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Hitchhiking in Japan: Sado Island and The Kindness of Strangers

Sado is a mountainous, sparsely populated island in the moody Sea of Japan. One spring morning, my partner and I boarded a ferry in Niigata Prefecture, keen on exploring this far-flung corner of Japan called Sado. Once we landed, we decided to hitchhike for the remainder of our journey.

Though legal in Japan (excluding road crossings or bus stops), this mode of transport can be as unpredictable as the strangers it relies on. It was our first time traveling by thumb. We were nervous, hoping that hitchhiking through Sado would reveal an intimate, more human side of the island seldom covered by blogs and tours.

The Sado Island Taiko Center

Photo: Talisker Scott HunterWaking the gods.

Our first ride discovered us along a country road at sunset. We made an outlandish sight: two New Zealanders, drained of stamina at the nearby Sado Island Taiko Centre.

Taiko (Japanese drums and drumming) is one of many ancient Japanese customs preserved in Sado. Every year in August, up to 10,000 visitors attend Sado’s Earth Celebration Festival, a mecca for drum enthusiasts worldwide and a showcase for the island’s renowned troupe, Kodo. We ditched our packs in the center’s cafe, sat and ordered a coffee. The sound of drummers practicing rattled the building. No sooner had they stopped than a sweaty trainee entered the cafe and sidled up to us. She asked if we’d like a go.

“We certainly would.”

Some say that a god lives within every taiko drum. You pour all your energy into striking the taught skin until, satisfied, the god takes over, animating your limbs in a thundering frenzy until you collapse exhausted, ecstatic and deaf.

Ears ringing, arms aching, we staggered out the center’s doors and down towards the coast. An hour later, a grandmother bundled us into her SUV and took us to a nearby campground.

Ghosts and precious metals

Photo: iStock/ TokioMarineLifeSado island’s mines now serve as a museum.

A middle-aged man picked us up in his minivan the next morning. In the backseat, his two children regaled us with retellings of their favorite Sonic the Hedgehog episodes.

I had long given up trying to follow the latest developments between Sonic and Eggman when Sado’s vast (defunct) goldmine loomed into view. Our driver, pointing to two halves of a mountain separated by a large v-shaped gash, told us the miners had dug so greedily that they split the island. He shook his head reverently.

In the mid-1600s, Sado’s mines were among the world’s most productive. Output, however, gradually fell, causing the directors to chase riskier seams below sea level. As a result, mortality climbed, and when local labor began to shun the dangerous work, the shogunate replaced them with criminals and the homeless. Today, the tunnels are a museum filled with costumed robots and, presumably, no lack of ghosts.

Journey to the west…of Sado

Photo: Pixta/ onitaikoThe beautiful scenery of Sado’s Onogame.

Sado’s western mountains cascade into the sea, felled by time and gravity. What remains is a land of stolid cliffs and outcrops traversed by a lone highway. Here, we squeezed our packs into the red station wagon of an assistant professor. He spoke excellent English, having visited Florida several times. For an hour, we chatted with him and his partner, occasionally interrupted by vistas that left us speechless.

The next morning we hauled our packs along a coastal track to Onogame, a 167-meter-tall monolith projecting into the Sea of Japan. From its summit, we took in Sado’s west coast one final time, accompanied by a solitary stone lantern and a flurry of butterflies.

Drums echoed through Ryotsu Port that night as part of the island’s many demon festivals. Throughout the planting season, Sado’s islanders beat drums and go door to door dressed as oni, demons known for their wild hair, fierce, toothy smiles and violent demeanor. By morning, it felt like a parade of oni in concert with Kodo was beating on our tent.

One last ride

Photo: Pixta/ muroroThe crested ibis of Sado.

Crested ibis, or toki, were once abundant throughout Japan. However, through poaching and the introduction of pesticides in the mid-20th century, these colorful, elegant birds were declared extinct. Unbeknownst to authorities then, the migratory birds had been discovered in China, and a pair was donated to Japan in 1999. Today, Sado is home to some 500 toki, thanks partly to the tireless conservation efforts at the Toki Forest Park. 

I asked every ride so far whether they’d seen a toki. Each gleefully said yes, including our final driver, who expressed admiration for the birds and the way they gracefully creep through his vegetable garden to steal seeds. He had a long gray ponytail neatly tied with a lotus flower clip. Between a bushy mustache and goatee hid a warm smile. His grandson was taking his driver’s test that day. The high schooler in the passenger seat nodded hello.

The teen dreamed of living in Italy while his grandfather was content to live in Sado, where he made musical instruments for young children. They asked us what drivers were like in New Zealand.

“What are they like in Sado?” I asked, which made the older man chuckle.

“They drive like oni.”

Saying goodbye

Photo: iStock/ heloviA summer day on Sado.

We bade the pair farewell at the ferry terminal. Before long, the island disappeared into the driving rain as large swells carried us back to the mainland.

The kindness and hospitality we received on Sado shaped our adventure. Each driver welcomed us into their lives with a smile and an invitation to discover a unique, private version of Sado Island, shaped by their quirks and stories. We felt privileged for these uplifting albeit brief discoveries and left each car (after a hurried exchange of bows and sweets) elated.

Have you ever hitchhiked in Japan? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

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