Gold may be heavier than water, but all that’s rattling around the bottom of my panning bowl are lots of multicolored pebbles.
“Slowly, very slowly, or you’ll shake the gold out,” says my instructor Noriko Yamamoto, a seven-year employee of Toi Kinzan, a restored gold mine outside Toi on the west coast of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.
With her own bowl in hand, Yamamoto scoops up a helping of silt from the bottom of the museum’s gold-panning trough and demonstrates the correct sifting technique. I gawp enviously as a series of twists and spins reveals a cache of sparkling flecks amid the gritty residue. Like any advocate for a get-rich-quick scheme, she has made striking gold look effortless.
The reality of gold mining is a different story, one that the small town of Toi is qualified to tell.
Gold and silver were discovered in the rolling hills behind the town in 1370, and for the next six centuries thousands of laborers carried out the backbreaking task of funding the nation’s shoguns and imperial governments. Gleaming bars were shipped from Toi’s harbor to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Shizuoka, the latter now a short ferry ride away on the other side of Suruga Bay. Over the course of its history, the Toi Kinzan mine yielded an impressive 40 tons of gold and 400 tons of silver before its operations ceased in 1965.
However, in hopes of finding my own small leftover fortune — or at least a few gleaming flakes of Toi’s famed resource — I’m trying my hand in the mine’s gold-panning exhibit.
I swirl the silt around the bottom of my bowl, catching the finer grains against the container’s raised rim while allowing larger pebbles to drop back into the trough. My eyes scour the mixture as my wrists cramp from the constant movement. Stretching my back from the strain, I continue whittling down the contents of my bowl until finally, there at the bottom, I spy a lone gold flake winking up at me from the dark sand.
“Got one!” I shout happily as Noriko laughs and applauds. But my triumph is short-lived, as the rest of my cache yields nothing but regular old grit. I sigh and dip back into the trough for another silty scoop. Something tells me that I shouldn’t give up my day job for gold-panning just yet.
“Not to worry,” Noriko reassures me, and attempts to boost my confidence with the harsh statistic that 1,000 kg of quarried rock might only yield a miserly 30 grams of gold. In retrospect, five or six flecks in a few minutes could be considered a micro gold rush.
Somewhat comforted, I patiently tease out unwanted pebbles from my second helping of silt. Half an hour later, I have a handful of flakes to my credit and an entirely new appreciation for the origin of the lustrous jewelry I sport so casually on special occasions.
Glittering from the gold-panning exhibit, I stroll across carefully manicured lawns to the open mouth of a shaft that disappears into the forested hillside, one of many entrances to Toi’s far-reaching mine system.
It’s noticeably cooler in the underground passage, a welcome respite from the summer humidity. Water drips rhythmically from the tunnel ceiling, the sound echoing in the claustrophobic passages. The ground beneath my feet has recently been paved, and extra support beams now prop up the tunnels, but the uneven rock face still bears the original scars of man’s arduous search for precious metals.
Though the initial rush began in the late 1400s, Toi’s “golden” years coincided with the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century and the new rulers’ insatiable appetite for mineral wealth. As merchants’ quarters and geisha houses sprang up in Toi’s backstreets to accommodate the burgeoning population, a similar construction spree was occurring underground as the tunnel network was constantly extended through the solid rock.
By the time of the mine’s closure in 1965, there were some 100 km of shafts honeycombing the mountain, with smaller subsidiary tunnels branching off like an out-of-control spider web. Most are now closed off, considered too unstable or inaccessible for tourists. In the main arteries, however, animatronic exhibits detail the process of gold extraction, from the initial opening up of shafts to the backbreaking business of digging and hauling out buckets of rock. Both men and women labored long hours below ground, their only light provided by burning vegetable oil in small metal lanterns.
Izu’s abundance of hot springs also proved an obstacle in the confined underground passages, when steam seeping in could raise the temperature to well-nigh unbearable levels. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for laborers in the sizzling depths to toil virtually naked. The same hot springs, however, also provided the perfect antidote to a strenuous day underground, and after they finished work, miners would often go straight to one of the many onsen (hot-spring baths) just outside.
Nowadays, outside the mine its nearby museum offers a quality display of mining paraphernalia, including hammered gold coins from each era the mine was in operation, and a collection of tools and mineral samples. A highlight of the exhibit is the world’s largest gold bar, an enticing but unliftable 250-kg hunk produced by Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Corp. For a less hefty souvenir, I help myself instead to a gold-flecked rice cracker from the museum’s gift shop. The gold may have long ago run out in viable quantities under Toi’s hills, but another real treasure remains in the unspoiled scenery of the Izu Peninsula’s western coast.
From Toi, I take a leisurely drive northward along the edge of Suruga Bay. While the road south to Dogashima sees the most visitors, the northern route promises breathtaking vistas and few other vehicles on its narrow, winding lanes.
For 20 km, the road corkscrews along high cliffs, with sweeping views out to the handful of fishing boats that cut through the choppy waters of the bay. Hiking trails through the thick pine forests parallel the road, part of an extensive network of paths that crisscross the entire peninsula. Houses are few; the only locals I see are a handful of birds and the occasional squirrel.
I follow the route as it drops down into the town of Heda, whose picturesque sheltered harbor and tasty seafood make for a good stopover on this unpopulated coast. Then it’s back up to the cliffs for another set of stellar views over fields of summer flowers and seaside rice paddies. In the distance to the north, the cone of Mount Fuji is barely visible above a thick cover of clouds.
Near the hamlet of Ita, I pull over at one of the numerous highway lookouts. Though it’s still early in the afternoon, a photo display near the parking area promises gleaming sunsets over the bay. Apparently, if you time it right, there’s still gold to be found on the Izu Peninsula after all.
Toi Kinzan (www.toikinzan.com) is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Entrance to the mine shaft and museum is ¥840; panning for gold is an extra ¥600 for 30 minutes. Toi can be reached by bus from Shuzen-ji in central Izu (¥1,000; 45 minutes). Ferries also link Toi and Shimizu on the opposite side of Suruga Bay (¥2,000; 65 minutes). Buses run up the coast hourly from Toi to Heda (¥840; 30 minutes). For more detailed information (in Japanese) on bus schedules and fares on the Izu Peninsula, visit www.tokaibus.jp