On a far isle, different drums

Kodo, the renowned taiko drumming group who will perform in Boston next month, played at the annual Earth Celebration music festival on Sado Island, Japan, last year.
By Marie Doezema
Globe Correspondent / February 22, 2009
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SADO ISLAND, Japan - Once a place of exile, now a place of refuge, this island seems an unlikely tourist destination. Located in the Sea of Japan off Niigata Prefecture, Sado requires a sense of adventure and a willingness to get a little gritty. Sand in your ears and bites on your ankles are all part of the experience.

Longtime resident Johnny Wales, a Toronto-born illustrator and writer who first visited in 1975, says this is what persuaded him to make Sado his home. "It's a hands-on island," he said. "It's really a participatory culture."

Your engagement begins even before you reach the island. For visitors coming from Tokyo, the nearly three-hour ferry ride is a treat for the senses. Salty wind, vast expanses of sea and sky, and the mournful call of the ferry horn provide an almost shocking contrast to the crowds and cacophony of the city.

After disembarking, a visitor gets a glimpse of an older Japan: tobacco fields and sunflowers, rock caves and secret beaches, rickety fishing villages and rice fields. But it's more than these external delights that makes Sado special. What's unique here is intangible, an ambience that Wales describes as open, curious, and creative.

Thanks to geography and circumstance, Sado has been an outsider magnet for centuries, yielding an eclectic local population of artists and aristocracy. A traditional place of banishment for political misfits, the list of exiles sent here reads like a register of who's who in Japanese history.

The island's lore has become a source of pride for Sado residents, many of whom attribute the funky vibe of the place to its unorthodox past.

The first known exile was Asomioyu Hozumi, a poet who was sent to the island in 722 for criticizing the emperor. Others include samurai, merchants, the Noh master Zeami, and the Buddhist priest Nichiren.

For a time, the island even enjoyed a gold rush. About 400 years ago the gold-filled mountain of Sado Kinzan drew fortune seekers from all over Japan. When the gold supply dwindled at the end of the Edo period, the mystique associated with Sado faded but didn't die.

Thanks to its relative isolation, the island has been able to hold on to its traditions. "Things tend to last longer. The fact that it's an island helps to create a protective barrier," Wales said, describing Sado as a "floating museum."

These days, the island is perhaps best known for its annual Earth Celebration, a music festival featuring Kodo, the island's renowned taiko drumming group.

For the two dozen performing members of Kodo, international collaboration is at the heart of the group's existence. They spend roughly three-fourths of the year living on Sado and four months touring the world. Kodo will perform in Boston at Symphony Hall on March 22.

Eichii Saito, a Kodo member since 1982, recalls that it was this arrangement that attracted him to join the group. "The isolation [of the island] means that the usual daily outside influences aren't there. The challenge is to pool our energy here and then go off to share it."

Tsubasa Hori, one of the group's eight female members, recalls the challenges during her first year as an apprentice. Days started at 4:50 a.m. with a 6-mile run, followed by breakfast, daily chores, and practice. After practice, gardening, more practice, and lunch came practice, dinner, and - finally - bed.

"I packed at one point and almost left, but I knew I hadn't finished," Hori said, recalling how she came to love the focused monotony of the days and the connectedness she experienced with the island's seasons and the other members.

"We're not naive enough to think that taiko will bring world peace, but the unity that it fosters does bring a sense of peace - that's the message to share with the world," Saito said, emphasizing how integral the island is to the group's identity. "Without Sado there would be no Kodo."

I had come to Sado for the Earth Celebration, but I was doing my best to get the full island experience by trying as many outdoor activities and cultural excursions as possible.

By night I camped on the sand, braving heavy rain, a leaky tent, and the almost frat party-like scene at the beach campground. By day, I explored the island with the help of a rented solar-powered hybrid electric bike - not only is the island eco-minded, it's hilly.

One thing everyone kept telling me not to miss was Shukunegi, a traditional fishing village about a half-hour bike ride from the music festival's base near Ogi port.

Besides the village's folklore museum, there are temples, shrines, and creakily gorgeous wooden buildings. Tiny shops sell traditional treats like green tea and sweet bean-topped mounds of shaved ice, the perfect thing for a tired biker. A rocky tunnel, the former storeroom for the village's seaweed harvest, leads to an eerie moonscape formed by volcanic activity some 14 million years ago.

Unless you're looking for a movie theater or a 7-Eleven, there's a lot to keep you happy on Sado Island. Taiko enthusiast Kani Munidasa, a festival volunteer and first-time visitor, is eager to return with some of his less musically inclined friends.

"It's not just for taikoholics," Munidasa said. "If you have curiosity in Japanese performing arts and sun and seafood, it's a great combination."

During the festival's evening concerts, people make their way past stalls selling grilled squid and slabs of watermelon and up the lantern-lighted hill to Shiroyama Park, Kodo's concert venue on the island.

In the grassy amphitheater, families spread tarps on damp ground and the chirp of cicadas fills the sky. The drumming begins.

"You don't listen; you feel it," Munidasa said. "You hear it inside of you."

In this way, Sado Island is like the drumming it inspires. There's no substitute for being there and feeling it, grit, bugs, and all. But fear not - there are also natural hot springs on the island, good places to soak and regroup before heading back to the campground for more.

Marie Doezema can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there

Sado Island is located 32 miles west of Niigata Prefecture in the Sea of Japan. From Niigata port, take a car ferry (2 hours, 20 minutes) or hydrofoil (1 hour) to Sado's northern port of Ryotsu. Alternatively, you can take a car ferry from Naoetsu port to the island's southern port of Ogi (2 hours 40 minutes), or a high speed ferry (1 hour) from Teradomari port to Akadomari port.

What to do

Sado Gold Mine


Explore the site of the island's gold rush. Tours $6.40-$12.80.

Sado-koku Ogi Folklore Museum


Relics from traditional village life and a restored Edo period ship. Admission $5.34.

Ogi no Yu hot springs


Restorative water and great views. Admission $5.33.

Where to stay

Sobama Beach

Bring a tent or rent a bungalow. Showers, bathroom facilities, and small restaurant on site.

Green Village Patio House


A homey place with free Internet and bike rentals. Single rooms $43.76, dormitory-style doubles $38.43 per person. Meals available upon request with reservation.

Where to eat

Kaiten Sush Benkei


Conveyer-belt sushi restaurant serves inexpensive but high-quality fish.

Oasis International Restaurant

2046 Ogi


Casual beachfront place serving pizza, pasta, and curry.

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