Iwami Ginzan Part I: Omori Ginzan

In its heyday Iwami Ginzan was one of the leading mines in the world. Silver was mined from Iwami Ginzan for 400 years, from the 16th century to the 20th century. It is now a World Heritage Site, and the nearby town of Omori-Ginzan is recognized as an important preservation district for historical buildings. Omori-Ginzan is a mining settlement that grew around Iwami Ginzan as miners and their families moved to the area.

Last week I suggested to Yakami High School’s librarian that we visit Iwami Ginzan during our most recent holiday (Japan’s Labor and Thanksgiving Day – November 23rd). She picked me up at my apartment with her three-year old daughter and a friend. We spent the day exploring the Former Magistrate’s Office, the Home of the Kumugai Family and the shops around Omori Ginzan.

The little girl, Yuina, was absolutely adorable, and by the end of the trip she was chatting up a storm with me over the debatable deliciousness of our lunch.

The Former Magistrate’s Office featured several interesting displays – including a series of maps from the 17th century made by Portugeuse traders. It’s always fascinating to see how map-makers’ perceptions and opinions influence the way they create maps.

My favorite stop was the Home of the Kumugai Family, which is the largest home in Omoro-Ginzan. It was headed by a local financier, and has since undergone thorough renovation to restore it to its original splendor. It is comprised of thirty rooms and five store houses. One of the rooms even features a secret underground cavern for storing valuables. My favorite aspects of the house were the tea room, sake brewery, and kitchen.

We chose to eat lunch at a local kamameshi restaurant. Kamameshi are “kettle rice” meals – served in the pot they are cooked in and featuring a variety of meats and vegetables cooked in with the rice. The meal was served piping hot, and the server turned over an hourglass to let us know when we could remove the lid from the rice pot. Along with the rice came tsumono (vinegar-pickled veggies), tsukemono (salt-pickled veggies), a light soup, and hot tea. It was delightful.

After lunch the weather conditions began to degrade as the wind picked up and a light rain began to fall. We decided to leave the rest of the site for another visit and finish our trip with a tour of the Iwami Ginzan Museum.

The museum was incredibly interesting – detailing the lifestyles of the miners and the intricacies of the work they did. I was most intrigued by the woven seats and sandals the miners wore. The seats were simple woven pads made from rice stalks, I presume, which were worn on a belt around the waist and used whenever the miner was working from a sitting position. The sandals were simple woven shoes that did not include a heel. They looked like half-sandals, and I don’t entirely understand why the heel was not of use. The miners must have walked primarily on the front of their feet. Another exhibit showed the process of polishing the silver before shipping it abroad – done by wrapping the silver up in a large woven satchel and vigourously jostling it in a solution of plum vinegar.

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