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Sado Island

A Gold Mining Island Rich in Traditional Arts

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Sado Island is located in the Sea of Japan.

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Spanning an area of about 855 square kilometers, Sado Island is a relatively large island in the Sea of Japan situated about 45 kilometers northwest of Niigata, the largest city in the Hokuriku region. The island's topography is unique, with two parallel mountain ranges approximately 1,000-meters high connected by the Kuninaka Plain. The island has served as a hub for shipping routes in the Sea of Japan since ancient times, and rice has been cultivated on the central plain for over 2,000 years. From the eighth century, the island was used as a penal colony for political prisoners and dissidents. Some exiles brought cultural practices from the mainland to the isolated island, which contributed toward a distinctive Sado culture. But more than anything else, the island is famed as Japan's largest producer of gold and silver during a gold rush in the seventeenth century.


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The Dohyu-no-wareto, a goldmine that split in half.

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A model shows how gold was mined and coins were made.

Gold Mines Remain the Symbol of Sado IslandWhen Sado is mentioned among the Japanese, the first image for many is of gold mines. Gold was discovered on the island in 1601; until mining was shut down in 1989, around 78 tons was reportedly produced. The remains of the mines can still be found in the Aikawa area on the island's west side, about 50 minutes by car from the port of Ryotsu, which serves as the island's gateway. The mineshafts extend for some 3,000 meters from east to west and 600 meters from north to south, with a combined length of about 400 kilometers.

Some mineshafts are now open to tourists. Inside, animatronic figures and realistically detailed models show how shaft digging and the drawing of water had been done by hand from the seventeenth century to the second half of the eighteenth century. Visitors can also see more recent equipment such as mining trucks and rock-crushing machines; indeed, almost 400 years of history is on display. In addition, the Dohyu-no-wareto, a mountain split in half as a result of continuous digging into its rocky outcrop, offers an amazing sight outside the old mines.

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A woman dressed in traditional clothes rows a tub boat.

During the Edo era (1603-1867), Aikawa prospered as a mining town bustling with officials and technicians who operated the mines; its population numbered about 50,000 residents in the seventeenth century. Gold and silver were shipped out from Ogi, a port to the town's southwest. The port's cobblestone streets, canals, and houses date back over 200 years to its glory days, when it bustled with merchants and sailors. Ogi is also known for its interesting "tub boats," actually large wooden bathtubs with an oar attached. They are used by women to collect turban shells, abalone and other seafood from the island's coves and inlets. Although rather unstable, a ride in the boats is highly popular with tourists.


A Treasure Trove of Performing ArtsThe many exiles sent to Sado Island included renowned Buddhist priests and even a former Japanese emperor who had lost a conflict with the samurai government. Zeami, an accomplished Noh dramatist, was also among them. Noh took root on the island through encouragement by shogunate-assigned government officials, and the tradition continues to this day with Noh theaters at 33 locations. Found in shrines, the theaters hold Noh performances dedicated to the deities. Noh plays are performed every weekend from June to August at various locations over the island.

Besides Noh, regional folk songs were brought in by sailors and elaborate puppet shows were introduced from Kyoto, which contributed to the development of Sado Island's unique culture. A tradition that has been passed down is the demon drum dance, in which men dressed as demons dance fiercely to the soul-stirring beats of taiko drums. In recent years, Japanese taiko drumming has been refined by the taiko performing arts ensemble Kodo, a group based in Sado Island that regularly performs spectacular shows around the world.

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Noh performances illuminated by bonfires are staged outdoors in the summer. (Photo: The Sado Tourism Association)
Kodo is a renowned taiko performing group based in Sado Island. (Photo: Kodo)

Savoring the Blessings of Sado Island

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Left: Sado sake is savored in pottery cups made from the island's red ocher clay. (Cooperation: Hananoki)
Right: Hair crabs on sale at a local market.

With warm and cold currents meeting off of its coasts, the sea surrounding Sado Island is one of Japan's premiere fishing areas. Hair crabs and queen crabs can be found in the island's markets that supply local restaurants with freshly caught seafood. Above all, bright red hokkoku-akaebi, the Alaskan pink shrimp, is best served raw to enjoy its slightly sweet taste. Sake, or Japanese rice wine, should also be savored along with the fresh seafood. Five sake brewers based in Sado Island, which is also known as a rice producing area, have earned considerable praise for their products both in and outside Japan. The sake's rich fragrance can also be fully enjoyed in Sado Island's traditional mumyoi pottery cups, which are made using red clay found in the goldmines.

Thanks to all the people that came in search of gold and silver, Sado Island culture continues to attract travelers who wish to experience traditions that have been handed down over the island's long history. (February 2012)

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