Sado Island and its Tarai Bune Boats

Sado Island, off the remote coast of Niigata Prefecture in Japan, is the 6th largest island in the entire country. Sado island is notorious for being the chosen island to exile prominent political figures.

Sado tub boats. | Robert Izumi

One of Sado’s biggest attractions is the Earth Celebration, an annual music festival by the internationally acclaimed and Sado’s very own Kodo taiko group.  One can also view the Japanese Ibis (toki), a species of bird that was almost extinct but through a successful breeding program, was able to proliferate in Sado.

Sado had several historical figures as residents, one of whom was Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist priest of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

Sado Island, Japan. | Hidenori Kasagi and Akiko Miyaguchi

He was known for his devotion to the Lotus Sutra, and his belief that the ultimate teaching of Siddhārtha Gautama was the way to achieve true enlightenment.  It is one of three temples near the site in the Matsubagayatsu (Valley of Pine Needles) where Nichiren’s hut supposedly stood. The former Emperor Juntoku, another Sado resident, was forced to abdicate the throne because of his participation in the unsuccessful attempt to displace the Kamakura bakufu known in history as the Jōkyū Incident (Jōkyū-no ran). He remained in Sado Island until his death in 1242.

Another prominent figure that was exiled in Sado was Zeami Motokiyo, the founder of Noh, a form of  traditional Japanese theater involving music, dance, and drama and which originated during the 14th century.

Sado is also famous for the unique looking tarai bune (tub boats) used to ferry visitors to the island. Tarai bune are traditional fishing boats found only in Sado Island.They are mainly used for catching abalone and other mollusks.

Tarai bune (tub boats), Sado, Japan. | John Cant

Stories say that centuries ago, some ingenious person thought of cutting a miso barrel in half to use as a boat. This gave rise to the local nickname of hangiri or half barrel. In another story, a tub happened to appear in the waters of Sado and observers noticed how the tub seemed to float along more smoothly along the rough waters of Sado Island. A more accepted origin of the tarai bune is that the design comes from the need to fish in the narrow coves along the island that was formed by earthquakes.

Sado Island remains rich with the traces of the culture, history, and religion that the people who were once exiled passed on amongst the local residents.