Escape The Crowds At This Beautiful, Lesser-Known Island In Japan With So Much To Offer

Since 2014, the remote paradise of Sado Island has only been accessible by ferry, despite being the sixth-biggest island among thousands in the Japanese archipelago. The scenic ride from Niigata (the name of both a prefecture and its capital city) can last up to 2.5 hours. In the past, it might have served as an object lesson for why Japan's shogunate punished people by exiling them to this island more than 30 miles off the coast. That was before Sado Island turned into a historic gold-mining outpost — and now, a beautiful vacation spot, full of rare birds, exotic "demon" drum dancing, and quaint, washtub-style fishing boats.

You may have seen those round tub boats (made from half a miso barrel, and known in Japanese as tarai-bune) in the Oscar-winning animated movie "Spirited Away." Produced by Studio Ghibli, "Spirited Away" often tops lists of the 21st century's greatest films. However, you won't find its boats at the Ghibli theme park in Aichi or the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. In real life, they're mostly a Sado Island tradition, one that's easier to experience since the launch of Toki Air in January 2024.

The airline, which plans to expand from Niigata to Sado Island, is named after the crested ibis or toki, a protected bird species undergoing conservation on the island and across the water in the city of Nagaoka. The ibis can travel from the island to the city in 40 minutes. It'll only take you 27 minutes more by express jetfoil ferry.

Spirited away to Sado Island

You can take a tub boat ride on Sado Island in Ogi Port. Another option is nearby Yajima Kojima, a picturesque spot where an arching red bridge spans the gap between two smaller islands. Along the same coast is Shukunegi, a labyrinth of narrow alleys and more than 100 houses constructed out of wood from old ship hulls. It will whisk you back in time to when the village was a merchant ship hub. After living out "Spirited Away" on a tub boat, be sure to explore the Shukunegi caves trail.

For a firsthand encounter with the island's mining history, you can wander down the tunnel to Sado Gold Mine or even have a panning experience at Sado Nishimikawa Gold Park. The crested ibis might prove more elusive in the wild, though it's drawn to water and can sometimes be spotted in the rice paddies of Kuninaka. A better bet for birdwatchers would be Toki Forest Park and the adjoining habitat, Toki Rapport Plaza. You'll see the ibis on souvenir bottles from some local sake breweries, too.

Sado Island is also famous for its onidaiko tradition, where music from massive taiko drums would help dancers in demon masks repel misfortune. The Sado Island Taiko Centre immerses visitors in the drumming, as does the August music festival Earth Celebration. Other highlights of the island include a stroll among 300-year-old trees in Osado Ishina Natural Cedar Forest and the view from the cliffside observation decks over Senkakuwan Bay.

Side trips to Niigata and Nagaoka

Toki Air already has flights from Niigata to Okadama Airport in Sapporo, an Olympic city that's currently trending for travel right up there with Tokyo and Osaka. All three cities are linked to international airports, and Tokyo also has bullet train lines running to Niigata. A less-crowded option, since you'll be passing through the area, anyway, would be to combine your refreshing Sado Island escape with trips to two neighboring, coastal, hidden-gem cities.

The jetfoils and car ferries to the island, operated by Sado Kisen, depart from Niigata. The Sado-Niigata Pass covers the slower car ferry and local buses. If you need a place to stay, the Hotel Nikko Niigata is right near the ferry terminal in the convention center, Toki Messe. Atop the 31-story hotel building, there's a free observatory where even non-guests might feel like an ibis as they enjoy a bird's-eye view of the waterfront capital. Sado Island also has many inns and B&Bs, like the top-rated Hotel Oosado, where you can enjoy a hot spring bath away from the crowds.

Niigata is at the mouth of Japan's longest river, the Shinano, which bisects the city and roughly parallels the 21-minute bullet train route to Nagaoka. In Nagaoka's Toki and Nature Learning Center, you can see another place where many of Sado Island's wild birds were bred. The city is also known for its huge, peace-themed summer fireworks festival, where more than 20,000 fireworks go off above the river every August.