After a long and awesome road trip me and my girlfriend finally arrived at Sado Island in Niigata, Japan. Even though the hotel seemed over-priced at first it was quickly redeemed by it’s exquisite dinner arrangement centred around fresh sea-food from the local area.
We’d arrived in the evening so our sightseeing activities only truly began the next day. After a satisfying breakfast buffet (I’m a sucker for a buffet) it was time to start that playlist up and hit the road once again …
The main industry on Sado used to be gold mining. The mines are long since depleted but now they function as one of the biggest tourist spots on the island. We approached the main mine entrance via a narrow, twisty main mine mountain path (actually there were many main mine mountain paths). There are a couple of different tunnels through the mine, each built in a different historical period. The entrance fee is determined by which tunnels you want to see. We decided on going through the Edo Period Tunnel.
The tunnel was not particularly long but it was filled with information boards detailing the horrific conditions under which the workers lived and worked. It talked of the minuscule life expectancy of many of the workers as well as the back-breaking toil they went through. As well as this there were also a load of animatronic robots set-up down various side-tunnels, all of them “working” away at the jobs of their flesh-and-blood predecessors. It was clear that these bots weren’t especially new as some fake skin and hair could be seen peeling away, and a distinctive grinding sound could be heard with every movement. In some cases their cold, lifeless eyes seemed to be calling out for salvation, much in the way I expect the real miners looked. In some ways these lifeless hunks of metal were going through the same nightmarish trauma that the original workers went through.
After leaving the tunnels there was a museum area containing various old tools and equipment used in the mine. There was also a room filled with models of the various buildings and factories that were needed for each step of the mining process. So we could see, step-by-step, what happened to the gold back in the days when the mine was active – all the way from ore to coins.
In a separate room stood a large plexiglass box with a round hole cut into it. Inside the box there was a large gold bar. On the box was a label that said
Whom so-e’er doth remove yonder gold shalt keepst it for e’ermore.
except in Japanese … and more normal than that. There was also a number showing how many people had succeeded in removing the gold from the box. I can’t remember the number now, but it was a lot. “Piece of cake!” I thought. I plunged my arm through the hole and grabbed the bar. It didn’t move. In that moment I realised something: gold is heavy, man! With a bit of strain I finally lifted it up and held it for a bit, shaking like a drug addict, before foolishly trying to squeeze it and my poor, trembling hand through the same narrow opening. I gave up. The bar dropped with a loud thud. I cradled my aching arm. No gold for me.
Sado Island is shaped a bit like an italic S. The mine is slightly up from the middle of the S. After the mine we zipped down to the bottom of it. There was a place you could take short, scenic boat or ferry trips. We went on a fun speed-boat buzz around the nearby shoreline and then we took a ride in a traditional Tarai-bune (Tub Boat). These things look like giant wooden buckets. They can only fit about four people maximum plus the boat-lady who’s in charge. They’re controlled by a single oar that pokes vertically down into the water at the front of the boat. This is pulled left and right to generate thrust and to steer. As you may imagine, it’s pretty slow. However, on a sunny afternoon the gentle swaying and peaceful waves make for a lovely time.
Our next stop was at a Sake Brewery, which had a tasting area. I was particularly excited about this little stop. My companion graciously accepted driving duties while I dove straight into tasting the multitude of Japanese Rice Wine on offer. We were served by a very nice lady who was very nice because she said things like “you can have another one if you want” and “I’m afraid you can’t taste this special, award-winning, super expensive one. Well … (>looks around, takes my cup, kneels down and secretly pours some out<)”. As with regular wine tasting, it was great fun to experience the different nuances between the various types of Nihon-shu and to hear about how the flavours are created in the brewing process. With a big grin on my face I thanked the very nice lady, bid farewell, and bought three bottles to take home.
One of the main draws of Sado Island is its many beaches. In the hotel foyer there were flyers detailing eight or more of the main beach areas around the island. After eating some more delicious fish for lunch we picked a nearby beach from the list and set off. The afternoon was waning as we arrived but there were still plenty of people about. We picked a spot, changed into some casual beach-wear and laid down. Nearby some people with Jet Skis were giving others rides on large inflatable things. After a while we went for a short dip in the warm and gentle sea. When we left the water my girlfriend suddenly cried out. Something had cut or stung her on the arm. There was no mark and I dismissed it, saying it was probably some debris or shell that scratched her. She insisted it was more than that and sure enough, after a minute or so, a patch of skin on her arm started to turn red and bubble up. We asked for help at a nearby food cart. We were directed to a life-guard office. Inside my companion chatted to the man there in rapid Japanese that I couldn’t follow, but I heard them mention “jellyfish”. Now, my only knowledge of jellyfish stings comes from an episode of the TV show Friends in which Monica is stung by one and apparently urine is the best way to ease the pain, so her friend Chandler has to, well, man up. Bearing this in mind, imagine how I felt when the man in the life-guard office took out an unlabelled plastic bottle with a yellow liquid inside and started pouring it on to my girlfriend’s arm!
I gasped and stood there, slack-jawed. She turned to me with an odd look. “Vinegar” she said flatly.
Needless to say, we’d had enough of the beach for one day. We got some special cream to sooth her sting and headed back to the hotel.
We relaxed for the evening. There was another outstanding dinner prepared for us. In the morning I had also realised another reason for the steep price of the hotel. The Onsen was in excellent condition, with a stunning sea view from the outside bath.
The next day it was time to head home, but first we stopped off at another recommended sight. At this rocky outcropping we could get a nice panorama of the Sea of Japan. There was also a tiny aquarium. My main thought whilst looking at all the fishies was “so when I can eat them?”
The drive home was tough. We’d left Sado Island later in the day than we’d left home at the start of our journey. We drove in shifts, stopping regularly, sometimes taking naps at service areas. We got home eventually, tired and yet refreshed. The sea air, the fresh food, the hot spring minerals, the sake. All of it came together to make our first trip to Sado Island a very special, very memorable one.
Have you ever been been to Sado Island? Would you like to know any other details about our itinerary? Let us know in the comments.