After the stifling heat of the summer and whirlwind of the holiday season, the colder months in Japan invite us to slow down and reflect on both the year past and the one ahead.
Truly getting away from the city can be difficult… so why not clear your head in a (rather luxurious) self-imposed “exile” on Sado Island, the once remote (now surprisingly accessible) destination for those who dared challenge the powers of the shogunate.
Winter is the off season for this isle off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, so you are sure to have a peaceful, contemplative visit, and be able to snag rooms at some of the most sought after accommodation. More artsy visitors will love having a base at Hananoki, housed in a 150-year old traditional house that was moved and reconstructed in an idyllic spot. Besides the excellent locally sourced cuisine, visitors will also be surrounded by the pottery creations of the owner, whose atelier is also located on the grounds.
For a truly private retreat, don’t miss Andante, an inn run by a couple who moved to Sado Island in 2015 to fulfill their dreams of starting a vineyard and making wine. They welcome one group per day for a cozy farm stay, recreating their inspiring experiences in Europe for the guests and providing gourmet meals accompanied by natural wine.
Rent a car (or bring your own via the ferry) so you can meander the coastal rounds (as the mountain tracts are closed during the winter) and check out the sights which, if you are lucky, will be particularly picturesque with a cover of snow.
A short drive from Ogi Port is the charmingly topsy-turvy little settlement of Shukunegi, which was formerly inhabited by shipbuilders and harbored merchant ships. This tradition is still clear in the materials of the wooden houses, which are built from shipping planks. Be sure to stop by the Ogi Folk Museum, where you can get a taste of what life used to be like on this remote island.
Stroll down Kyomachi Street in the Aikawa area, dotted with interesting sights and spots to warm up. Check out the bell tower and other reminders of when this was the prosperous main road to Sado’s gold and silver mines, and meander among the temple, gallery, cafes and poignant wooden Aikawa Prison, before popping into Gashima Cinema for a warm beverage. The former residence of the captain of the Sado gold mine, the retro building has been converted into a cozy hideaway which hosts daily screenings of indie movies, and houses a collection of old film memorabilia.
Crafty folks will want to make a visit to the Aikawa Traditional Skills Museum, where you can learn more about Sado’s handicrafts. Be sure to book in advance if visiting from December to February to try the very satisfying craft of saki-ori, the great waste not-want not skill of weaving fabric scraps into something beautiful and new.
Fortunately throughout the winter taxi companies still provide chartered tours around the island, which is helpful as Sado is also home to five sake breweries. The cold winter months are the busiest time for brewers, and during a visit you are sure to see the staff carefully monitoring the fermentation process. Stop by the Obata Brewery to sample their many award-winning sake, and don’t miss the varieties made by the Hokusetsu Brewery that are aged while “listening” to Sado folk songs and the sound of waves. Around 70 percent of the Kato Brewery’s bottles are consumed directly on Sado and difficult to find elsewhere, and the refined daiginjo from the Tenryohai Brewery is an absolute must-try. Be sure to book in advance if you wish to stop by the Henmi Brewery.
If you prefer to try your sake with a side of local cuisine, Sado doesn't disappoint. In the Ryotsu area book yourself a counter seat at Shikisai Ajiyoshi, where the fisherman/chef (who formerly worked at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo) serves up his self-caught, extra-fresh catch of the day. Anaguchi in Shukunegi is the very definition of a hidden gem, serving elegant French cuisine made with local ingredients, tucked away in one of the settlement's adorable wooden houses.
If your tastes run toward more outdoorsy pursuits, how about skiing on the island? Daira Ski Area has a number of runs, with very affordable lift passes and equipment rental, so that you can enjoy a couple of hours of skiing or snowboarding without crowds (and get bragging rights to having been to one of Japan’s most remote slopes). For something more extreme, pack your snowshoes and take a trek to the Meoto and Ohiraki waterfalls, which freeze into dramatic ice sculptures during the coldest part of the season.
Ready to seek adventure on Sado? Find out more at: https://www.visitsado.com/en/© Japan Today