The Impressive Silver Mine in Hyogo
Ikuno Ginzan is a former important Japanese mine located in Asago village in Hyogo prefecture. The site was repurposed into a museum to show on a one-kilometer long underground gallery the working conditions of the diggers during the mine’s exploitation times. Ikuno Silver Mine is a property of the Mitsubishi group since 1896.
The silver deposit was first discovered in 807 but thorough mining operations only started in 1542. The ore extraction, mainly silver, lasted until the resources depleted in 1973. At that time, Ikuno Ginzan extended over 350 kilometers underground and up to a depth of 880 meters.
The ruling powers always ensured to keep control over this outright income source, starting by great warlords and shoguns such as Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi or Ieyasu Tokugawa. During the Edo period, mining operations were conducted under the shogun’s authority, like the rest of the unified Japan. The management of the mine was transferred to the Imperial Estate in 1889 during the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) and as a consequence of the restoration of the Emperor’s authority.
In October 1868, a French mining engineer named Jean-Francois Coignet, whose bust is displayed at the entrance of the mine, conducted a great modernization of the site. A lift in particular was built to facilitate the circulation of goods and men between the levels.
Another Frenchman, Léon Sisley, constructed a 49-kilometers long paved road to transport a larger quantity of ore on horse-drawn carriages. The route named "Gin no Basha Michi" is a connection between Ikuno and Himeji in the south. Nowadays, only a few dozen meters of the paved road remain.
A unique industrial heritage
The visit of the silver mine is striking and very educational. Ikuno Ginzan frequently welcomes school trip children. The itinerary, called Kanagase, is animated by several groups of mannequins representing workers in action with their equipment and tools. While a bit tacky, they perfectly show the hardships and dangers of the diggers’ life. It helps understand what were their working conditions and environment, such as the mine ventilation, ore transportation or the system of vertical shafts.
The entire site is still well-preserved, from the underground tunnels to the outdoor paths that offer a nice panoramic view on the surrounding hills.