ODA, Shimane Prefecture--Deep in a mountain, where falling rocks and sheer drops are constant dangers, lies "the heart" of the former Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.
This particular area produced the bulk of the silver that made the mine famous around the world centuries ago. And it is here where Oda government officials again hope to turn around the fortunes of the city.
As tourist numbers continue to dwindle, the section called Fukuishiba will become accessible to the public for the first time in July, the 10th anniversary of mining area’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The plan is to allow people to become more familiar with the inner workings of the mine, as well as its history.
In early May, 15 members of the Iwami Ginzan Guide Service Organization checked the conditions of a tunnel set up by the Oda city government, including a cover to block falling rocks, a 5-meter-high staircase and a landing offering a sweeping view of the Fukuishiba site.
It was the first training program for guides in the tunnel, where the temperature was 8 degrees.
"I imagined the significant achievements of people of the time working in the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine," said Satoshi Adachi, 70, head of the organization.
Full-scale silver mining at Iwami Ginzan continued for 400 years, from the first half of the 16th century to 1923.
So much silver was extracted that the mine was known even among people in Europe in the 16th century.
The mine and its surroundings were designated Japan’s 14th World Heritage site on July 2, 2007, under the name, "Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape."
Covering 529 hectares, the designated area includes homes of samurai and merchants from the Edo Period (1603-1867), roads used to transport mined silver and a loading port.
Located 175 meters behind the Okubo Mabu tunnel, which is already accessible to visitors, the Fukuishiba site measures 20 meters by 20 meters by 20 meters.
The word "fukuishi" refers to silver ore found among whitish volcanic rocks. The kanji characters for the term literally mean "fortune stones."
"The ore was called fukuishi likely because people hoped it would bring them good fortune," said Yoshifumi Nakano, 52, director of the Iwami Silver Mine Museum.
Tadashi Nakamura, 49, a curator at the Shimane Prefecture-run Sanbe Shizenkan museum, said Mount Sennoyama, which is home to Iwami Ginzan, was formed by the accumulation of lava and volcanic ash.
Hot underground water containing silver spread over the mountain, forming mineral deposits. With many workers digging the mountain in all directions simultaneously, silver could "be mined in a very efficient manner" at Iwami Ginzan, according to Nakamura.
Iwami Ginzan hosted not only the fukuishi deposits but also areas covered with silver and copper carried by hot water into cracks of rocks. These areas resembled the noted Sado gold and silver mine in Niigata Prefecture.
An on-site inspection was conducted in Fukuishiba 18 years ago.
The risks of falling rocks and a 25-meter-deep vertical shaft used to drop ore near the diggings remain at the site. Even participants in the Okubo Mabu tour, which started nine years ago, must stay 15 meters from Fukuishiba.
Ichiro Matsumoto, a professor of earth and planetary science at Shimane University’s graduate school, who is familiar with mines, said showing the actual mining sites is important for people to get a better understanding of Iwami Ginzan.
"People are wondering why such a small silver mine could become globally famous," Matsumoto said. "Making Fukuishiba available for public viewing will have great significance in stimulating the visitors’ intellectual curiosity."
VISITOR NUMBERS DOWN
Tourist numbers have declined since the World Heritage site designation.
The Oda city government estimates 313,600 people visited the Omori-cho district, where the silver mine is located, last year, down 60 percent from the record set in 2008, the year following the designation.
City officials said the current figure is comparable to the years before Iwami Ginzan’s inclusion on the UNESCO list.
One problem is that it is difficult for tourists to understand the historical value of Iwami Ginzan by viewing the mine alone. Another problem is that the attractions, such as old buildings and the loading port, are scattered throughout the vast area.
"One can better understand the value of Iwami Ginzan by learning about how it was formed as well as its system and history," said Hiromi Endo, 57, head of the Iwami Ginzan promotion division of the city’s board of education. "I would like people to recognize how interesting it is to tour local attractions slowly, after Fukuishiba becomes accessible."
The official public viewing will start on July 1, and tours of Fukuishiba will be available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The Iwami Silver Mine Museum also plans to hold an exhibition from July 14 to show fukuishi ore specimens donated by offspring of the mine’s owner.