Sado, Japan’s Island of Gold

Sado, Japan’s Island of Gold

Three traditional industries dominate the culture of Sado Island, located 45 kilometres off the coast of the Niigata Prefecture.

It’s one thing to hear great things about a destination, and quite another to witness them yourself. Having spent 15 years in Japan, I’d never managed to visit Sado, a huge island – 1.5 times the size of Tokyo – off the coast of Niigata in the Sea of Japan. There are three industries here that have been kept it alive for centuries: gold mining, boat building and seafaring, and fishing.

Two groups of friends sang the praises of Sado. Photographer friends said because of its variety of landscapes it was their favourite place to take photos in Japan, while other mates, who are fans of history and abandoned buildings, had visited multiple times to discover locations frozen in time.

My goal on day one was to check out the island’s mining history. Known as Japan’s Island of Gold, Sado yielded 400 kilograms of the precious metal every year during the first half of the 1600s. It was dug by hand, and the riches allowed for the continued success of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy during the rule of the shogunate. Later on, Sado’s gold was instrumental in supporting Japan’s shift to the international gold standard, and allowed Japan to trade gold for foreign currency.

Aikawa, on Sado’s west coast, was home to the mining community and the mine is a short walk from the centre of town. As you approach it you can see a mountain that appears to have been cleaved down the middle. This huge crevice, 30 metres wide and 74 metres deep, was one of the original open-cut mines and contained a huge 10-metre-wide gold vein cutting through it. It is massive, and a monument to the fervent activity that took place over 400 years while the mine remained active.

Approaching the part of the mine that is open to visitors, it is hard to believe this is one of the access points to about 400 kilometres of tunnels that snake their way beneath the surface following seams of gold across the island. The gold mine has two separate tunnels that can be traversed by the public, showing the details of the mine during two different periods. I enter the original hand-cut mine showcasing traditional mining methods and the hardships that went along with them.

As soon as I enter the mine I can feel the temperature drop around 10ºC and smell the moisture in the air. The tunnel opens up every 20 metres or so, with displays explaining different aspects of the mining process in both Japanese and English. The life-size figures add scale to the cramped spaces, and the tools that were crafted to automate certain tasks are ingenious. Rather than crumbling, the rock walls are incredibly hard – the miners must have worked incredibly hard to produce gold under these conditions.

After emerging from the mine, check out the museum area, which has more detailed information about how the ore was processed, as well as lots of interesting dioramas and scale models of the processing facilities and living conditions. Back out in the sunshine, walk along the path where ore would have been shuttled to the processing plant, and finish with cake and coffee sprinkled with gold flakes in the souvenir shop.

On the walk back to Aikawa from the mine, I pass the Old Aikawa Detention House, empty yet open to the public. Established in 1954, and in use for just 18 years, it is remarkably well preserved, with cells of different sizes and an area where prisoners would cook their own meals. It’s a rare insight into the prison system of the time.

On returning to Aikawa, and with time on my hands before sunset, I rent a bike and ride north. Senkaku Bay consists of five bays with breathtaking views along three kilometres of coastline. A leisurely half-hour pedal allows you to take in the vistas, enjoy the rolling terrain, and go off the main road to get closer to the water. The coastline, eroded over time by the violent seas, is littered with volcanic formations protruding from the water. Somehow small windswept pine trees manage to find crevices to which they can cling.

 The sleepy, narrow main thoroughfare of Aikawa, Kyomachi Street, snakes its way through buildings that once housed miners, merchants and their families down towards the ocean. The street, with alleyways breaking off left and right, is deserted and serene. At the bottom of the street is a bell tower that rings to this day, letting the people of the town know the time. There are shops here and there, but my goal is a restaurant called Kyomachitei.

Located in an old, renovated house with large windows overlooking the ocean, Kyomachitei is the perfect place to stop for a bite to eat and a coffee or beer. The decor features recycled objects and wood to create a natural aesthetic inviting visitors to linger as the sun drops behind the horizon.

 My final stop is the Kitazawa Flotation Plant. A world-class state of the art production facility in its time, it allowed for the processing of 50,000 tons of gold ore each month. Although impressive lit up at night, I return in the morning to check it out in the daylight – I wasn’t disappointed. It looks as though a huge Tokyo apartment building has had its facade removed and is slowly being reclaimed by nature. It stands as a good introduction to the other abandoned structures you will see while traversing this photogenic island. My friends were right; Sado is a great place to take photos and history buffs will revel in the deserted, yet well-maintained architecture.

This feature was sponsored by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization).

Get there

In Tokyo, catch the JR Joetsu Shinkansen north to Niigata, about two hours away. From there, Sado Kisen’s car ferries and high-speed jetfoils travel to Ryotsu on Sado Island. The respective journeys take about an hour and 40 minutes or 65 minutes.

Get Informed

For information on what you can see and do on Sado Island, visit the region’s tourism site or the JNTO website.

Words Don Kennedy

Photos Don Kennedy

Tags: island life, japanese culture, sado island, traditional culture

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