When I alighted on Kitagi, an island of just 700 people in the Seto Inland Sea, it was raining and the day was as gray as the granite the island is famous for.
I had been invited to visit the stone museum that opened in October of last year. The museum piqued my interest not because I am interested in rock mining, but because the museum is privately owned and I’d heard the owner had invested all his own resources to build it.
If you live in Tokyo, you’ve probably seen Kitagi stone, or even touched it, without giving a thought to where it came from, nor the long journey it made by ship from the Seto Inland Sea. Well-known buildings, bridges and torii gates have been made from Kitagi granite.
Although tombstones would normally be brisk business amid the quiet aging of Japan’s population in these parts, Kitagi Island mines have dwindled from 127 to just two. Eighty percent of all the stone mines in the in Seto Inland Sea have stopped working over the past 40 years as they’ve been forced to compete with imported rock from Europe, India and China. But if you go back far enough in history, you’ll find that even the tombstone of Japan’s great unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), is made from Kitagi’s igneous rock.
At one point 7,000 people lived on the island, most of them working in the mines or in the stone-cutting ateliers. Now, the factories have either disappeared or moved to the mainland. The new museum, called K’s Labo (short for Kitagi Laboratory), is a last-ditch effort to chronicle the island’s glory days and the contributions Kitagi stone has made to Japan’s modern period.
Tetsuya Narumoto, owner of the Narumoto Sekizai company, gambled big on setting up this museum in an old warehouse near the port, the same site where circular saws with claw-like diamond blades previously seared through granite, spewing clouds of particle dust into the air. Until recently, the sound of these machines could be heard across the water on Shiraishi, where I live. Kitagi, which our islanders once referred to as “the dusty island,” is transforming itself into a historical icon. Stonemasonry is one of the oldest trades in human history and Kitagi has applied to qualify as a collective National Heritage site.
“Yes, very unusual,” Narumoto admitted in answer to my observation of the lack of subsidies applied towards the museum. We’d met up the following week for a chat and lunch. He leaned in close to me across the table and said in a hushed voice: “If I use government money, then I have to do things their way. I don’t like that.” He then leaned back in his chair and continued to tell me how he spent two years looking at museums in Italy, the U.S. and other countries to learn from what they had done.
The result has paid off in an endeavor all his own: a photography-centered museum that tells the story of the industry from the stone workers’ point of view. The enlarged black-and-white pictures gracing the warehouse walls were collected from the islanders themselves and many were taken over 100 years ago.
“I want the children and descendants of these stonemasons to know how amazing their parents and grandparents were,” Narumoto said.
Narumoto’s son, Taro, is now chairman of the enterprise. In addition to the museum, there is a promontory where tourists can view deep down into the mines.
“We have nothing on the island anymore,” Narumoto said. “The last ramen shop closed this year.” So he included a small cafe on the second floor of the museum.
The front of the museum, a building with rock walls and red trellises, greets visitors with a stone sculpture by American Jesse Salisbury called “Windswept.” As a visitor, Salisbury was lured to the island by its granite.
Upon entering the museum, the rain pelting on umbrellas gave way to the sound of an eerie yet melodic song, with the masons’ lungs producing a pleasant timbre punctuated by clinking sounds of hammer and chisel. Throughout the song, men would stand in a long line on top of the oblong slab, pounding out a rhythm that would eventually work the line of chisels far enough into the granular mass to split it.
A series of photos introduces structures made from the island’s granite: the Bank of Japan headquarters (founded in 1882 during the Meiji Restoration to unify the currency through creation of the yen) for one, and Nihonbashi Bridge, from which all distances to Tokyo are measured (and Station No. 1 on the Tokaido and Nakasendo roads). This bridge replaced the original wooden Edobashi in 1911, from which classic views of Mount Fuji were once captured in early woodblock prints.
Kitagi stone was used to construct Mitsukoshi’s flagship store (Japan’s first department store) in Nihonbashi, which is graced by two large lion statues at the entrance, and the Meiji Seimei Life Insurance Building (1934) next to the Imperial Palace.
Large uncrafted boulders have always been considered sacred and powerful in Japan.
“Large boulders from Kitagi were removed and transferred by boat to other locations in Japan, including Osaka Castle,” said the museum guide, Mr. Ide. “When the castle was built over 400 years ago, the most important gate was called Sakuramon. Only the daimyo passed through this gate. On either side of Sakuramon is a large stone, one called Dragon and the other Tiger. These boulders were symbols of power and impressed the daimyo,” he explained. “Of course, in those days there were no machines and they had to carry the stones.”
Photos document how the bedrock was mined by hand and moved from mountain to sea port via manpower, then horses, and ultimately machines in 1932.
At the end of the tour, upon leaving the dry building to depart by sea, I noticed a plaque bearing the names of seven people who supported the idea of the museum. None of them lived on the island and four of the names were foreign, including Jesse Salisbury.
But this unlikely list is also what connects the island to the future. The acknowledgement of newcomers and those just passing through is a shining example of openness among the traditionally closed mentality of the isles. The island’s future will depend on such outsiders.