (鬼 Oni) will dance wildly to the beat of the taiko. I tried my hand out at Onidaiko during a workshop and have to say that it requires some hand-leg coordination. The members of the Oni group (鬼組 Onigumi) were very welcoming and patient in teaching me the steps.
Performing along the streets after the Onidaiko workshop. (Image credit: Jasper Soh)
To enjoy Onidaiko, visit Sado during the month of April and you will definitely not be disappointed. If you are unable to tell the exact location of where the festival is taking place, just follow the sound of the drums!
How to get to Sado Island
To get to Sado Island, you will need to take a bullet train to JR Niigata Station (新潟駅). JR Niigata Station is approximately a 2-hour bullet train ride from JR Tōkyo Station (東京駅) on the Jōetsu Shinkansen Line (上越新幹線). From the station, take a 15-minute bus ride or 5-minute taxi ride to Sado Kisen Niigata Port (佐度汽船新潟港).
Purchase your ferry ticket and you’re all set to go to Sado Island. There are two options – Car Ferry or Jetfoil. The Car Ferry would take 2.5 hours to get to Sado Island while the Jetfoil would take about 1 hour.
I would definitely recommend taking the Car Ferry if you are not pressed for time as you will be able to enjoy the sea breeze and occasionally spot some dolphins swimming alongside the boat.
If you have purchased the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you will be eligible to purchase the SADO-NIIGATA PASS which costs ¥5,000 and will save you up to 40% as it includes round-trip ferry tickets as well as bus passes which can be used in both Niigata City and Sado Island. For more information, please click here.
For more information about Sado Island
Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Sado Island series where we explore the local festivals and delicious food!
Header image credit: Jasper Soh
- Sado Island Part 2: Foodies unite!
- Sado Island Part 3: Exciting things to see and do!
- Cruising along the Sea of Japan with the KAIRI
A Singaporean living the island life on Sado Island who loves eating so much that she can probably out-eat a man. Loves the ocean and nature, and you’ll probably find her covered in dirt from rolling around in grass, or covered in sea salt from spending so much time near the sea.