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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2000

Step back in time to Sado Island


By SARA HARRIS

There is something about ferries that puts you in a frame of mind to think back in time.

Visitors to Sado Island can ride in taraibune (barrel-boats) in Ogi.

The ride from mainland Niigata Prefecture to Sado Island stretches two hours or more, during which time the shore you left and the one you are anticipating are quite likely never in view at the same time.

The modern hydrofoil could get you there in an hour. An airplane, even less. But the ferry journey brings to mind older journeys and the effort it must have taken to make the crossing without motorized transport.

These were often trips of trade, yes. But Sado was also known as an island of exile, the dropping-off point for miscreants, troublesome religious leaders and officials fallen from favor.

Today, those choosing to "exile" themselves for a while from life on the mainland are in good company. According to the Niigata Prefecture tourist center in Tokyo, over 900,000 people visit the island every year.

Sado has attractions and accommodations to satisfy a wide range of interests and budgets. Its natural beauty draws anglers, divers, bikers and swimmers, and camping spots await those who want to sleep under the stars.

Ryokan and minshuku offer midrange lodging options, and the many onsen that dot the map make tempting stops. Short-term travelers in groups may want to take taxis or buses to see certain sites or areas in a limited time -- perhaps with the added benefit of a local tour guide. Sado also has top-end large hotels and package bus tours.

The short-term traveler must pick and choose between the many offerings: simple scenery, like the stunning bluff just south of Aikawa; indoor pursuits like Mano's "Republic of Alcohol" tour; the miso museum in Akadomari or the Kinzan gold mine museum.

In addition to airplane access (a 20-minute flight from Niigata) there are three ports by which the traveler can reach Sado from mainland Niigata Prefecture: Ryotsu, Akadomari and Ogi. None of the major towns on Sado are more than 50 km from any other, and the road from tip to tip stretches about 80 km.

The sights are most easily accessible by car, although the roads are often narrow and winding. The ferries accommodate cars for visitors bringing their own or renting on the mainland side. All of the ferry ports, as well as the major towns, have tourist information centers with details about local attractions, car and bike rentals, accommodations and road conditions. For car rentals on Sado be sure to make reservations ahead of time, especially during summer, the island's busiest season.

Ryotsu, two hours and 20 minutes from the city of Niigata by ferry, sees the most commercial traffic of any port on the island, and huge warehouses and ice factories lining the road through town attest to the flow of goods through these waters. Arriving at midday, we missed the market activity, but the marina was filled with squid boats, draped with the huge glass bulbs that light the way for their nighttime shift.

Swans glide across Lake Kamo in Ryotsu, the largest lake in Niigata Prefecture.

Ryotsu fronts Lake Kamo, the largest lake in Niigata Prefecture. On its banks, the Ajisai restaurant makes the most of its location, with broad views of the lake (and occasional passing swans), a light wood interior and generous space. The menu features tempura with ingredients plucked straight from the counter display cases.

Within a 20-minute drive of Ryotsu is Niibo, where the Toki Preservation Center is located. The town has been the center of efforts to protect the toki (crested ibis) for over 60 years. Hunting the toki was not prohibited in Sado until 1954, and by the time it was declared the Niigata prefectural bird, only a handful remained. The last five birds in the wild were captured in 1981, but captive breeding efforts failed. Worldwide only some 200 of the endangered birds reportedly survive today, mainly in China, from which Japan received a pair of ibis in 1999. The hatching of Yu Yu in 1999 and another pair of chicks earlier this year made headlines.

Japan's only surviving crested ibis, Kin, and the pair Yo-Yo and Yang-Yang can be seen at the park in Niibo, although the chicks live protected within the research center. A one-room museum displays a map of ibis populations around the world, information in Japanese about the habitats and lifestyles of the bird, and video of the recent hatchings at the center.

Akadomari, smack in the center of Sado's southern coast, is the shortest distance from the mainland. The ferry from Teradomari to Akadomari is the fastest, short of the hydrofoil to Ryotsu or Ogi, at two hours, though Ogi and Ryotsu both offer bigger roads for the traveler headed north.

Akadomari is a center for miso production, and the Marudai miso factory and warehouse outside Akadomari, just before the turn to Hamochi, has a free display on miso making, as well as a tasting and souvenir center, housed in an old warehouse.

Ogi, 21/2 hours from Naoetsu, is the third port of arrival. Sado Island's Kodo drummers draw crowds every summer to the tiny port town during Earth Celebration, an extended weekend of lectures, workshops and concerts famous internationally. The quiet peninsula that stretches to its west, with its narrow roads and views out to sea, is both serene and scenic, and the waters off the coast are a national park.

Relax in the rotenburo at Ogi no Yu, with unforgettable views out to sea. Ogi's distinctive low, round taraibune (barrel-boats) are used for gathering seaweed, but tourists can take taraibune rides at the port.

The most popular destination on Sado is Kinzan, a productive gold mine for nearly 400 years before it finally closed a little over a decade ago. A museum now traces the history of the mine and depicts the labor involved in extracting the ore from the mountainside. Kinzan is a short drive along the Skyline, the spectacular mountain route running between Aikawa and Sado's central valley. For those who can stomach the steep hairpin turns, the stunning views across the island and out to sea are a fitting reward. The Skyline is also a popular tourist destination in the fall; the changing leaves peak in mid- to late October.

Tourists' second favorite landing spot is the Senkaku Bay area, just north of Aikawa, where the sunsets are matchless. The town of Mano, which nearly runs together with Sawata, has its own tourist information center offering maps of the sake breweries in town that belong to "Republic of Alcohol," where tours and tastings await.

Without question, Sado's strong suit is its stunning natural beauty. At the northern tip of the island lies Futatsugame, a volcanic outcropping said to resemble a pair of turtles. A gravel spit connects the reptilian rock to the shore, a beach and jumping-off point for exploring the inlets and caves around the formation.

A little farther on is Onogame, a peninsular version of the two turtles. The tip of Onogame is accessible by foot; in late spring the grassy slopes are covered with lilies.

If the ferry to Sado seems to take you to another world, the return trip, no matter how leisurely, is not likely to leave it totally behind. In fact, you may find yourself trying to figure how to arrange another weekend in exile.

For Sado tourist information, call (0259) 23-3300 in Ryotsu or (03) 5771-7755 in Tokyo.


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