Sado Island: My Real Japan

Toward Sado, toward Sado, even the tree leaves and grasses are blown by the wind. Is Sado such a nice place to live?” 

The opening line of Sado’s Folk  Song “Sado Odessa”

Yes it is.  Two and half hours by car ferry from the main island Honshu and Niigata City in The Sea of Japan sits The Island of Sado “Sadogashima” properly. In the mid-eighties I was one of the first Caucasians to live there as the wife of a native son.  At the time I thought I would live there forever, but it was not to be.

I was married on Sado in 1982 at the famous inn where Emperor Hirohito once stayed.  I was told by my fiance that his birthplace was “the real Japan” and his colorful descriptions did not disappoint.  Rural in every regard, “bygone” is the one word I would use to describe. Around every corner roadside altars shelter weather-worn stone Buddhas who serve those walking; wooden temples and shrines, long before turned grey, dot the landscape .  Back in the day, there were no chain stores.  It was all mom and pop…small tabacco stores and such.

Fish was obtained from the back of a flat-nosed Toyota farm truck that came by twice a week offering the latest catch from the villages on the outer coast.  Say to any native Japanese “I visited Sado” and you will elicit an “Ehhhh?!” followed by an “Isn’t the fish delicious!”- type of response.  To which you will undoubtedly answer, “Very tasty!”   Grilled or raw squid was my favorite.

Sado’s persimmons were a popular souvenir sold to Japanese tourists dried, but the quality of rice grown on the island has gained much attention.  I always recalled the fare at every meal comprised of the freshest side dishes with homemade pickles to cleanse.

History, food and ba-chans– little old ladies everywhere; many of whom work in their gardens too long as evident by their postures.  They amble along with their bent backs and bowed legs. Between their toothless, or perhaps over-dentured grins, Sado dialect cuts; a sharp “da-cha” being the emphatic conclusion to many a sentence.

In Japan festivals abound with each town or region claiming their fame. But on Sadogashima, there are resident demons who dance about– mini festivals in themselves. Most neighborhoods have their own  demon troupe that visit each door like missionaries warding off evil.  Japan is a superstitious nation in general with teruterubozu (tissue monks) hanging at the windows to keep the rain at bay; and the annual throwing of beans taking aim at household demons of the nefarious kind.  On Sado custom is magnified as is spirituality. The smell of incense and the murmur of prayer begins to waft more frequently past as you trek up the hillsides where houses thin and family names repeat.

Once I was called by the local Lion’s, the businessmen’s club, to translate the first English tourist brochure for the island.  That was long ago and now you can find English websites promoting the island to foreign tourists.  Since my time there, Sado has become known for its taiko (kodo) drumming  with tours world-wide.  It is an offshoot of the demon dancing that once mesmerized a naive American…pinning me down for a time to have its way.


Below is video composed by a foreigner who must have spent some time on Sado.  Her composition of sights and sounds captures the culture well.  The opening is the song that greet’s all who arrive in Sado’s port city.  Seeing the last few scenes depicting the tradition Noh play which is high art at its best, I recall my mother-in-law’s love of this traditional theater in her retirement years and how she studied well enough to grace the same stage in her seventies.  


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