From Vermont to Sado Island: Japan’s Cycling Paradise
In September, I packed a suitcase full of my favorite Terry gear and left Vermont. I came to start a new job on the other side of the world in Sado – a butterfly-shaped island in the Sea of Japan. I’d lucked out landing a dream job in Japan’s cycling paradise…
You might say Sado Island is an off-the-beaten-track adventure destination. It’s a large island that lies off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, which is about a two hour train ride from Tokyo. To get here, you’ll have to take a plane to Tokyo, a train or car to Niigata, and then a ferry to the island. It’s remote. But I’m up for some adventure!
The Journey here is worth it. I’ve only been here for a couple months, and since arriving, I’ve been exploring the island by cycling dreamy morning routes and mini-weekend excursions. I know these are just the appetizers, with mains and desserts to come soon. I’m excited for what lies ahead!
Sights and Sounds of Sado
Sado is unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. Riding along the island’s 130-mile coast-line means stunning panoramas of the mountains, rice paddies, and sea, while traversing past traditional villages, centuries-old temples and shrines. There are also mountain road routes through scenic centuries-old forests with panoramic views of the island and sea.
Every ride here feels like a new adventure. The entire island is designated as a biodiverse “geopark,” with large portions being maintained as national parks. My love for nature, solidified in the Green Mountains of Vermont, feels more and more inspired at every turn…
This is an island of “Onidaiko”.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in very special event. Onidaiko is a traditional performing art performed at festivals to dispel evil spirits and pray for a good harvest. According to the dictionary, ‘oni’ translates as ‘demon,’ but actually, the oni is a god and a protector of the community. ‘Daiko’ is the word for a traditional Japanese taiko drum. The oni dances to remove the evil spirits from the environment and lock them away in the taiko drum. The dance takes a lot of strength and practice.
There are over 120 different groups practicing this art form around the island, each with their own unique styles, rhythms, and costumes. I’ve heard that if you travel around Sado in springtime, you’ll hear the sound of drum rhythms all over the place – so I’m looking forward to riding by bike around the island in the spring!
Traditional Japanese Culture & History Preserved
People say that visiting Sado is an opportunity to experience “Pure Japan.” I didn’t know what they meant at first. It turns out that the island’s unique history has made it a kind of ‘microcosm’ of Japan’s history as a whole.
About eight hundred years ago, Sado became an island of exile. ‘Noble Culture’ came to the island with the banishment of upper-echelon officials, creatives, and intellectuals. Later came ‘Samurai Culture’ when the Shogun government took advantage of Sado’s Gold Mine. Subsequently, ‘Merchant Culture’ came when sailing merchants immigrated here. Because of these influences, it’s possible to experience aspects of ‘pure’ Japanese culture that have developed over centuries.
Noh Theater Performances
Sado is home to 1/3 of the surviving Noh theaters in Japan, and you can see Noh performances from May to October.
This is a special pottery only found on Sado made from clay taken from the Gold Mines. It’s gorgeous and looks very delicate, but is actually extremely strong.
You can learn traditional Japanese drumming from members of the world-famous taiko drumming group! They also just recently opened a café at the practice hall.
Tarai Bune Boat Rides
You can ride boats unique to Sado called ‘Tarai bune,’ which have traditionally been used for seaweed-harvesting. These curious washtub-shaped boats appeared in the famous Japanese animation movie, Ghibli’s “Spirited Away.”
Visit Old Fishing Villages
One particularly gorgeous spot I visited is Shukunegi village. Nestled in a cove, the village is characterized by crowded rows of old houses built with plate walls made from ship planks. The architecture itself is like an open-air museum.
Just cycling around the island I’ve seen so many unique birds here! Sado is home to the project to reintroduce the “toki” – or Japanese crested Ibis – into the wild. You can spot them around the rice fields in the early morning and evening!
Cycling Through the Seasons on Sado
The warmer months on Sado offer gorgeous conditions, and cycling events are held through Spring, Summer and Fall. Depending on the season, you can also go snorkeling, diving, sea-kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, or trekking and camping. Each season has its own special advantages!
In spring, you’ll catch views of rice fields flooded in preparation for planting. Pink Cherry Blossoms bloom around mid-April, and hiking routes are in full-bloom with wildflowers. The islands biggest cycling event, the Sado Long Ride 210km is held in May.
In summer, you can enjoy sunny days and crystal-clear water beaches. If you are lucky enough to visit Sado in August, you have the chance to combine your cycling adventure with the Earth Celebration, a world-renowned music and arts festival hosted by Kodo, Japan’s most famous taiko drumming group. There are also events held at the end of June: The Sado Summer Ride 130km and Sado Gold Mine Summer Hill Climb.
In fall, colorful leaves, crisp ocean breezes, blue skies, and harvest scenes. The leaves start to change around mid-October and you can hike routes of both of the island’s mountain ranges. The Sado Long Distance Triathlon is held in early September. Known internationally for its challenging competition, the distance is comparable to an Iron Man – with a 4K swim, 190K cycle, and marathon. You can also join the Autumn Ride 130 and Sado Gold Mine Autumn Hill Climb.
Travel tips, if you decide to visit Sado…
Getting your Bike to Sado
As we all know, Covid wreaked havoc on supply chains, and getting your paws on a ride in 2021 feels harder than it’s ever been before. I definitely recommend either you bring your own bike to Japan, or get a rental here. If you use a bike box, you can ship your bike as an extra piece of luggage. When you arrive in Japan, you can simply forward the box to your accommodation on Sado using ‘takyubin’ delivery service such as Kuroneko Yamato.
I’ve been rocking the new Panasonic E-bike Rentals available on Sado. You can rent the e-bikes hourly or for just 2000 yen ($20~) for the day. There are two kinds available – the Panasonic Velo-Star Mini and larger-frame Panasonic XU1. I’ve been loving easy, relaxing rides powering up hills with the electric assist. I also love how the E-bikes make cycling more accessible for those who are new to the sport!
Sado Island Cycling Kit Essentials
For Tops: My number-one go to are Terry’s Soleil Longsleeves. I always get compliments on my Soleils here! Sometimes the weather can change quickly from sun to rain on the island. Soleils are both quick-drying and have SPF protection. I love that I can mix it up with lots of different colors and patterns. They pack really well too!
For Bottoms: Bring whichever bottoms you’re comfortable with – I love the new Breakaway LTD. First off, they’re super comfy. The blue color also matches the island scenery perfectly! My second-go-to would be the Metro Shorts in ‘River Rock.’ I like having colors other than black, and since the liner is detachable, I can wear them both while I’m riding and also out and about exploring the island.
As for other gear, there aren’t many bike shops on the island so you should definitely bring your own helmet, shoes, and tools to manage any adjustments or incidents. Panniers to carry a seaside-picnic and swimsuit wouldn’t be a bad idea, either!
Getting Around With No Japanese?!
Getting around Sado without Japanese isn’t as scary as it sounds. People here are extremely accommodating, understanding, and hospitable! You can also hire English-speaking guides through the Tourism Information offices. A guide can help translate, show you hidden spots, and even connect you with locals.
Eating on Sado
Since Sado is an island, it is famous for its fresh seafood – crab, shrimp, oysters, and fish. Vegans and vegetarians can enjoy many kinds of yummy seaweed dishes, soba noodles, and locally grown fruits – persimmons, pears, figs, apples, and citrus, depending on the season.
Sado is also part of Niigata prefecture, Japan’s number-one rice producer. Niigata takes pride in its high-quality rice, and many say it’s the most delicious in Japan. And of course… with good rice, comes good Sake – so there are many sake breweries on the island you can tour for tastings!
Staying on Sado
There are numerous hotels, ryokan – Japanese inns, and guest houses you can stay on Sado. For the particularly adventurous, campsites along the beach as well as in the forest, are perfect for stargazing, and open from around April to October.
Sado also has hot springs in various areas around the island. Hot springs will soothe your aching muscles after a long ride and help you get a good sleep. I definitely recommend trying a dip in a Sado hot spring!
Other Places to Visit in Japan
For first-time visitors to Japan, you can’t miss Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo is a metropolis that exemplifies Japan’s modernity and the old capital of Kyoto is a must-see for tradition and history. You can also stop by nearby Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. From there, I recommend you head north to Niigata, where you can catch the ferry to Sado. There are so many things to see and do on Sado that you will want at least 3 days here (if not a week!), and it’s the perfect place to finish off your trip surrounded by unspoiled natural beauty and cultural experiences of ‘Pure Japan.’
My Sado Dream Rides
Come to Sado and ride! There are so many different routes to explore on Sado. I’m going to leave you with my Sado “dream rides” – the courses I’m most looking forward to challenging come springtime.
- The Sado-Ichi Course (202.5km/2,218m elevation gain) Loop around the entire coast of the island.
- The Osado Skyline Course (26.4km/1,078m elevation gain) Takes you along the mountain route past the old Sado Gold and Silver mine.
- The Osado Ishina Natural Cedar Tree Route (19.6km/1,094km elevation gain) You can ride up the mountain to a forest of massive cedar trees – the trees are warped by strong wind, some of them over 300 years old.
Photography by Yuta Honma.