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Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine


The Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2007. The silver mine, the most famous in Japan, had its heyday from the early 1500s to the late 1600s, when it produced more than half of all of the silver mined in Japan. In those days, about a third of the silver on world markets came from Japan, so Iwami Ginzan had an important presence in Asian trade routes and the global economy. The old mine is near the Sea of Japan, just about mid-point along the coast of Shimane Prefecture. I went there in early December, soon after the Iwami Ginzan World Heritage Center opened. The Center draws many tourists, and I decided to go there first to learn more about the mine.

Development of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine was started in 1527 by Kamiya Jutei, a rich merchant from Hakata on the island of Kyushu. The mine remained in operation for almost 400 years, until 1923. The haifuki-ho refining process was introduced in 1533, and this expanded production dramatically and boosted silver purity to 80%. The silver was transported to the nearby ports of Tomogaura and Okidomari. From there, much was exported to China. Portuguese sailing ships carried some, along with other export goods from Asia to Europe, and this helped transform Portugal into a major commercial power in Europe.

The abandoned mine shafts are in a district called Ginzan, and the old mining settlement, where shopkeepers did business and samurai lived, is in the adjacent Omori district. Some of their buildings still survive. The two districts line the Ginzan River for about 3 kilometers. Because Ginzan roads are narrow, motor vehicle traffic is restricted—the best way to get there is to use the walkway, or to take a bus. The bus took me to the old Ryugenji mineshaft at the far end of Ginzan. On the way, I saw many shafts dug into the hill slopes, wherever the silver veins went. There are about 600 shafts all over the place, and that means there were a lot of silver veins, and a lot of silver! The Ryugenji shaft is the only one open to the public. It is accessible for the first 160 out of 273 meters. It is dark inside, but not too dark to see the grooves in the shaft wall, made by pickaxes long ago. I let my imagination run free, and heard them picking away. Everything was done by hand, by many workers in different groups. Each group had a specific task—digging, removing water from the shafts, operating the ventilation system, transporting ore from the mine. It must have all been backbreaking work. During Japan’s “Silver Rush,” from around the mine’s beginning to the early 1600s, the settlement had from 30,000 to 50,000 people living and working there.

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