NIPPONIA No. 45 June 15, 2008


Special Featuresp_star.gif“Japan, the Land of Gold.” How True Is the Old Legend?

Places to Catch Gold Fever in Japan

In your lifetime, how often will you handle a gold bar, or go panning for gold? Perhaps never! In medieval times, Japan was said to be a land of gold. That turned out to be a disappointing legend, but the country does have places where you can get up close and personal with gold. They can make a dream come true.

Written by Sanada Kuniko and Torikai Shin-ichi
Photos by Kawada Masahiro and Kono Toshihiko


A mischievous gold bar:
In your hand one moment, gone the next

Sado Gold Mine Museum, Niigata Prefecture


There is no limit on the time to try to get that bar out of the box, but if he tries hard without knowing the secret to it, his wrist will begin hurting after a couple of minutes. If he succeeds he will win a prize—a 0.5 gram gold card.

The high-speed hydrofoil whizzes you in just one hour from the port of Niigata across a stretch of the Sea of Japan to the island of Sado, the site of what was once Japan’s most productive gold mine, Sado Kinzan. Gold was dug here for almost 400 years, from 1601 to 1989. During that time, about 78 tons were produced.

Today, gold mining conditions in the Edo period (1603-1867) have been recreated in one of the shafts. The Sado Gold Mine Museum is deep inside, and visitors are keen to test their skill trying to retrieve a gold bar.

The bar is quite big, at 7.5 × 3 × 30 cm, and quite heavy for one hand to hold— 12.5 kg. The museum challenges you to take it from a transparent box through a round hole with a diameter of about 8.5 cm, just 1 cm wider than the bar. Finding a way to do this is like solving a riddle, and just as fun. If you succeed you have to give it back, but they will give you a prize for your efforts.

Only about 600 people have been able to do it in the seven years the museum has been open. About 260,000 people visit the mine each year, so you can imagine how difficult the museum’s challenge is.

“You have to apply just the right amount of strength in your hand, and you need a really flexible wrist,” confides the manager, Inoue Nobuhiro. The youngest person to succeed was a girl of 12. Even if you fail, it is still fun to feel the bar’s sleek smooth surfaces and its surprising heaviness.


Panning for gold: Slowly, following the old timers’ techniques

The Yu-No-Oku Museum of Gold Mining History, Kai Ogon Village, Yamanashi Prefecture


When people pan for gold, the time passes quickly. During the summer holidays, the museum organizes group events for children.

Many rich gold mines around Mount Fuji were in production from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Near one of those mines, Yu-No-Oku Kinzan in Minobu-cho, Yamanashi Prefecture, there is a museum where you can experience panning for gold.

Like most visitors, you will probably want to give it a try. Take one of the shallow plastic pans provided—each is about 30 cm in diameter—and use it to scoop up sand lying in water at the bottom of a tank. “Hold the pan level with both hands, with the brim just touching the surface of the water in the tank, then swirl the pan gently,” says Komatsu Misuzu, curator at the Yu-No-Oku Museum of Gold Mining History.

Keep swirling, and flakes of gold will sink to the bottom of the pan, because they are denser than the sand.

“Now, keeping the pan in the water in the tank, move it in a large, circular motion, and let some of the sand flow out,” says Komatsu. Repeat this swirling and circular motion until specks of light glitter in the bottom of the pan. Gold! The key is to do it slowly and carefully, explains Komatsu.

You have only 30 minutes to find gold in your pan. But even first-timers will get 10 flakes or so, because the staff has mixed flakes of gold in with the sand in the tank.

The Shimobe River flows near the museum, and gold can still be found there. Some tourists practice panning for gold at the museum, then go to the river to try their luck.