Sado-ga-shima is Japan’s largest island, off the north-west coast of Japan opposite Niigata. Its shape is distinctive, two mountainous areas to the North and South, joined by a flat fertile plain. I knew little about the Island except that it was the home of a famous traditional drumming school. When I returned to Tokyo to meet a Japanese colleague he was very surprised that I had been to Sado, it’s not on any of the usual international tourist itineraries but he knew it through a project which seeks to develop a sustainable economy for the island.
I arrived around 11pm on Friday and cycled the 10 minute ride out of town to the Sado Seaside hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet as cheap and cheerful. Luckily the hotel website had provided me with a photograph. The signs were all in Kanji and without a picture to identify the place I might have cycled the empty streets all night.
The hotel was OK if basic, with a hot spa bath and a dining room that served slightly odd western style breakfasts and pretty good traditional Japanese evening meals. The main clientele appeared to be contractors, pairs of men in white vans on the island to install or repair something, just as you find in cheap hotels everywhere. The hotel was one of the few affordable places in the area of Ryotsu, the main town, and its “seaside” description was justified by overlooking a shoreline of large concrete and boulder breakwaters, rather than a sandy beach or picturesque harbour.
In the morning I arranged to leave the non-essential part of my luggage at the hotel and return on the Sunday night. Then, lightly loaded, I set off across the centre of the island towards the west coast. Here’s my route:
My plan was to leave the main road and strike out into the southern hills, perhaps crossing to the south coast.if I made good progress. The main aim was to ensure that I ended up somewhere where I could find a bed by nightfall – on a bike you have a limited range and places to stay on the south coast are infrequent.
My maps soon let me down as I turned off up a beautiful valley and arrived at a crossroads not marked and with no signpost. Having failed to persuade a group of schoolkids and their teacher (engaged in baseball practice nearby) to identify our location on my map I worked out that I might be going the right way, but I could just as easily be on my way back to Ryotsu. I regretfully decided to stick to the main roads until I had got my bearings.
The lack of a good map was really getting to me. At one point I stopped at a little village shop and saw that the the glass top of the counter protected a large, very detailed, topographic map of the island, very similar to a British Ordnance Survey map. Exactly what I wanted, but when I tried to ask the shopkeeper, one of many indomitable old people on the Island, where I might obtain one, my communication skills failed me. I suspect the map had been a fixture in the shop for many years and the idea that you might buy one (as opposed to just having it) was quite novel.
As the day progressed another small problem started to assert itself. Cyclists need to refuel frequently on the road and I usually carry biscuits, dried fruit, nuts and cereal bars as well as relying on cafes for tea and cakes. In Japan, however, I found myself constantly defeated by the snacks available. Packets of biscuits that looked promising almost always turned out to be salty and mostly air. Clearly Japanese cyclists had other ways to fuel up but wayside noodle stands refused to reveal themselves and I eked out my dwindling collection of Frusli bars and a slightly odd-tasting packet of Chocolate Digestive biscuits bought in Tsukuba.
I stopped at a small supermarket and tried to buy some fruit but they only had large baskets on sale. I indicated to the salesman that I couldn’t carry so much fruit on my bike and, as I was getting ready to leave he came over with a gift of two oranges. Although Japanese people are more reserved in public than Europeans (perplexed if a stranger smiles at them) it takes little to break the ice and I had many small incidents of kindness and humour to cheer me on my way.
I also saw a good number of old people on bicycles, creaking along at almost imperceptible speed, often laden with huge amounts of garden produce. Sado seems to provide the conditions for a long and active life, as well as level terrain and fertile soil and I fantasised about a wise old age with my own rice paddy and a rusty Brompton with arthritis in the main hinge. The small villages and farms were beautiful and tranquil on a comfortable human scale and with evidence of care everywhere.
As if in sympathy, old cars on Sado seemed to be spared the indignity of the scrapyard crusher and instead are pushed into nooks and corners where they become overgrown with vines and weeds and subside gently in little clumps. I became used to rounding a corner to see three or four Toyotas rusting quietly in a hedge and then realise that beyond them were a dozen more, almost completely subsumed into the undergrowth.
I reached the north coast during the afternoon and found the seaside resort towns of Mano and Sawata showing few signs of life. Obviously the season for beach holidays was past and any business that catered for tourists had closed, including the tourist information office, my first hint that I might have a problem finding accomodation that night. I struck out along the coast with the intention of reaching Aikawa on the north coast so that I could come back via the Osado Skyline route across the mountains, and maybe have a look at the famous old goldmines.
The north coast was very rugged – the winter storms must be fierce and the harbours and fishing boats had a tough, no nonsense look, not material for picture postcards. The Meota-iwa rocks are famously picture-esque according to the Sado guide but I found them bleak and unsettling. Close by however I was more entertained by a group of three old people playing a madcap game of croquet on a patch of rough ground. My adventures in Aikawa and the pleasures of Saturday night at the Ohsado hotel are described in more detail in the accommodation post.