The story of how I came to visit Niigata prefecture’s Sado Island is somewhat embarrassing. Well, maybe that’s the wrong word—but it’s definitely strange.
It was right around the beginning of covid-19, and I decided to pass my boredom one morning by watching the movie Earthquake Bird on Netflix. A slow-burn psychological thriller, it’s set in Tokyo in the 1980s, although the main characters take several trips, including to Sado Island.
The main reason I made my Sado Island day trip was an onsen that, upon re-watching the movie, was actually in a completely different part of Japan. I still ended up enjoying Sadogashima, of course, just not for hot spring-related reasons.
How to Get to (and Around) Sado Island
Getting from Niigata to Sado Island is relatively simple. Several ferries per day depart the Sado Kisen Ferry Terminal, with both high-speed jetfoils and ordinary car ferries available. For the vast majority of foreign travelers, the jetfoil is the best option. If you want to rent a car (and I’ll explain why you should in a second), you can do so on Sado Island. Click here to browse ferry schedules and reserve tickets.
As far as getting around Sado Island, having your own set of wheels is definitely advantageous. The island is a great deal larger than it looks, for starters. Moreover, while there are regular bus services to major destinations, they’re not frequent enough such that coming over for a day from Niigata will allow you to see everywhere you want to go, at least not for sure.
What to Do in Sado Island
Explore the intersection of history and nature
Broadly speaking, Sado Island is one of the best places in Japan for experiencing the way the country flawlessly blends the ancient and modern. From the harbor that juts up against Edo-era Shukunegi village, to a controversial gold mine (which I’ll explain in further detail in a few paragraphs), Sado Island is a land of contrasts.
Ride in a tub boat
Known in Japan as tarai, the “tub boats” docked just offshore from Shukunegi are one of the main reasons that many Japanese travelers find Sado worth visiting. Unfortunately for me, during my latest visit in 2021, these were out of commission due to government covid-19 restrictions.
See seasonal spectacles
Like most of the rest of Japan, Sado Island has gorgeous cherry blossoms (which bloom in early-to-mid April) and vibrant fall colors, which are an early-to-mid November affair. Coming in summer? See gorgeous orange day lilies in June, sunflowers in July and August and red spider lilies in September.
Watch a Noh play
If you want to make your Sado Island itinerary even more cultural, stop at one of the various outdoor theaters around the island to see a Noh play. Although this won’t be quite as interesting if you can’t speak Japanese, the visual spectacle is still compelling.
Visit the Sado Gold Mine
Local tourism authorities want to make Sado Ginzan Gold Mine into a star attraction. A major problem with this, however, is the controversy surrounding the mine, which has been in operation since the 17th century. Specifically, it’s linked to the thorny wartime labor issue with South Korea, which prevented it from getting UNESCO status.
Should I Stay Overnight on Sado Island?
As I mentioned earlier in this article, Sado Island is bigger than it looks. Realistically, if you have the time in your trip to spend a night here, you should. This will allow you to take your time exploring, and also account for the possibility that one day you visit might have inclement weather. Depending on where you stay, it may furthermore offer you a deeper insight into the island.
On the other hand, the reality is that most travelers don’t even visit Niigata at all. If a Sado Island road trip is in the cards, it’s usually as a day excursion from here. As a result, the chances of you having a night to spare are pretty low, even if Niigata is already in your trip plan, be it for two weeks in Japan (or, more likely, for a long trip such as one month in Japan).
Other FAQ About Visiting Sado Island
Is Sado Island worth visiting?
Sado Island is absolutely worth visiting! From culture like the tub boats and Noh performances, to the history of the gold mine, to stunning natural scenery throughout, Sado Island punches far above its weight as a travel destination.
What is Sado Island known for?
Sado Island is known for a few things, with a couple of the most notable being its controversial gold mine, as well as the “tub” boats that have become somewhat famous in recent years. However, it’s generally only known among Japanese tourists, and is still pretty obscure as far as most foreigners are concerned.
What is the transportation in Sado Island?
While you can travel to Sado Island via ferry, there are only two options for getting around the island. The first is to take a bus, although these aren’t nearly as frequent as ones elsewhere in Japan. The second is to rent your own car, which is more expensive, but gives you a great deal more freedom.
The Bottom Line
Whether you take a Sado Island day trip from Niigata or go on a longer trip from Tokyo or somewhere else in Japan, this little island in the Sea of Japan punches well above its weight. From “tub boat” rides along its dramatic coastline, to enthralling culture including Noh performances, to an impressive (and controversial) gold mine, Sado Island has something for every kind of traveler, no matter how long you decide you stay there. Want to make sure your trip to Niigata prefecture is one for the record books? Commission a custom Japan itinerary and let me sweat the details!