Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape
(Ancient remains)

The ancient remains of the mine which produced fine-quality silver over 400 years within an environment abounding in nature, and the landscape which retains vestiges of traditional Japanese lifestyle and culture

Iwami Ginzan was one of the world's leading mines producing high-quality silver from 1526 to 1923. This mine is located over a wide area in the central region of Shimane Prefecture of the Chugoku Region. The silver excavated from this mine was exported to Europe via East Asia, and played a vital role in the East-West trade. It is said that approximately one third of the silver that was in circulation worldwide in the 16th Century was produced in this mine in Iwami. The great significance of the ancient remains of Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine lies in the fact that abundant traces of silver production from the mining sites to transportation routes have survived almost intact to this day.

Such an extensive scale of production was made possible partly due to the refining technology known as the 'haifuki-ho' (cupellation method) which was introduced into Japan from the Korean Peninsula in 1533. In this method, silver ore and lead are melted into an alloyed metal, which is then placed on ash spread out in the furnace, and heated at a high temperature, with only silver extracted, for silver has the property not to oxidize easily. This advanced cupellation technique resulted in the successful extraction of large amount of silver; it spread nation wide from Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, and led to the dramatic growth of Japan’s Yield of gold and silver.

Another decisive factor in Iwami Ginzan's designation as a World Heritage is that the silver mine was set in an environment of abounding nature and that it co-existed side-by-side with this natural environment over a long period. The entire area of Iwami Ginzan, covered in rich forestland, is enveloped in an almost mystic air. This is the fruit of the efforts made by the people formerly working in the mine to fell only the required minimum amount of wood needed for the refining process and to replant trees there.

The area surrounding Iwami Ginzan has retained the streetscapes of the countryside that cannot be found in cities, and you will find it most pleasant to leisurely stroll amid such landscapes. Iwami Ginzan spreads over a vast area, and depending on the course you take, you will come across some steep and rugged mountain paths.

You will find it most worthwhile to visit and observe the shafts and galleries called 'mabu' which have been formed so like an ants' nest. Of the more than 500 shafts and galleries that had originally been dug, you can actually walk inside and observe part of the Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft which was built in 1715. Going through the entrance of the small tunnel located inside the forest, you will be able to get an image of the mining processes that used to be entirely performed manually. You will come out of the gallery by a different exit. (Admission fee: 400 yen Open from 09:00 to 17:00 between 20 March and 23 November, and from 09:00 to 16:00 during winter.)

About 2 kilometers away from Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft, there stands the town of Omori-cho which developed together with the mines. The road, extending for a distance of 1 kilometer parallel to the river, retains vestiges of the former times when it was lined with the Daikansho (Magistrate's Office), Buke-yashiki (old samurai residences), stores, shrines, and so on. The Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine Museum stands along this road. It might also be fun to stop by at old wooden houses that have been refurbished into cafés and craft shops.

It is worthwhile to take a look at the House of the Kumagai Family, which is the largest surviving Japanese-style house in this area, illustrative of the lifestyle of the merchants who enjoyed prosperity owing to the silver production 150 years ago. The furniture and other household articles as well as the garments that were actually used are exhibited, and these are not only interesting for their historical associations with the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine but will also shed a light on the traditional lifestyle of the Japanese back then.

Refined silver used to be carried on horseback along the highways and shipped from the ports. Rakan-ji, which stands halfway down one of these highways, was a temple founded in 1766 for the repose of the souls of the people who had worked at the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.

Inside the caves carved out in the rocky mountain, Buddhist statues are enshrined, surrounded by as many as 501 stone arhat figures (known as Gohyaku-rakan) all engraved with a variety of expressions.

The port towns which used to thrive with the shipment of commodities are also very attractive. In Okidomari, castle was constructed in order to protect the port. There remain old shrines where people used to offer prayers to appease the sea, and 'guri-iwa' which are rocks perforated for mooring vessels.

Setting off from the entrance of the mine and walking down the highway to this port town of Okidomari covers a distance of 14 kilometers and is the longest course, but this is the best route for appreciating the rich nature of Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine. The wells where water springs up profusely and the rural landscapes are also very charming.

In Yunotsu lying close to Okidomari Port, fine-quality hot-spring water used to well up, healing the local people. Even today, there are hot-spring inns, and the natural Yakushiyu-onsen Hot spring, which has remedial effects for all kinds of illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis, chronic dermatitis, and female disorders, is authorized by the Japan Spa Association as a top-class hot-spring with high therapeutic effects throughout the country