Sado Island Gold Mines: Time Slip Through 400 Years of Riches and Technology
European explorers like Marco Polo called Japan the “land of gold.” This is no accident, as mining activity started in Sado in the 12th century, and by the 17th century, Sado island was the world’s largest producer of gold. Today, Sado island is deceptively lush with green.
Exploring the island upon arrival, the majestic toki — Japanese crested ibis, symbol of Niigata — welcomes visitors from the surrounding rice fields. The once endangered species was restored thanks to local efforts.
This S-shaped island located 40 kilometers off the Niigata coast takes a one-hour jetfoil ride to reach. These days, the local population of 50,000 people lives mostly off fishing and agriculture amid a rural landscape.
Yet, Sado island has a prosperous history as the gold capital of Japan.
Marco Polo referred to Japan’s richness in gold in his 13th century travelogs. In the first half of the 17th century, Japan was producing 20% of the world’s gold, about half of it from Sado, bringing the island to the status of the largest gold mine in the world. Coveted koban, oval gold coins minted on the island, reached the hands of merchants all over Europe, including those of the Dutch East India Company, and were particularly prized for their high quality.
Today, walking the streets of Aikawa and its nearby mountainous roads on the island, visitors encounter 400 years of history and human ingenuity.
Nominated by the Japanese Government as a site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Mines are expected to attract more visitors.
In November 2022, JAPAN Forward went onsite to investigate what makes Sado’s history special. What are the lessons from this community to the world?
Gold in the Onion Roots
It’s peaceful in the Sado Island village of Sasagawa, and the landscape is overgrown.
Local legend has it that, many centuries ago, some of the first specks of gold found in the area were tangled in the roots of green onions farmed by the inhabitants.
The placer gold mine on the mountainside in Nishimikawa came soon thereafter. Workers developed a metal extraction method called Onagashi (great flow). Water was channeled to wash away the earthen debris of the mountain, leaving the heavier gold behind. Settled at the bottom of the waterways, it was easy to collect the glittering prize.
“We know of no other place in the world where remains of this technique can be traced on the land in such a good condition,” says Kimiko Ishikawa. She works at the World Heritage Promotion Division of Sado City.
To this day, a visit to Sasagawa is like a time warp. “It’s a bit of a mysterious thing, but when you come to this village, it’s hard not to fall in love with it,” says Ishikawa.
Today, the symbol of Sado can be found at Doyu-no-warito Opencut Site. Mining the precious metals hidden in its solid rock for hundreds of years has transformed the landscape. Originally a single peak, the mountain is now split (“wari”) by a dramatic V-shaped chasm.
But getting the rock out of the mountain was only half the battle. What to the untrained eye appears to be white and gray veined stone produces pure gold and silver with meticulous refinement.
Hand-drawn scrolls from the time are on exhibit in the Sado museums. Thanks to their details, visitors can learn how the many stages of extracting and refining took advantage of the technical prowess of the Edo period.
In the early 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate — the Edo period regime (1603-1867) that united Japan — took control of the gold and silver mine complex. Covering an area 800 meters deep by 3 kilometers wide, it was organized into an elaborate system for extracting the ore. It is said that teams of thousands of people worked there.
The gold from Sado supported the glamorous artistic culture of the Edo period. We can trace to this period the richly gold-decorated Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, and the Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, among other treasured national properties.
The metal purity obtained — over 99.5% — was especially striking since the Tokugawa Shogunate limited influences from the outside world. Sado was among the last locations in the world to extract gold manually well into the 19th century.
Sado Island Gold Mines and Local Culture
In the evening light overlooking the almost deserted street, Hiroshi Dakurige stands on top of the local tower. The 88-year-old resident is about to ring the evening bell in Aikawa, a tradition he carries on together with other locals.
“The sound of the bell can be heard in the other parts of the bay.” It’s a precious connection with the town’s mining heritage, which started in the 1700s and is here to stay, Dakurige says. “I want to continue ringing the bell for as long as possible.”
“Many of those my age remember a time when everyone around here worked in the mine,” says Shosaku Hagino. He is the vice chairman of a local association advocating for Sado Island Gold Mines to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Going back in time, Aikawa town records that it started with just five or six houses before the Edo period. Thanks to the advanced production system established by the Tokugawa Shogunate, it’s said that the local population ballooned to about 50,000 people between the 1610s and 1620s. Kyomachi, where merchants from other parts of Japan came and resided, still carries shadows of its Edo period charm.
Culture boomed as people from all over the country converged on Sado to work in the mines. Noh traditional theater flourished and, as with local festivals, continues to this day. Performing arts rituals were held to thank the deities for finding a prosperous vein of gold or silver. Tellingly, the mascot was a centipede, its shape resembling a vein of ore in the stone.
Sado Gold That United Japan
Kinu Wakura moved to the island in her 20s and has worked as a guide for many years. Now 80 years old, she makes it her business to share Sado’s history.
“The power and the appeal of gold is something which is unparalleled,” she says softly. “Visitors would just suddenly light up,” she adds with a little twinkle in her eye.
Sources estimate that the Sado Island Gold Mines produced more than four tons of output in the first half of the 17th century and became the world’s largest producer of gold. These riches supported the Tokugawa Shogunate that united Japan. Meanwhile, the high-quality gold coins from Sado caught the eye of foreigners.
These days the mines are closed and the economic splendor of Sado has dwindled. Still, the community is proud of its heritage and has fought hard to pass on the history of Sado to future generations.
“The appeal of this island is its special value in history, as there are so many well-preserved places where you can imagine what it must have been like at the time,” says Wakura.
Local citizens regularly mow the grass and conduct cleanup activities to maintain the townscape. They also hold festivals and Shinto rituals that have continued since the Edo period. To this day, The Sasagawa Branch School of Nishimikawa Elementary School holds annual community events and spreads awareness of the history of mining started in that village so many centuries ago.
“Thanks to the Sado mines, Japan was sustained economically [during the Edo period]. And this turned into trade and economic ties with European countries,” Ishikawa emphasizes. “Learning this history is like being connected to the rest of the world.”
Coming Next: Sado Island Gold Mines: A Powerful History of Commerce and Community
Author: Arielle Busetto