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No longer a place only for exiles...

One time Japan resident and author of “My Mother is a Tractor”, Nicholas Klar, packs up his bike and heads for Sado Island in the Japan Sea

The oba-chan (old lady) put a wiry hand up to her mouth, as they are oft inclined to do in these parts, and chuckled fiercely. We were out in her tarai-bune, wooden tub boats made from barrels, near the port town of Ogi on Sado-ga-shima (Sado Island). She had offered me the chance to try my guiding hand and I was fouling it up mercilessly. These tiny traditional vessels are a Sado institution which local folk still use for fishing near shore. “It’s difficult, isn’t it?” she offered as some kind of perverse encouragement. I’d once skippered a sixty-footer in North Queensland years ago but was more than happy to relinquish the leadership of this minute craft.

“Exile into the island’s harsh winters was a serious punishment, second only to the death penalty, and those sent were not expected to return.”

It was a warm August summer morning and I had come ashore in Ogi two days earlier with my bike after the shortish ferry journey from Naoetsu on the mainland. Sado Island possesses a gloomy but somewhat fascinating history. Prior to the reforming Meiji period of the late 1800’s, Sado-ga-shima was utilised for the exile of difficult or inconvenient personages, such as intellectuals, who had fallen out of favour with the government. Exile into the island’s harsh winters was a serious punishment, second only to the death penalty, and those sent were not expected to return. Deposed Emperor Juntoku, who spent twenty years on the island before his death, was transported across for taking a leading role in the ‘Jokyu Disturbance’ - a war between the Imperial Court and Kamakura bakufu (military government) in 1221. The rogue Buddhist monk Nichiren Daishonin was sent over to Sado for three years before his 1274 pardon, and also the noh dramatist Zeami Motokiyo on unspecified charges in 1434. Subsequently Sado Island has become famous for its performing arts – particularly noh theatre and joruri (puppet theatre drama)

In modern times its quiet pace of life and natural beauty makes it the place to get away from it all, but on personal grounds rather than the political. Sado Island today is a pleasant haven of green, rolling hills, ancient temples, haunting bamboo groves and quaint fishing ports, with a permanent, but rapidly declining population of just 67,000 (from a high of 125,000 in 1950). Earlier this year the provincial government proposed opening the island up for foreign residency in order to stem this tide of depopulation. It’s most famous recent migrant is Robert Jenkins, the former GI who deserted during the Korean War and spent the next forty-odd years trapped as a vassal of the Kim Dynasty. Jenkins, who was forced to marry a Japanese lady kidnapped from Sado Island by North Korean agents, now works as a part-time teacher and tour guide.

“If one thinks that Japan is purely a uniform society, a trip on the same ferry with me that day would have quickly dispelled that notion.”

Being summer the Sado Earth Festival was on again. This event has been run by the taiko drumming group ‘Kodo’ since the late 1980’s. When not touring, the group otherwise lives on the island year-round, reportedly in spartan conditions. Attendance is restricted to a small number of visitors, and with the increasing popularity of the festival, tickets are highly sought after. There was also a blues and jazz festival starting soon after on Mt. Donden so I  had decided to take in both of them, plus cycle as much of the island as possible. If one thinks that Japan is purely a uniform society, a trip on the same ferry with me that day would have quickly dispelled that notion. There were Japanese Rastafarians, Japanese punks, even some Japanese ‘Dead Heads’ that drove Kombi-vans with Grateful Dead stickers plastered on the back windows.

In the later afternoon I had a leisurely ride out to the Rengebu-ji Temple near Ogi as the sun set over the ocean in a glowing orange orb. This Buddhist temple holds several halls, some dating from the Keian Nenkan (1648-52) period, many of which are heritage listed because of their historic significance. This temple was erected by Kukai, the founder of Singon sect of Buddhism in 808 to protect Kyoto from calamity as Sado lies northeast (an “ill-omened” direction) from the ancient capital.

The Earth festival usually takes place over three days with a concert on one evening by invited musicians and another featuring Kodo on the last night. These both take place in Shiroyama Park on top of a hill overlooking Ogi. In between are daytime workshops, markets and street concerts, all making for an interesting cultural mix. The Kodo concert is a spectacular mix of percussion and theatre which lives on long after the music fades.

After completing my tarai-bune excursion late the third morning, I headed northwards up the coast road toward Ryotsu. The middle of the island possesses the O-Sado range of mountains, with peaks Mt. Kinpoku, Mt. Myoken , and Mt. Donden along with a network of walking trails. On the O-Sado Skyline road there’s a vantage point called Haku-un-dai (“White Cloud Heights”), offering a spectacular view of the entire island. There was a head wind, and it took me nearly five hours to cover the sixty odd kilometres to Ryotsu.

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