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.

Map of SadoWhile 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' best known exiles
Kobo Daishi, one of Sado's best known exiles

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 In The Japan Journals, Donald Richie's as yet unpublished diaries, the author, staying with a friend in a hostelry on Sado Island in the spring of 1955, found that the hotel maids who came to his room to serve tea and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 Chitochin-ton festival
A participant takes a rest from the Chitochin-ton festival

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 backward.

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
This walking trail takes you though orchards near Ogi

Getting there:
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.

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Explore the forgotten charms of Shukunegi