2014
06.08

SYNOPSIS:  About one of the largest silver mining areas in the world and what you can see of it today.  About rain and an incredible landscape at the North-Western coast of the Honsho Island of Japan.

Most likely I covered about 10 km on foot today in little over 7 hours — all of it in the rain.  For the first three hours I did not mind that much — the rain was light, it was warm and there was no wind.  But then temperature dropped, the wind tried continuously to wrestle the umbrella out of my arms while I was fidgeting with my camera, which unfortunately requires two hands, the rain picked up in intensity and by then my camera, my backpack and I were wet…

But who is complaining?  I was way to busy being in awe of the beauty around me and I got relief in several areas such as one of the mine shafts, the Kawashima Residence, the house of one of the local samurais, the incredible house of the wine merchants, the Kumagi Residence, and the municipal museum housed in the former magistrate’s residence; not to forget a few shrines and temples here and there.  The Kanzeon-ji was towering over the village just where it took a distinct bend and it was so beautiful and peaceful up there that I spent 45 minutes resting on its porch without even noticing how time passed.  There was perhaps only another handful of visitors scattered throughout town and the occasional tour bus went by, but I felt practically alone.  I covered a lot of ground in this fourth UNESCO monument  — 9 more to go — as it was stretched out into a  one of those long, narrow valleys (see the 3D model image).

The landscape around here is breathtaking.  There are tall mountains with thick forests interspersed with valleys and a few plateau areas.  There are streams and rocks and the vegetation is lush and deeply green, especially in the rain.  If you are high enough or close enough to the coastal areas you may catch glimpses of the dozens of tiny islands scattered along the shore or the rugged coastline, which provides ideal openings for secure harbours.  All of these conditions were essential for mining and post-production especially since these mountains yielded a variety of ores and semi-precious stones.  For anyone interested in the particulars of the geology of this, the museum would provide detailed stone samplings and in-depth explanations, as always only in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.  Nothing was listed in English other than the bare name of a place I would come by — just enough for me to keep my general orientation.  Most likely I should have invested in the audio guide, but I did not want to spoil this peace by a voice in my ear and one more thing to fiddle with.  Most likely that was my loss.

For 400 years, between the 16th and 19th century, this area was responsible for 1/3 of the world’s silver production.  This made the shoguns who had control over it wealthy beyond belief.  Many battles were fought over its possession.  As I am not an expert in Japanese history, I will direct you as always to further internet research should you desire more details.

600 mine shafts have been recorded in recent surveys.  Only a few are open to the public.  I chose the Ryugenji Mabu, one of the more accessible and longest ones to walk through.  The shaft now has been widened to comfortably walk through.  But I certainly would not have wanted to be a miner in the 17th century — his shaft would have been a mere crawling space through which he would have to tunnel himself forward.  Some of the shafts were quickly filling with water as one of the videos at the museum showed…  That must have been backbreaking work.  Other workers were busy smelting.  Forge bellows for each oven were operated by at least two men standing in wooden towers on two pedals, hanging on to a rope and then trampling from one side to the other providing a huge furnace with oxygen.  Roads were cut through the forest, on which the purified silver and gems were transported to the ports which in turn would ship the goods to Asia.  Some of the old roads are still around, and some of the furnace remains dot the forest.

Alongside the remains of the mining process itself, multiple shrines were erected, both Buddhist and Shinto related to mining, safety, health and prosperity.  And as I am a glutton for punishment (my muscles still complain every time I have to descend a stair case), I climbed up some of the steep steps often enough to come to little more than an abandoned moss-covered, enchanted or perhaps even haunted place of worship like in the Sahimeya-jinja Shrine which was dedicated to Kanayamahiko-no-Mikoto, the god of metal refining.  Today, two moss-covered lions greeted me silently and there was no sign of active usage of the shrine any more.  A fairy-tale land.

The Kawashima Residence, the samurai’s house was of the type I have already visited multiple times by now. But the distillery merchant’s family home, the Kumagai Residence, offered a few new insights:  For the first time the second floor attic space was accessible and you could get a great idea how it was used for storage (to pile away a dowry, seasonal clothing, bedding, etc.) or for viewing the garden while sipping tea at a corner with a special view.  The merchant had a tasting room for the various liquors he produced and since he had to host business meals for a variety of guests — from family gatherings to visiting high government officials — his supply of dishes was endless.  Each set of dishes had to fit the occasion of the meal.  You don’t indulge mere clients with fineries, but you also can’t leave anything to be desired when the powers to be come to visit.  His kitchen boasted multiple stoves to make soup or rice for dozens of people at a time if need be.

His house had 30 rooms!  And as always, the sliding fusuma doors provide endless possibilities of opening or closing the various spaces.  Each cluster of rooms is located around a garden, may it be ever so tiny.  I finally get it why the Japanese were the inventors of bonsai — the space limitations drove them to it: they created majestic landscapes with mountains and trees all in miniature form.

One other temple deserves special mention:  the Rakan-ji Temple with several adjacent caverns known as Gohyakurakan, which house a total of 500 stone sculptures of arhats, or Buddhist devotees who are carved in the most lively realistic fashion talking, laughing, meditating, turning sideways or bending their heads upwards.  Who came up with this idea?  Were these to represent the people who commissioned these figures to show their devotion?  All these figures were carved over a 25 year period in the late 19th century.  One of the locals must have had a thriving business!

The final temple I had been looking forward to, the Shogen-ji was closed and looked rather deserted.  The brochure had advertised several Buddhist sculptures who actually represented Christians in hiding!  Now that would have been a novelty I would have liked to find out more about.  It was not meant to be.

Kyoro-san had taken me to town this morning in her car.  A bus took me back to Nima.  This was a lovely day — a monument of a very different type from the rest of the ones still ahead of me.  Nothing much religious about this one, except of course for the various shrines and temples.  I am glad I came.

As cold and as wet as I was by the end of the day — there was the Japanese bath that awaited me.  Even without the hot spring, bathing culture has produced bathtubs for every home which are more like hot-tubs.  The bathroom has floors that drain. Just like in the big spa at Oita, the drill here was the same — scrub down sitting or standing, and then soak.  I am so glad I got my training in Oita or I would have stood in this bathroom without a clue what to do.  I was still struggling with all the faucets and gears before I figured out which was what…  And so I soaked until I was warm again inside and out, creating the perfect state to go to bed after a long day like this.

But then there was Kanako.  My host Kyoro asked if I would meet her friend who was studying English.  How could I refuse?  Kanako must have just started to study English…  But both Kyoro and Kanako had a great time with all the family photos I had taken along for just such an occasion.  They insisted that my son looked like Tom Cruise…  And they were deeply impressed that the man I live with cooks in our household — unthinkable in Japan.  They were even more excited to hear that he would be traveling with an orchestra to Japan this fall.  There are so many things you can communicate with pictures and hand gestures.

Before the night was too far along, the two of them declared that they would join me on my excursion tomorrow.   That was a bit of a surprise, but I am sure we will have great fun even if we will be very limited in our ability to communicate.

Good night.

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  1. I watched a video on the UNESCO site of the silver mines…one would have to be very sure-footed and have very, very good knees to go down into one of the mines. It looked like they go down and down and down on stone stairs like you went down the other day. Then of course there is the coming up. Those miners must have been very lithe…with excellent knees!!!

    Indeed that Japanese bathing culture is very nice…what a way to end the day…particularly for tourists who walk for 7 hours in one day!!! Yikes.