日本での一年間

December 13, 2011

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine

Japan loves its UNESCO World Heritage sites. And throughout the country there are 16 designated World Heritage sites. (Not too many compared to some other countries, but not too shabby either.) The Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine became a World Heritage site in 2007. The silver mine area is nestled in the mountains about 2 1/2 hours north of Hiroshima in Oda city, Shimane prefecture.

The silver was discovered in 1526 and the mines were in operation for the next 400 years. When production in the mines were at their peak in the 17th century, 1/3 of the world’s silver was extracted here. But the area is not industrial. It is well-off the beaten path and you feels more like a mountain valley than a once prosperous silver town. Perhaps that is why the official UNESCO name for the site is “Iwamai Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape.”

I went to visit the mine on a rainy day in May.

Like most people who visit the mine, I began with a visit to the World Heritage Center. I was driving to the mine by myself and I got lost for a while on the rural back roads. There is virtually no English signage leading people to the mines and even the Japanese signs are confusing.  Eventually, I found the World Heritage Center, parked my car and went inside. Inside is a small museum about the mines, a 3D model of the region and several peppy volunteers, happy to give information about the mines and offer sample itineraries, based on the amount of time you have available. (I was a bit surprised to discover that there are no staff members there who speak any English.) They pointed me towards the bus that runs between the Center and the center of the old mining town every 15 minutes.

The mountains surrounding the mines.

Looking down the main road of the tiny mining town.

Lots of old style architechture around the silver mines. It feels like stepping into the past. Can you see the rain pouring down in this picture?

More on the silver mine after the jump

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May 18, 2011

The Judas Tree at Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

In front of the Takadono, the building housing the last extant Tatara iron furnace, there is a tree. In the winter, the tree is a bare, skeletal eyesore. But during March, leaves slowly begin to appear, and for 2 days in early April, the trees leaves magically turn red, as if the tree itself is on fire. (Shall I call it a tree that burns but is not consumed?) It is called a Katsura tree, also known as a Japanese Judas tree. After the red color fades, the tree turns yellow and then slowly becomes greener and greener throughout the rest of April.

A group of people gathered on the hill that overlooks the town to get a nice view of the tree. Everyone wants to see the tree just as the sun is going down, when it is said to be most spectacular.

The tree glowing red and the takadono that houses the tatara furnace to the right.

The one street that makes up the town, where a score of people still make their homes.

March 24, 2011

Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

Filed under: Domestic, Interesting, Iron, Trips — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — myyearinjapan @ 12:09 am

Back in January, I wrote a post about seeing Tatara Iron making. Turns out that the Tarara iron making I saw wasn’t the real deal. Well, some people don’t consider it the real deal. The furnace they used was considerably smaller than the furnaces they used to use for Tatara iron making. Real Tatara iron making didn’t take one day and one night, like the process I witnessed. The process took 3 days and 3 nights. It wasn’t until the 4th morning that the iron was ready. I visited the last extant iron furnace (I visited 3 times in the past month, actually), which was last used to make iron in 1921. It is located in Yoshida town in the Okuizumo area of the Chugoku mountains. The Iron town is called the Sugaya Tatara Iron Town.

I explained in my last iron post a little bit about how they make the iron, but here’s a quick refresher: Iron sand is taken from nearby rivers and local mountains. The iron sand, along with charcoal, was put into special furnaces made by layering sand and charcoal and heated to extreme temperatures. To build and use the furnace takes over a week. Special foot bellows were used to stoke the fire throughout the process. The iron produced with this method is supposedly of very high quality and is used to make Japanese swords, knives and other things. One important quality about this iron is that it can be manipulated at much lower temperatures then iron made by other processes.

As I mentioned before, this iron town was the basis for the iron town in the movie Princess Mononoke. In the movie, women work the foot bellows. When I visited the iron town, I asked if women ever worked the foot bellows here. The guide looked at me like I was crazy and said, No way, this was really hard labor!

Sugaya

Sugaya Tatara Iron Town

street

A street in the iron town. People still live here, just as they have for hundreds of years. It snows a lot in winter, so they essentially get cut off from the outside world for a few months a year.

たかどの

This is where the magic happened, by which I mean they made the iron here. This building is called the Takadono (高殿).

furnace

This is the furnace used to make the iron. On either side are the bellows, which were once foot bellows and were later replaced with a water wheel system. The wooden planks in front of the furnace are covering underground tunnels. They would light a fire on one side of the tunnel and use the other side as a chimney to naturally dehumidify, so the furnace didn't explode.

odoba

This building is called the Odoba. After making the iron, and cooling it in a small pond (which I couldn't get a picture of because it was covered in snow), they took the meter long iron lump here. They would drop that big metal rod onto the iron to break it apart. Sounds pretty dangerous. I apologize that the picture is blurry. There was very little light.

odoba

The outside of the Odoba, where the big metal rod was used to break up the big iron lump.

motogoya

The smaller pieces of iron are then brought to this building, called the motogoya. This building is where the big boss lives. He was in charge of administrating the operation and counting the money. Also, right across from him, in the same building, people sort the iron and prepare it for shipment. There were also blacksmiths who worked in a building next door, but that building no longer exists.

tools

Tools used in the motogoya so sorting, packing, etc.

shrine

A little shrine dedicated to the god of iron. The Murage (村下) was the head of the factory, so to speak, and was in charge of the actual iron making, Before they started the iron making, the Murage would come to this shrine to pray.

river

The Murage would also purify himself in this river.

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