Sado Island











The Taiko picture is courtesy of The Kodo

An edited version of this article was originally published in theJapan Times March 26, 1997

           According to theKojiki,  (Record of  Ancient Matters) long ago in ancient Japan,  the august pair of  Izanami and Izanagi floated down from the heavens and created an archipelago of  islands by catching up pieces of land as though they were fishing. One of these islands they named Sado.


…..Thereupon Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto descended from the High Plain  and gave birth to the Island of Tsu. Next they gave birth to the Island of Sado…

           from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, Vol. 1, Sect.5)

           From its divine birth, Sado Island has gone through centuries of growth and change,  from being home for the exiled, to becomingthe world's foremost area for mining gold in the 17th century, evolving to its present reputation as a summer getaway for the residents of the mainland,  andhome of The Kodo,  Japan's most internationally successful  taiko (Japanese drum) group.

           Sado consists of  two parallel mountain ridges, the peaks of these mountains belonging  to a long underwater ridge called the Sado Ridge. Essentially, (along with the help of the gods) the island was formed by  geological activity along this ridge, resulting in a topography of  steep hills, mountain, streams and a low, fertile plain, known as the Kuninaka Plain.  It was discovered that people first lived on Sado about ten thousand years ago, confirmed by  the findings of  prehistoric remains- ax heads, tools, pottery, beads, coins, etc.

           Located in the Sea of Japan,  the main point of entry for Sado is Ryotsu Harbor, known as the "front gateway” to Sado island. There are ferries or jetfoils leaving from Nigata almost every hour.  It is also possible to take the ferry or jetfoil from Naoetsu to Ogi.  The jetfoil is faster than the ferry, and offers "no pitching, rolling or seasickness,” but the ferry gives you the opportunity to sit outside on the top deck under blue (or gray) skies, and watch Sado Island approaching in the distance; Passengers have the freedom of exploring the decks as they wish, but most people tend to stay inside the tatami rooms, eating, sleeping, playing cards, and warding off the ravages of seasickness. I had a wonderful time sitting on the top deck watching Sado Island approaching in the distance.  There was a Japanese flag towards the front of the deck, that contrasted nicely with the blue-green sea.

             Upon getting off the boat and entering the Ryotsu port building, I was swept up in the flow of tourists milling around, and the maze of souvenir counters.  The bus terminal is located  next to the building, making for convenient sightseeing.  Ryotsu is a sleepy, seaside town that belies its population of  80,000.  There is a long main street with the ubiquitous outdated fashion shops and arcades present in all  Japanese towns. The Japan International Triathalon was held the weekend I went; athletes of all shapes and sizes livened  up the gray streets with their fluorescent sweats and shorts.  Behind the town is Lake Kamo, the only lake in Sado, and nice if you're interested in oysters, fishing, or motor boat cruising.  There are also a few hot springs around the lake.

           Close to Lake Kamo, in Agata,  is the Homma Ke Noh  stage,  built in 1885. This stage was the first to be built on the island, and is privately owned by the Homma family. This stage is significant in that it's the oldest stage on the island, and for another reason-there are empty ceramic pots buried underneath the stage,” says Masako Hashimoto, a spokesperson for the Noh theater. Ceramic pots?  "They're  used as an echoing device. When actors dance on the stage, their  'clomp clomp’ sound  vibrates within the pots, heightening the effect. Actually, they're only half  buried, at an oblique angle to the sand, so that the reverberation is almost completely in the rim of the pot.”

            Noh theater has always played a significant role in the development of  Sado Island culture, in part due to the presence of Zeami, one of Sado most famed exiles.  One of the founders of  Noh theater,  this brilliant actor and playwright was banished to Sado Island in 1434; the exact charge is not known, but it may have been due to his alleged political support of the Southern dynasty,  and the shogun's subsequent  antagonism toward him and his son Motomasa.  His stay on Sado is described in the bookKintosho (Book of the Golden Island.)

           However, it was the gold rush fever in the 17th century, and the subsequent dispatch of  Nagayasu Okubo to Sado Island that really fanned the flames for the "Noh fever” spreading on the island.  Okubo, serving as  head commissioner for the exploitation of  gold, brought in an entourage that included actors and performers;  before long, villagers, charmed by the drama and folklore of Noh, began competing among themselves to build more stages. "Now we have about  thirty-four  Noh stages on the island;  there have been up to about two hundred in the past,” says Hashimoto.

           Another  local performing art is Sado Okesa, one of Japan's most famous folk songs and dance. "Put your left leg out a half step, then raise your left hand in a saluting motion, almost touching the rim of your hat. Bring your right hand underneath the left sleeve of your kimono in a sweeping motion. Now put your right foot out…”


FromAikawa I can see the beautiful color of the sun

                                            setting in the ocean, the mountains covered in mist.

                                            (Sado Okesa)

           Performances are held every evening from 8-9:10 PM at the Ryotsu Kaikan. Men and women dressed in white or black kimonos (For Ryotsu minyo they wear white, while in Aikawa they wear black),zori and wedge hats made from the kaya plant,  dance on a stage lit up by a row of lanterns, against an ocean backdrop."M y husband and I began dancing Sado Okesa right after we were married and have continued up to now,” says Yaeko Koma, a local performer. "We don't practice on a regular basis, only for special events.  We do a lot of volunteer activities at hotels and lodging homes, maybe once a week.”

           There have been a few speculations on the origin of Sado Okesa.  One theory is that sailors from Nagasakiintroduced the hanyabushi song (former name of Sado Okesa) of Kyushu to the people of  Ogi in Sado; a more interesting story is the legend of a cat living in a rich merchant house in Niigata. The merchant suddenly lost his wealth, and the cat, wanting to ease her master financial burden, changed into a beautiful woman, and becomes a singing prostitute named kesa.

         A good chance to see many different styles of Okesa would be at the Ryotsu Festival,  held on June 15 and 16. Competitors from all over Japan journey to Sado to parade through the streets of Ryotsu in a competitionfor the title of  Japan number one Okesa dancing group.

           From Ryotsu it about a 90 minute bus ride to Aikawa and Sado Island's number one tourist attraction-Sado Gold Mine Mountain (kinzan),  250 miles of underground tunnels, with some running almost 2000 feet beneath the sea. Since its discovery in 1601, until its closure in 1989, the Sado gold mine worked almost nonstop, producing about 80 metric tons of gold,  staking a major claim in the financial stability of the Tokugawa Shogunate. After recovery, the gold was flattened into gold coins (koban),  and shipped out from Ogi port, then called "The Southern Gateway” of Sado. The shipping route called The West-Round Line brought in commoners from Osaka and Kyoto to work in Ogi,  while samurai warriors were recruited from Edo, thus changing the cultural makeup of Sado.  Merchants and commoners now rubbed elbows with exiled aristocrats and the intelligentsia.

           The main attraction at kinzan isthe Sodayuh tunnel, dug in the early Shogunate period.  The tunnel consists of  several chambers, passageways and tanuki ana (pits so small that one has to crawl inside like a tanuki (raccoon dog)to fit inside), branching off from both sides of the tunnel, filled with mechanical dummies of human workers obediently carrying out various tasks  to the tune of recorded sound effects, such as picks clinking against the rock, sloshing water, and the shouts of the workers.

           One chamber depicts some miners resting after a shift.  "I can't wait to get out of here and drink some sake!” says one man, sitting cross-legged on some straw matting, a bowl of rice in his hands.  After one mouthful,  he slowly turns his hinged neck to face the crowd of gaping tourists.  It was an amazingly lifelike scene, and I found myself feeling embarrassed, as if I were intruding on his privacy.

           High off the ground in another chamber was the scene of some other workers sitting on a log platform, chipping at the rockface. Dressed only in light cotton robes andwaraji (straw sandals) one can imagine how cold they must have been in the winter.  Safety precautions were also minimal, as shown by the round straw mats they wore on top of their heads, the only visible means of protection from falling rocks and debris. Indeed, it was the combination of lax safety regulations and deplorable safety conditions that lead to the deaths of  thousands of miners; it is the general assumption that kinzan was primarily operated by slave labor, drawn from the pool of  a steady commute of prisoners and exiles to Sado. In the past, there was a festival held every April in remembrance of  these workers, as shown by one scene of a dummy miner sitting in front of a wooden box used to collect money for the deceased.

           The major festival held in Aikawa is the Gold Mine Festival, held July 25th-27th, which features folk song performances, an Okesa parade, fireworks and a performance by the Kodo drummers.

           I stepped out from the mine into a light shower of rain, and boarded the bus bound for  Senkaku Bay,  described in one tourist publication as a"must-see,” and in another as an "outcropping of weird and wonderful rocks.” I settled down on the bus in a state of anticipation, hoping the rain would taper off. As the bus wound its way down the mountain,  I noticed two men in their early 20 loaded down with backpacks, cameras, and camping equipment, sitting at the front of the bus.  The bus stopped in front of  a small store, and we all piled out and made our way down to the beach. It was a dark and cloudy day, so the beach was isolated except for the two men from the bus, who were now setting up a tent. There's usually a glass bottomed boat available, but tours were canceled for the day, due to the bad weather. I decided instead to get on a mid-size motor boat, determined to see the weird rock formations.  The boat started up and made its way into the open sea; the ride got pretty  rough at times, with the boat perching at dangerous angles,  then smashing down again into the waves. I was standing on the outside deck trying to take snap some pictures between sprays of seawater.  "These rock formations were created millions of years ago by earthquakes and sea erosion,” piped the driver, occasionally pulling up close to fractured cliffs jutting out of the water atstrange angles, bringing to mind Cubist art.  The tops of the cliffs were lined with pine trees, framing faraway mountains. We cruised around the numerous coves and inlets, eventually making our way back to shore.  I got off the boat and made my way back to the bus stop.  I had about a twenty minute wait until the next bus, so I sat on a wooden keg in front of the store.  After a few minutes, awoman appeared in the doorway.


She gave me a friendly smile. "You need a ride back to town?”

           I paused. "Sure.”

           She pointed to a white van that had pulled up across the street."My friends came to pick me up. We can go together.”

           "Well, thank you,” I said. We crossed the street and got into the van. Another woman and a man were waiting inside. Smiles all around. I gave them some cakes that I had brought with me from Kanazawa.

           "You'refrom Kanazawa? That's far isn it?”

           I laughed. "Well, it's not as far as California, which is where I'm originally from.”

           We rode back to Aikawa, where they dropped me off at the bus terminal. I thanked them, then got on the next bus bound for the downtown area.

           "Excuse me,” I said to the bus driver.  "I need to go to the Sado Seaside hotel.”

           He waved me back into my seat. "I know where that is.  I'll take you there.”

I sat back down. It was getting dark, and lights were appearing on the streets. I soon found myself the only passenger on the bus. Worried that he may have forgotten,  I politely asked, "Is it close by?”

           "Yes, we're almost there.”                                                                                                The bus turned into a huge taxi as he suddenly pushed down the accelerator,  careering around corners and flashing through intersections. He pulled into the bus parking lot and parked among the other off duty buses."You wait here.” He got off the bus and walked to a pay phone. I watched him, by now totally confused. He came back and waved me off the bus.  "I called your hotel. They're going to pick you up here.”

           Allright,” I said, smiling, relieved that my fate had been disclosed. 

           From Aikawa, it is about a thirty minute drive down the  Nanura Kaikan coast to Mano Bay, once the political and cultural center of  Sado, and former home of one of  Sado Island most famous exiles, Emperor Juntoku. In the feudal period, the shogunate specified approximately seven grades of banishment, dependent on the degree of the offense.  A criminal could be banished from his village for a pickpocketing charge, or banished from the mainland for a major offense,  such as political dissidence. Such was the case with Emperor Juntoku; In 1221, after an attempted  coup d'etat against the Kamakura bakufu, the former emperor was banished to Sado Island at the age of twenty-four. During his stay on Sado he wrote over two hundred songs and poems, leaving behind a legacy of culture and ruins. He is said to have committed suicide at the age of  forty-six. His tomb, known as Mano Goryo, is located in a grove of pine trees, surrounded by a stone wall, maintained by two sets of fences, an inner and outer gate.  There is a feeling of loneliness surrounding the tomb,  evoking the unhappy life of the young emperor, who had a premonition of his death.


When I look at the faraway clouds of Kyoto

                                            I know I spend my last days here in Mano

                                            From Songs of Sado

Although his days were primarily spent in isolation, he occasionallyhad a few guests.

                                            Crescent Moon

                                            please guide my guest back safely

                                            to his mountain home

                                            From Songs of Sado

About 800 meters away from Mano Goryo is the Sado Traditional History Museum.  Formerly known as Toki-no-Sato, the museum underwent renovation in March 1995 to present the history of Sado in a more interesting and lively manner. "We wanted to let people actually relive the history of Sado,” says Yuko Kanai, museum spokesperson. Inside themuseum are various robots, depicting famous scenes and figures from Sado history, such as Nichiren Daishonin, banished to Sado in 1271 for religious dissidence,  Zeami, and Emperor Juntoku. One scene depicts the attempted execution of  Nichiren Daishonin; his figure is shown kneeling on the ground in robes, his palms pressed in reverence,  his face calm and composed. Surrounding him are his captors, one with a sword raised above his head. As the sword slowly descended on his neck, he proclaims,  "I am the pillar of Japan.”  The sound of  wind can be heard swirling around him. Suddenly, a meteor bursts from the sky, filling the stage with light. His captors drop their swords in astonishment, dazzled by the light. The execution was called off, with the next scene depicting  his enlightened state. Another interesting scene is of an old woman sitting on a  zabuton (pillow) with a calico cat on her lap, reminiscing about Sado's past.  A cup of tea and a plate of fish neatly covered with plastic wrap sit in front of her, making for a delightful scene. Akoto can be heard playing in the background, punctuating her speech."When I was a child I used to listen to the stories of Sado,” she says, stroking her cat on the head. Now, all the other children have died, and I am feeling quite lonely.” The cat meows in agreement.  She cocks her head and peers out at the audience.  "Oto-chan, where is your home?” she asks, pointing in the direction of an old man. "In your wife's heart.  Ka-chan, where is your home? In your husband's heart. Please live happily together.”  There are also three miniature theaters depicting various scenes. One theater depicts a soba shop complete with kimono-clad waitresses dancing on a stage in front of a crowd of men lavisciously slurping up soba to the tune of a very lively shamisen.

           The museum also displays various works of art by Shodo Sasaki, one of  Sado Island's most famous artists (1882-1961.) Designated as a National Living Treasure during his existence,  he was commemorated in 1990 on a Japanese stamp. His specialty was  wax casting, a technique involving beeswax and clay. 'Zuicho’ is an imaginary bird, modeled after the Japanese crested ibis,” says Michie Watanabe, a spokesperson for the museum, showing me a bird with a long curved fish-like body engraved with mysterious designs.

           From Mano you can backtrack up to the small village of  Nibo to see Konponji temple, one of the forty-four headquarters of the Nichiren sect. In October 1271, Nichiren Daishonin was banished to Sado island, on account of his denouncement of the most prominent Buddhist sects of the day, calling them "heretical.” Konponji Temple is where he was first brought upon arriving on Sado. Originally a cemetery, it was here that Nichiren spent his first winter with his loyal companion Niko Shonin, surrounded by rotting corpses of exiled criminals and paupers.


In the yard around my hut the snow piles deeper and deeper

                                            My only visitor is the piercing wind

                                            My evenings pass in discourse to the moon and stars on the profundity

                                            of the Lotus Sutra.

                                            One year gives way to the next…

                                            from he Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin-Volume One.

           The temple grounds consist of a lotus pond, a statue of  Nichiren , and the main hall, containing different paintings of  scenes depicting his life.

           From Mano I decided to go to Ogi, about a two hour bus ride.  The buswas filled with triathaloners in bright colored shorts and fluorescent sneakers, most of them asleep,  carrying all sorts of bicycle equipment, wetsuits, etc. The bus ride was wonderful, winding through the mountains, and then driving along the Ogi coastline and the turquoise sea. In the Tokugawa period, Ogi Harbor was used as the main port for loading gold from Aikawa. After the West-Round line was opened,  it was also used for trade in the Sea of Japan, until the end of the Edo period.

           One of the main attractions of Ogi, and indeed called the "symbol of Ogi” is thetaraibune (tub boat).  This small circular wooden boat has been used for fishing since the beginning of the Meiji Period. Women dressed up in kasuri kimonos and a type of wedge hat,  (sugegasa) navigate the tubs in the sea, looking through glass-bottomed wooden boxes for seaweed, abalone and wreath shell. They then use long wooden sticks with hooks at the end to retrieve their catch. At Ogi port you can try it yourself, and if you're good enough will receive a taraibune license. "I've done this job since childhood. In the winter I work in a small factory, and start again in the spring,” says Aoki-san, one experienced operator. "Here, why don't you try it?” She handed me the small oar. I stood up in the boat andnearly fell over; embarrassed, I gamely pushed the oar, and managed to move the boat a few feet.  I gave up, relinquishing my chance for a license. We made it back to the dock and Aoki-san paused for a picture. Determined to protect her skin from the summer sun, she was covered from head to toe, despite the heat. Dressed in red sandals, red skirt, long black gloves, white apron, kasuri kimono top, red bow around her neck, yellow waistband, and wedge hat, she looked like a cross between a  taraibune operator and a  Las Vegas showgirl.


Say cheese,” I said, framing her in the viewfinder. She smiled and I snapped. We said good-bye, as she moved on to her next customer, and I moved on to find "the children of the drum.”

           About six kilometers from Ogi, up in the pine woods, live The Kodo,  Japan's most internationally successfultaiko group. Since their debut at the Berlin Festival in 1981, they have given over 1800 performances in twenty-eight countries, playing at such venues as Carnegie Hall, London Queen Elizabeth Hall, and The Acropolis in Greece. Using Sado Island as a base, they spend about six months abroad, touring theUS from January to March, then moving on to Europe from April to June, returning home to spend the summer on Sado Island, then touring Japan in the winter. In addition to their touring responsibilities theymaintain two apprentice training centers, a drum workshop, have recorded numerous albums, and have also completed a few movie soundtracks, includingHard Target, starring Claude Van Damme, released in 1993, and  The Hunted, an action film starring Joan Chen and Christopher Lambert, released in 1995.


The name of this piece is Jang-gwara, explains Yuka Inoue,  Kodo's promotional manager.  We were sitting in the Kodo practice area, a huge room with wooden floors, timber pillars and multilayered beams.

Surrounding us were drums of various sizes, ranging from theshime-daiko (small drums with ropes wrapped around them),  o-kedo (marching drums), shiny brown chu-daiko(middle drums),  to the grandfather of them all, the mightyo-daiko (great drum), carved from the trunk of the zelkova tree and weighing in at a whopping 900 pounds. What is the meaning of Jang-gwara?”


Jang-gwara is the name of the instrument, a small hand cymbal. Oh, look they're starting.”

            From the back of the room entered a man, lightly clapping asmall pair of cymbals. He sat on the floor, and was soon joined by five other members, each carrying cymbals. They sat down, cross legged, and began a series of  delicateplinks, punctuated by claps and snaps.  Then the two members on each end began miming a game of catch, pretending to throw an unseen object through the air, miming the motions while clapping the sounds. The next piece, "chonlima,” consisted of four members alternatelyplaying the shime daiko and o-kedo,  with another member playing the chu-daiko in the background.  Late afternoon sunlight lit up their figures, some shirtless, others wearing T-shirts and headbands, and all wearing white tabi socks. Their performance was punctuated by precise rhythms, and what I thought was precise timing.


You're off ten seconds,” barked the rehearsal manager. "Let's try it again.”
           The late afternoon sun faded as the performances wound up, and members started to break up and go outside.
           I followed them, hoping to get a quick interview. I noticed the noticed the o-daiko drummer sitting at a table outside. I sat down at the table and introduced myself.

           "Yoshikazu Fujimoto. Nice to meet you,” he replied.

           "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I asked.

           "Not at all.” He motioned for me to sit down.

           "When did you join Kodo?” I asked.

            "I joined in 1972, with the Ondekoza.”

           "Ondegyoza?” I asked, thinking of  my favorite fried dumplings.

           He laughed heartily, relaxing. "Ondekoza. It means demon drums, I am a 'demon drummer.’  Kodo used to be Ondekoza, but we changed the name, after a split with our leader."

           "Why did you split with the leader?”

           "Well, among other things, the lifestyle was too restrictive. I mean, we couldn't have girlfriends, we couldn't get married. I wanted to get married, have children.”

           "Why couldn't you get married?”

           He laughed again. "What? You think demons can get married?”

           I laughed, thinking to myself, his face is so clear and tranquil, he must have conquered something with those drums              .

           The shakahachi player, Yasukazu Kano, sat down and joined us.

           "Why did you join Kodo?” I asked.

           He relaxed, leaning back in his lawn chair.  All around us, members were walking into the 200 year old restored farmhouse where everyone lives. It was dinner time, and guess what's for dinner. Gyoza, rice, miso soup and mountain vegetables.

            "I joined Kodo in 1986. Why did I join Kodo? It was interesting. I went to New York  City to play jazz. I used to be a jazz drummer. Anyway, while I was there, I became really interested in Japanese traditional music.”

           "Oh that's interesting. You discovered your roots in another country.”

           "Well, I think it's true that you can't really understand your own country until you live abroad. At least that was the case for me. Anyway, I only spent ten months in New York. I came back to Japan, joined Kodo, and have been here on Sado ever since.”

           "And what's it been like?”

           It was perfect timing, my joining Kodo, in that I had the perfect outlet to play traditional Japanese music, as well as the opportunity to infuse new rhythms into old music, and to play with other musicians who shared the same kind of open, non-restrictive thinking.

           This willingness to experiment with new musical forms to expand the taiko consciousness has manifested in different forms, from collaborating with other musicians (Fujimoto has worked with butoh dance master Kazuo Ohno, while another member, Katsuji Kondo has worked with the Netherlands Dance Theater in Holland) to hosting "the” world music event in Japan,  the Earth Celebration, a three day festival of music, dance, and theater, held every year in August.



Radiating light to every direction,

                                            exploring with body and soul,

                                            we will celebrate the culture of the new world,

                                            while experiencing mankind first expression,

                                            "ATAKAU,” to beat a rhythm.

                                            Earth Festival  ‘95

This three day celebration has included performances by such musicians as Aja Addy and Adjeley Mensah (Ghana/Drums and dance),  The Renegades Steel Drum Orchestra (Trinidad and Tobago/ steel drums) and the Suar Agung giant bamboo xylophone ensemble (Bali.)  There are also workshops, lectures, art exhibitions and various film screenings. If you go, it would be wise to get tickets well in advance, as they sell out quickly.  Accommodation in Ogi is limited; the majority of people camp out on Sobama beach, about six kilometers from Ogi.

To get to Sado Island:

From Tokyo-by train:take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno Station to Niigata(about two hours), then take the Jetfoil or Ferry to Ryotsu port(by ferry two and a half hours, by jetfoil-one hour.)

By car: take the Kanetsu Expressway to Niigata.

From the Kansai area: Take JR Hokuriku Line super express train to Naoetsu, then take the ferry or jetfoil to Ogi.

Sado Tourist Information Center-(0259) 52-3163





Kodo Village-(0259)-86-3630

copyright 1997 Avia Belle Moon. reproduction of photos/text is prohibited without prior permission