In Japanese folklore, oni (demons, ogres or trolls) are fearsome creatures with wild black hair, horned heads and red, blue or green skin stretched over a muscular humanoid body. The story of Issun-Boshi, a Japanese counterpart to the English Tom Thumb, has the inch-high boy hero fighting an oni in place of a giant, stabbing the insides of its stomach with a needle to escape after being eaten.
Raised on such legends, people in many parts of Japan have designed buildings and performed rituals to drive oni away from homes and settlements. But on Sado Island, in the Sea of Japan off the coast of Niigata prefecture, locals have made friends with the oni. This may have its roots in the tale of Kanemon, an elder at the village of Kurohime on the island, who is said to have treated an injured red oni that appeared during a ritual to cast demons out of the house. To repay Kanemon’s kindness, the oni began to secretly help with planting the rice fields, and the rituals in Kanemon’s house began to welcome oni instead of turning them away.
Today, the onidaiko (demon drum) dance, performed only in the 120 villages of Sado Island, invites the oni to ward off disasters and bring a bountiful harvest. Each year, the people of Sado look forward to festivals where dancers don oni masks to perform. It’s a vibrant expression of local culture that strengthens community bonds, and also a time to welcome visitors, who can attend specialised tours to experience island life, see the onidaiko dance and learn its basics for themselves.
Onidaiko is just one of many unique aspects of Sado life. Like many islands, Sado has a history of iconoclasm: for a thousand years it was a place to banish dissidents, starting with the poet Hozumi no Asomi Oyu in 722. Such exiles, which included an emperor and the master Noh playwright Zeami, brought high culture to the island. Sado is now home to a third of all Noh stages in Japan, and in the summer, especially in June, visitors can see bonfire Noh performances every week.
Another Sado Island tradition is the tarai bune, or tub boat. These quaint, oval-shaped vessels, which appeared in the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away”, were originally handcrafted by coopers working for the mining and shipping industries. At Rikiya Kanko Kisen, Yajima-Kyojima and Shukunegi—charter businesses near the port of Ogi—traditionally garbed lady skippers can steer you through the clear coastal waters where locals collect shellfish and seaweed from the boats.
Other facets of Sado culture come from the samurai and traders attracted to the mines established by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1600s. Historical mining sites spread throughout the island, whose rich deposits of gold and silver helped bankroll national governments for centuries, are now under consideration for world heritage status. Start exploring them at Kirarium Sado, an information centre on the west coast, not far from the Sado Kinzan gold mine, then traverse the island to delve further into its past.
To reach Sado, first travel to Niigata, around 2 hours from Tokyo Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen. From there, take a jetfoil (65 min) or car ferry (2.5 hours) to Ryotsu Port on Sado Island.