In eternal exile
|Photos by Stephen Mansfield
Stephen Mansfield explore the charms of the forgotten
fishing village Shukunegi on Sado Island in the Japan Sea.
While giving a friend an account of
staying in Shukunegi, a village on the southwest coast of Sado Island, where many of the
houses are made out of the salt-encrusted planks of wrecked or long discarded fishing
boats, I felt the need to corroborate the more unlikely details with some hard evidence.
The black and white photo negatives from the trip, though, despite extensive rummaging and
assurances that "they must be somewhere," seemed to have completely vanished,
their absence casting long, monochrome shadows of doubt over the reality of the village.
Just to set the record straight, Shukunegi really does exist, although it is unlikely that
you will find it mentioned in more than a few guidebooks.
Sado has always suffered from an image problem, despite the fact that the island has a
distinguished enough history and culture, having at one time been an independent province
with its own state temple and capital. Later it became a place of exile for figures as
venerable as the Buddhist leader Nichiren, the Emperor Juntoku and the dramatist Zeami,
who left a considerable Noh legacy behind here. Bunya, a plebeian, coarser
version of the more sophisticated Bunraku, is a puppet drama unique to the island.
|Kobo Daishi, one of Sado's best
Back of beyond
Severed from the mainland by often turbulent waters and what one guidebook calls a
succession of "horrifying winter storms," Japan's fifth largest island is
associated in many people's minds with its former role as a penal colony, a place of
permanent exile where prisoners and political scape goats were worked to death in the
tunnels of its freezing cold gold mines. Remote, storm-battered and insalubrious may be
adjectives that belong more to the past than the present, but there are many coastal and
inland sections of Sado that seem to have escaped, at least for now, the worst attentions
of the travel agents and tour companies. It is only in the last two or three decades in
fact, that islanders have become used to the sight of foreigners. In The Japan
Journals, Donald Richie's as yet unpublished diaries, the author, staying with a
friend in a hostelry on Sado Island in the spring of 1955, found that the hotel maids who
came to his room to serve tea and cakes, were entranced by the presence of a foreigner.
Despite their native good breeding they couldn't bring themselves to leave: "They
keep looking at me," he notes, "and then at the cakes. Probably expect me to rub
them into my hair."
Most people arrive in Sado after disembarking from one of the daily ferries that shunt
between Niigata and the island's provincial capital, Ryotsu. It is from here that the
island's main sights are easily accessed but, if you are not particularly fussed about
missing the mines, Lake Kami or the usual, frankly rather unspectacular temples and
shrines of the interior, there is a quieter, pastoral seaside setting along the south and
south-western coastline of the island.
Less frequent but daily ferries run from the mainland terminus of Naoetsu to Ogi, a sleepy
port at the southern tip of Sado. Not that people never go to Ogi. Women paddling Sado's
famous tarai-bune (tub-boats) can be seen here trawling daily in the harbor area
for seaweed, edible shells and the odd tourist plucky enough to try their hand at the oars
for a small fee. Ogi's Minato Matsuri at the end of August features lion dances, puppet
performances and the by now world famous Ondeko (Demon drums) group, better known
as Kodo. There is also a charming local museum just outside of Ogi where you can inspect
examples of local clothing, farming implements and old domestic items, as well as buy
tinted postcards of local geisha figures from the '40s and '50s. Villages along this coast
are also known locally for mumiyo-yaki, an excellent, brown and dark orange-fired
ceramic ware that is surprisingly little known outside of Sado, despite its subtle
finishing and tonalities.
|A participant takes a rest from the
Old World charm
Shukunegi, just a few kilometers from Ogi, must be one of the most charming, gloriously
unpatronized villages on Sado. Angus Waycott, in his excellent Sado: Japan's Island in
Exile, notes that "even by Sado's standards, Shukunegi is a relic from another
era." Many of the houses here are 200 years old and most of them look it. One
particular building, a wooden corner home said to have been built by a ship's carpenter,
is actually in the shape of a prow. Today, Shukunegi is still an active fishing village.
If you get up early enough and go down to the tiny harbor or find a nice spot among the
countless rock pools here, you can see them setting off in small frigates. Women potter
around the village cove later on in the day in their tub-boats. They are easily spotted on
walks that are a delight to take along the low cliffs, or along the borders of tobacco
fields and the clumps of bamboo that run down to the sea.
Shukunegi is not without culture. During its best-known festival, the Chitochin-ton,
the village bursts into unaccustomed life. The festival features a peasant version of the
lewd tsuburosashi dances, the gestures of the performance reflecting the
antiquity of the village and its indifference to people's amused perception of it as
Dismissed by the big guns of tourism because of its lack of size and obvious marketable
features, Shukunegi's sylvan beauty, its houses as tightly engaged with one another as
fish scales remains, mercifully, a village apart from the mainstream.
I know because, as I explained before, I took some black and white pictures of the place.
If I ever find them, I'll show you.
|This walking trail takes you though
orchards near Ogi
Jet-foils operate between Naoetsu and Ogi April-November. The journey takes one hour. Car
ferries taking two and a half hours run throughout the year. The main route to Sado is
from Ryotsu to Naoetsu in Niigata.
When to go:
Spring and summer. Unless you are fond of climatic extremities and gray weather, the
winter months are not recommended. Summer temperatures, with few high altitude mountains,
can be very hot and humid.
Where to stay:
The Hotel New Kihachiya (0259-86-3131) is Ogi's top accommodation, though it looks neither
new nor top-class. Better value is the Gonzays Ryokan (0259-86-3161) a traditional inn.
The very basic Ogi Sakuma-so Youth Hostel, is a stiff 20 minute uphill walk outside Ogi.
Minshuku Takayama (0259-98-3573) is a comfortable and affordable lodging place run by a
friendly family (Shukunegi has nothing as grand as an inn or hotel) that serves excellent,
freshly caught fish dishes. Just west of the village, tucked into a little cove with a
deserted beach, is another alternative, the Minshuku Shimizu-so (0259-86-2538).
Fresh sushi and sashimi dishes are the best things to eat on the southern tip of Sado. Two
restaurants in Ogi, the Situemon at the end of the main shopping street, and the
Sakae-zushi behind the grandly named Marine Plaza, are good eating options.