It’s a balmy spring day in Shimane Prefecture, but one step into the newly reopened Okubo Shaft of the Iwami silver mine and your body is enveloped by the darkness and the cold. In these eerie surroundings, it’s not hard to imagine encountering the ghosts of the miners whose labor helped reshape Japan and Asia in the 16th and early 17th centuries, often at the cost of their lives.
The mine, an hour west of Izumo city, became Japan’s newest World Heritage site last year primarily because of the commercial and cultural impact its massive output had over the four centuries the mine was in operation. During the area’s heyday in the early 17th century, Japan produced a third of the world’s silver, half of which came from the Iwami mine. The high-grade silver fueled a trading boom, with the precious metal exchanged for cotton textiles, porcelain, raw silk and copper coins from China and Korea, and spices, incense and sugar from Southeast Asia. Most of the silver went to China, where it was used as currency. European explorers and missionaries also sought out this “kingdom of silver,” radically altering Japan’s political and social landscape with the introduction of firearms and Christianity. This influx of foreign culture ultimately drove the nervous shogunate to close Japan’s borders for 220 years.
Although the silver is long gone, the well-preserved remains of Iwami’s mining production — shafts, refineries, castles and ports — are drawing tourists to the site and bringing life back to the area.
Okubo Shaft, the largest in the Iwami mine, sits high in the mountains, surrounded by the stone ruins of its old miner settlements and covered in lush forest. It had lain quiet since the ore was depleted and the mines shut in 1923, but the UNESCO designation convinced city officials to open it to the public.
Donning hard hats and gumboots, small groups of visitors are escorted inside by guides who point out the signs of traditional mining techniques. Water dripped from the ceiling, lost high in the darkness above, as our group walked further into the mountain, following the path of the now-exhausted silver vein. Our large flashlights seemed weak in the pitch black until we learned that miners used to chip out ore and rock by the faint light of oil lamps made from sea shells.
“Other miners carried out 40 to 50 kg bundles of silver or rock on their backs,” said my guide, Kenichi Nakada of the Iwami Ginzan World Heritage Center, explaining the hardships of the men who once worked here. Others would operate wooden pumps, driving fresh air to the miners to prevent asphyxiation. The mines were so dangerous in their early history that unlike present-day Japan, where people celebrate old age upon turning 60, 77 and 88, miners marked the event at age 30 and rarely lived to 40.
“Look here,” said Nakada, explaining the techniques used in the shaft. “This section was mined in the Edo Period [1600-1868],” he said, pointing to a patch of wall that was smoothed by the use of hammer and chisel. “This section is totally different — that’s Meiji Period [1868-1912].” The opposite surface was all sharply angled rock, shattered by dynamite introduced from the West as miners gleaned the last of the silver from the mine.
Despite the signs of blasting, part of the appeal of the mines here is the remaining evidence of old-fashioned mining techniques. The walls are still dimpled with notches that once held chestnut wood beams, and even some of the beams themselves remain where they once supported vertiginous working platforms and narrow ladders. The tunnel bends and twists, sprouts side tunnels and dark fissures high into the ceiling, and it is easy to imagine the workers chasing the silver vein into every nook and cranny while trying to avoid any unnecessary hammering of unwanted rock with their hand tools.
The other open shaft is the Ryugenji Shaft, and while it is better lit and tamer than the cavernous Okubo Shaft, the sealed tunnels that shoot off from the main path reveal the cramped conditions that miners as young as 10 years old were forced to endure. Some drop straight down and would have flooded except for teams of pumpers, drawing water up in stages with rudimentary wooden push-pull pumps and bamboo pipes. Even the Okubo Shaft, which was flattened and widened to accommodate mining carts during the Meiji Period, collects chilly pools of water that once made the lives of miners miserable at best, short at worst. Miners often fell sick in the cold or drowned when the shafts unexpectedly flooded.
The nearby village of Omori is a quaint and sunny contrast to the dark history of the mines. Traditional tiled country homes are arranged in two rows along the narrow main road, while a river runs adjacent. Dominating the center of town is the Kumagai Family Residence, a sprawling estate owned by the wealthiest merchants in the mine’s heyday. The Kumagai family financed mining operations, brewed sake, and was tightly connected to the office of the Mine Intendant, the official who supervised mining activities and represented the Tokugawa shogunate in the region. The 30-room, 160-tatami mat residence has guest rooms where feudal lords were once received, displays of dress from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods, a sake-brewing rig and a kitchen with high, open ceilings and dark, unfinished beams.
Opposite the wealthy and powerful sits Gohyakurakanji, a temple dug into the bedrock, enshrining 500 rakan: statues of humans who have achieved Enlightenment and will not be reincarnated. The temple commemorates the countless dead miners with these 500 stone statues of disciples of the Buddha, who, like the miners, have dropped their mortal bundles and passed on. The statues are emaciated and some have anguished facial expressions, so perhaps the parallel was intended to be even closer.
Finally, we pop into Gin no Mise, the only remaining silver shop in town. The brilliant jewelry serves as a reminder of the force that reshaped the valley, Japan and the larger world. If Iwami’s silver has run out, where is this silver from?
“It’s hard to say,” said the proprietor, Hiroko Utsunomiya, “but it’s probably from places such as Canada.”
“But you never know,” added a staff member, Miho Mukaino, “there just might be some Iwami silver mixed in there.”
Omori is accessible by bus via JR Odashi or Nima stations (¥560). A shuttle bus runs from Omori to the World Heritage Center, where parking is available. Tours of the Okubo Shaft are conducted four times daily Friday, Saturday and Sunday from the World Heritage Center (max. 20 people, ¥3,800 adults, ¥2,800 children, reservations at  84-0750 or www.iwami.or.jp/ginzan). The Ryugenji Shaft is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., ¥400 adults, ¥200 children. There is a pleasant, one-hour walk there from the Omori bus stop (3 km) rental bicycles are also available. Be sure to pick up the excellent English pamphlet from the World Heritage Center, Tourism Center or the entrance to the Ryugenji Shaft.