1. Iwami-Ginzan Silver Mine Return to Intro
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine
Iwami-Ginzan (silver mine) is the remnant of an old silver
residential area around it in Shimane prefecture. It dates back to Kamakura era
in the 14-th century when a feudal lord Ohuchi discovered the mines. The residen-
tial area is in a small valley surrounded by steep mountains; the village is divided by
a brook. It is hard to imagine the village was once populated with tens of thousands
of people when the mines produced silver.
Battle between Amago and Mohri for the mines
It was also a place of battle. Nearby feudal lords desperately desired to get
hold of the mines to use the produced silver for battle expenditures. Two of the most
powerful families, Amago and Mohri, once fought for the mines. In the 16-th century,
on May 5, they fought the last battle in a nearby mountain. Amago clan made the last
rush into the enemy with a scream for all of them to be killed. A legend goes even now:
on May 5, you can hear a desperate scream of the Amago warriors in the mountain. In
vain, their souls still try to keep hold of the source of the riches.
Not only the souls of warriors but remnants
of each period of time are well pre-
served here and floating in the air. You will feel a dense fragrance of lives of people
who played their historical roles in this small village for over 400 years. Wisdom of
men is seen everywhere. One minor example, which is interesting from the engineering
point of view, is arch-shaped stone bridges over a tiny brook. (After reading my first
draft, Mr. T. Watanabe in cooperation with Ms. Y. Nishimura at Ohda City Hall kindly
made corrections to my wrong interpretation of the bridges. I will follow his
description.) The bridges were built toward the end of Edo period or early Meiji
period by technicians from Kyusyu.
The used stone is tuff, called Fukumitsu Ishi.
They were used by those who carried heavy silver ore. They are made of pieces
of stone arranged in such a way that each piece of stone constitutes a part of a half
cylinder longitudinally cut with planes passing through the center line of the cylinder.
The design is superb. I have seen the same technique in the aqua-bridge in Spain. The
technique may have been imported from old Spain. Compressive force from both ends
prevents buckling. After over 100 years, however, they have become weak and can
sustain the weight of only a few persons. The important point is, they are kept intact.
Whole things are kept as they used to be; no artificial change has been made.
Remnant of silver refinery
Talking about the art of stone, we observe
another impressive leftover. The
time slips to the Meiji period, about 100 years ago. A merchant in Osaka built here a
factory of silver refinery.
The factory is now gone, of course, but the groundwork still remains. Do you
imagine layers of ground with the sides fortified with concrete ? No, no concrete, but
stone walls. Without an explanation you would take it as a groundwork of a big castle.
I wish I could see the factory itself. It must have been a gigantic one of Japanese/
Western mixed style.
Remnant of a silver refinery
Now a silent village
A tiny brook of a few meters in width flows through the middle of the
village. On both sides of the brook a tiny path goes along the brook into the interior
of the mountains. At some point two paths merge into one. Or, in other words, one
of the paths disappears. Along the paths, there stand a few hundred old houses.
My first visit there was on a late autumn day. Coming from Tsukuba for a business
trip, I had stayed in a hotel in Matsue City. After the business was over I wanted
to go sight-seeing. I tried to reserve a hotel or inn around the City near a hot spring.
It was a national holiday and there was not a single vacancy. I found two inns in the
Iwami-Ginzan area, and reserved one of them. It was less than two hours by car
which I had rented at Izumo air port when I visited Matsue. On arrival at the Ginzan,
I immediately realized that I had made a better choice than going to a hot spring.
The place was beautiful, first of all, packed with many periods of history. Mountains
surrounding the village were red, yellow and green, mixed. The most impressive
red was persimmons in a small field between the brook and a path. It was one of
the most silent nights when I sipped warmed sake (Japanese liquor) alone at the inn.
A small old path along a brook.
According to the home page of Ohda City Shimane Prefecture,
(http://www.pref.shimane.jp/section/iwami/gine.home/index.html) , the mines
produced 38 tons of silver annually in the early 17-th century, which was a
major part of Japanese silver production. Japan produced almost one third of
the silver in the world in those days. The silver was also known to be good in
purity among European countries.
According to the home page, Christian missionaries played a large role in
making Iwami-Ginzan famous among European countries: Francis Xavier, one of the
Spanish missionaries in the 16-th century whose main activities were in the western
part of Japan, wrote , "The Castillians call this island (Japan) 'Silver Island'".
Average life span 30 years
There is always a darker side in the back
of a lighter one. The silver ore
contains poisonous compounds, like arsenic. In Edo period, ratsbane was called
iwami-ginzan, because the poison including arsenic was extracted there. It is easily
imagined that many mine diggers suffered from arsenic intoxication. I later learned
that the average life span for diggers was as short as 30 years. For old diggers, almost
without exception, a tragedy was awaiting. For comfort to forget their fate, young
diggers drank at sake-serving houses served by maidens. It is said there were many
of those houses when silver was produced in abundance. It is hard to imagine there
was so much of clamor of Shamisen (a music instrument played mostly by women)
in old times in this now quiet residential area.
A Buddhist priest decided to make 500 statues
of Rakans (Buddha's disciples)
to save the suffering people. Mr. Watanabe later taught me that the statues were
completed toward the middle of the 18-th century by a man of the name Heihichi
Tsubouchi from Yunotsu Town who spent 22 years to make them. Nene, the wife to
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan toward the end of the 16-th century, made
a donation for the early part of 500 Rakans. Now we can see them in a stone cave
with their number a little short of 500. The cave itself looks almost crumbling now.
The stone cave where 500 Rakans are enshrined
The expression of each statue's face is all different from each other, like the fate of
this village which is different from period to period. Hideyoshi is said to have minted
coins out of this silver to cover expenditures for the invasion war into Korea. Nene
and Hideyoshi's mother were so much grieved by the cruelty of the invasion war.
Nene's mind must have been not so simple when she and her surroundings made a
donation to '500 Rakans' which were supposed to protect the mine workers.
In the same area, there is a display of the
Magistrate's Office, where the
Daikan (Magistrate) would have inspected the yield of silver. There remains a building
used as a prison cell.
The prison cell
The first impression is that it is small. I had felt the same impression when I saw a
kago, a container in which a (high class) person is carried by two bearers. Before
the Meiji period, the size of the Japanese people was small.
I had to think about the fate of a prisoner kept in this small space. Above all, I
had to think about the fact that a prison was needed in this now quiet and peaceful
When you walk along a path by the brook,
you frequently encounter old
shrines and temples.
One of the old temples
Some are large, others are small. One of those which remain in my mind stands on a
highland. You have to climb up a long gradual slope of stone-steps. Suddenly there
appears a magnificent temple on the top of the slope. It looks so dignified, and yet it
is apparently deserted. History is frozen here, only the leading characters, people,
When you speak of Daikan around here, you must not forget Mr. Heizaemon
Ido, the so called Imo-Daikan (Sweet Potato Daikan ) in this district. Rice harvest is
very much dependent on the year's climate. In some years, when the temperature in
the summer was unusually low, or when it rained very little during the rainy season, rice
harvest was very poor. Many peasants died from hunger. Mr. Ido opened the district's
store and distributed rice reserve among hungry people before getting permission from
Edo-Shogunate (the central government in Edo-Tokyo). He also ordered to secretly
bring-in some sweet potatoes from Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture). It was not safe
to do such a thing in those days. It was like stealing highly secret know-how. Sweet
potatoes are strong against a bad climate. After year-long efforts by some peasants,
one of them succeeded in breeding the sweet potatoes in this district. Potatoes saved
lives for many people when the rice harvest was catastrophic. People admired Mr. Ido
and gave him the nickname Imo (Sweet Potato) Daikan (Magistrate ).
Hai Fuki Hou (cupellation)
A technique of refining silver was imported
from Korea toward the middle of
the 16-th century and improved here, according to Mr. Watanabe. The technique later
spread throughout the country. It is called cupellation method, and is something like
Silver ore is smashed and selected out for silver-rich one. Lead and the selected ore
are melted together to make an alloy called kien (noble lead). The kien is melted in the
bone ashes in an iron pan to select out the lighter silver in the upper layer. It is
called Hai (ashes) Fuki (Blowing) Hou (Method) in Japanese according to the home page of
Shimane prefecture. The home page also tells that an iron pan was dug out recently,
and ashes were detected in the soil stuffed in the pan, proving the rightness of the
assumption of Hai Fuki Hou.