A ragged ‘S’ off the north coast of central Japan, Sado — the country’s sixth-largest island — is a lesser-known destination for most travellers, yet it embodies many of the finest elements of Japan’s culture and history. As a former place of exile, disgraced aristocrats and scholars were sent to Sado to live out their days. With thriving gold mines and lying on a busy shipping route, Sado once contained a broad mix of Japanese society in miniature — home to samurai warriors and working-class merchants. Its geography is also a microcosm of Japan, with emerald-green lagoons, cedar forests and the grand Osado mountain range. Sado is an overlooked gem, with its temples, tub-boats and toki (crested ibis birds) providing a nature-filled getaway. Combined with a city break in Niigata on the mainland, a visit here allows travellers to experience the best of Japan.