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Culture Colony
Sado Island showcases Japan's traditional arts

The Wall Street Journal Asia
October 20, 2006

SADO ISLAND, Japan — On Sado Island, you'll find devils — long-haired, nimble and fierce (and played by humans, by the way) — dancing and drumming atop a windy promontory in the area of Aikawa, or on the streets in the village of Ogi during the annual Earth Celebration.

Nearby, you'll hear the plaintive sounds of Sado's okesa folk songs, whether emanating from a town loudspeaker or being sung by a grizzled old man. A few blocks away might be a Noh theater stage, keeping alive a 14th-century art. And all around will be the trees, green rice fields and craggy cliffs that frame the historical and cultural jewel box that is Sado.

Dancers in demon masks and dramatic scenery are standard on Sado, Japan's sixth-largest island, a rugged S-shaped outpost anchored in the Sea of Japan. Once a place of exile for political undesirables and a gold-rush-driven source of wealth, Sado these days is a natural getaway par excellence — and a living repository of important traditional Japanese arts. Sun-dappled and slow-paced, Sado offers a glimpse of an older Japan that could make visitors forget that Tokyo — three to four hours away by train and ferry — ever existed.

"This is a small island," says Sekisui Ito V, an Aikawa potter who the government designated a living national treasure in 2003. "But the history is dense."

The Home of Kodo

Dense, and alive, in more ways than one. Today, Sado's lugubrious legacy of exile continues, albeit in reverse. The population of little Aikawa alone was 100,000 at the height of the 17th-century gold rush, but today Sado has just 67,000 residents. The ranks have steadily dwindled as young people move to cities in search of work.

And yet those who remain on 855-square-kilometer Sado maintain a cultural scene that is nothing if not healthy. To foreigners and the musically minded, Sado may be best known for the internationally renowned Kodo drummers. From their base in the tiny village of Ogi, Kodo members coax pounding, hypnotic rhythms out of Japanese taiko drums, and host their annual Earth Celebration festival every August. This year's featured guest was New York-based Tamango's Urban Tap, and next year's 20th-anniversary gathering — set for Aug. 17, 18 and 19 — aims to celebrate both Kodo's Japanese roots and bring back musicians from festivals past. Guests have included Zakir Hussain, an Indian tabla player, and Spanish Galician bagpiper Carlos Núñez.

But while Kodo drummers draw some of their inspiration from international artists, their base on Sado accounts for their signature sound, says Earth Celebration 2006 artistic director Kaoru Watanabe.

"Japanese music, it comes from the wind, the bamboo...the ocean," Mr. Watanabe says. "I think Kodo's sound would change a lot if we weren't living on Sado."

Kodo has a busy tour schedule but also sponsors a taiko drum workshop in the autumn. Registration is full for this year, but Sado's local government is building a cultural center, set to open by year's end, where visitors will be able to take short taiko classes at any time of the year.

Just Say Noh

Kodo has existed for 25 years, but some Sado traditions are far older. Thirty-three Noh stages survive on the island, and every year, about 30 performances of that ancient theater art are held on Sado. In addition to the in-the-flesh version, eerily life-like robots perform plays every day at Geinou to Toki no Sato, a 10-year-old museum that displays Noh masks and other paraphernalia. Yuzuru Sasaki, the chief manager, says interest in Noh is "building up" again.

That might sound boosterish if Mr. Sasaki's parking lot weren't full of tour buses and private cars. "We'd like to have everyone in the country understand the good points of Noh," says Mr. Sasaki.

With its loud beating, shrill music and studied movements, Noh is an appropriately Sado-esque art form: slow, mournful and dramatic. You can hear and see the same drama in the okesa songs and dances performed in Aikawa, or feel it watching a puppet play at the Silver Village in Sawata. The cutesy elements of Japan's pop culture are almost wholly absent on Sado, where — to paraphrase the 20th-century novelist Junichiro Tanizaki — it is the shadows that are praised.

Indeed, history casts a dark pall over the island. Today's visitors from Tokyo, Niigata and Shizuoka (not to mention South Korea, China and Russia) notwithstanding, Sado has historically been the opposite of a vacation spot — in fact, it's the Elba of Japan. Its list of exiles reads like a who's who of Japanese cultural and religious history: the Buddhist saint Nichiren Daishonin (died 1282), the renowned Noh actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo (died 1443) and Emperor Juntoku (died 1242) all spent part of their lives here in banishment from the mainland, and there are attractions associated with each scattered about the island. The highlight of those must be Konponji, a temple compound marking the spot where Nichiren's Sado life began. Konponji also houses several other later fine examples of religious architecture, clustered amid tree-rich, gorgeous grounds.

Mining History

Castaways of a different sort — forced laborers — are also part of the island's history. Gold was discovered near Aikawa in 1601, and homeless people from Tokyo (then called Edo) and Osaka were brought in to work the seams. Today, you can see the grim conditions by descending a cool, damp shaft to find dioramas of the grimy faced workers whose labor enriched the Tokugawa shogunate. And, if you're there on the right day, you might catch a glimpse of Charles Jenkins, the U.S. Army deserter who lived in North Korea for almost 40 years and now works at the mine. (Mr. Jenkins's Japanese wife is a native of Sado.)

For a living history museum and arts colony — not to mention a natural oasis in an otherwise concreted country — visitors to Japan would be hard-pressed to beat Sado. Plus, says 22-year-old islander Megumi Saito, "The people are good, and warm" here.

The How, What and Where of Sado

Getting There

Take the Joetsu line shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Niigata Station (about $82 per person).

In Niigata, take a taxi to the ferry terminal and hop on the two-hour, 20-minute car ferry (rates start at $18) or take the one-hour jetfoil ($51) to Ryotsu.

Getting Around

Sado has buses but no trains, so think about renting a car. At the ferry terminal in Ryotsu, Watanabe Sansho offers the lowest price; a one-day rental costs about $47 (81-259-27-5705; Web:

If you opt to take buses, a ticket from Ryotsu to Ogi costs about $12 and the ride takes about one hour and 40 minutes, including a quick stop for a transfer. From Ogi to Aikawa — about an hour and 20 minutes, not including transfer time in Sawata — the fare is about $11. The bus ride from Aikawa to Ryotsu takes just under an hour and costs just under $7.

What to Do

Travel three kilometers outside town to the Sado Ogi Folk Museum, which showcases an enormous 19th-century boat and various crafts and tools; admission is about $4 ( 81-259-86-2604). Near the museum is Shukunegi, an old fishing village featuring a narrow warren of traditional homes.

Get photographed as a maiko, or apprentice geisha, at Okesa Maiko in Shukunegi.

Take a dip in a hot spring bath at Ogi no Yu on your way back to Ogi (81-259-81-4111).

See okesa dancing and oni-daiko (devil drumming) in Aikawa at the Kasugazaki Tokusetsu Stage. Shows run until Oct. 31; admission is about $7.

Shop for traditional mumyoi pottery at the elegant shop of Sekisui Ito V in downtown Aikawa (81-259-74-0011).

Visit the gold mine, which is a short bus or taxi ride from town; admission is about $6 (

To see Sado from the sea, rent a kayak from fluent English speaker Manabu Matsumura (81-80-1082-6930; he charges about $46 for 2½ hours).

Where to Stay

In Aikawa
Ryokan Doyu in Aikawa has an excellent view of the Sea of Japan and serves king-size seafood dinners; rooms start at about $62 (81-259-74-3381).

In Ryotsu
Kagetsu Hotel overlooks Lake Kamo; rooms start at about $84 (81-259-27-3131; Web:

Sado Seaside Hotel is a less-expensive option; rooms start at about $50 (81-259-27-7211; Web:

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