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  • Writer's pictureALEX

Visit to the Nakayama Mine Site Pt.1

Updated: May 8, 2020

Although at the time not apparently a historic event, the finding of the first source of the sharpening stone media was most likely a casual stumbling upon an exposed rock outcropping upon a windblown exposed ridge by someone who maybe knew what he was looking at. Many men carried knives in those days if they were out and about in the wilds, there is no reason to not believe that he just sat down and sharpened or touched up his knife there on the spot and found that particular stone to do the job quite neatly.

Evidently there are 12th or 13th century records that indicate that the original walker of the Shobudani mountain, a certain Homma Tou-zaeman Toki-nari, was given some credit for the feat, and in return was eventually granted certain rights and obligations so that he might better serve and to have the opportunity to provide the Regent of the child Emperor Go-toba-joko and his court with those stones necessary to fulfill their needs. A charter in the early 1190's from the Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo formalized the position into a long term association with the courts of Kyoto and the Shogun and a title of sorts was created where as Homma Tou-zaemon became the keeper or manager of the mines.

The labor and work activities of late 14th early 15th century regarding the Nakayama mine are not accessible to the English speaking world at this point in time other than the anecdotal translations, drawings, paintings and woodblock prints that show the various stages of the mining production and finishing of those stones. These usually suggest intensive work teams that include not only men but also those of women and children. It is however interesting to note that there is solid evidence that the more recent mining productions dating into the 1920s did still continue to include not only the heavy hand work within the mines but also the continuation of using physical human removal of the stone from the mines entrances down into the valley by women and children. Evidently little had changed up through the years.

The following short description of my visit to the Nakayama mine site will also be in a way an anecdote diary. It is based solely upon my observations and what little information I have been able to gather over these past years, I am not a miner nor a geologist, a scholar nor a scientist, I do not speak Japanese nor do I read Japanese, and while visiting the site alone for parts of 2 days I only had myself to talk with. While trudging up and down the steep inclines on loose stone I made plenty of noise to attract some attention, but still no one spoke up and none others were seen. I found at one time a couple of food wrappers but later realized that those were my own indiscretion from the previous day. I also found a piece of a broken bowl that dated to the Edo period, but that turned out to be the only real object that I found that did not have anything directly to do with stone mining. Evidently few people find a need to walk these woods.

I was led to the site of the Nakayama mine by a 96 year old spry lady whom my wife Emiko met as Aoki-san descended down from the tree line to the road 1.5 miles up above the village of Umegahata at eight in the morning. She had three items with her, a walking stick of appropriate length for her remarkably erect 4ft.3in. frame, a cell phone and a cloth bag partly full of immature fiddle head fern tops that she had just finished picking. Being satisfied with her harvest she suggested that we walk back into town together.

Although the village was directly down the hill, the paths and streets we followed were back roads, much safer then the direct route would have been along the major road.

Down in town we stopped at her house, her daughters house and finally at her 84 year old friends home whom we found in his garden. He was able to draw up a map of how to get to the mine and then the four of us were off to locate the area where he, as a child played with the stones along with his school chums. Through all these little streets and alleys it took us a good while, but after a short climb we did find some rubble scattered about. I became very focused, like a hunting dog, while the others continued to chat about food, family and the good old days. He told us that not many people in town remember when the mines were opened and busy, and our new friends remembered that the Nakayama mine was usually quiet and at the end of a long dirt road. As kids they saw the trucks but thought nothing of what they were carrying. Below are photos of what those kids and the men working for Kato-san left behind.

Well I figured it out pretty soon that I was only scratching the surface, and as with every endeavor I knew that I had to move up hill, especially after I ran across the this one large chunk of suita and these particular pieces of stone with the black kawa skin that sparkles in the sun that is unique to the Nakayama mine along with the ochers and burnt umbers seen on the backs of Umegahata stone.

The mini mountain I was scrambling up would really be called a steep hill by California standards. The grade varied and there were plenty of 45 degree climbs or steeper and some scratching and clawing from tree trunk to trunk where I was pulling myself up 60 degree rises.

I was following a tailing chute up hill, seemed logical to do so and when I hit the dump head and looked over the rise at this old tin shack all the sweat and scrapes were forgotten. I knew what I was looking at even before I found it because when Ishihara-san hiked us up the mountain to his Ohira mine entrance I had seen these old shacks above with the mine tailings below at his mine entrance.

Like I said, I was in hound dog mode, and this shed smelled like and did prove to be the real revelation and confirmation, the benchmark that I had traveled 6,000 miles to see and touch.

No one told me that this shack existed, I saw those rail trucks and the stacked stone and the slightly open door. I don't like the native cobra type snakes in Japan, or the semi-tropical spiders either, but with determination I stuck my head through the door opening and at that moment someone from the past directly spoke to me over my shoulder as I peaked inside.

Here is the helmet of Kato. Here was the rain shelter, the workshop on the hillside of Kato. Here is the handwork of Kato. Helmet reads: Sho-honyama toishi saikutsujo. (original mountain stone mining station)

One man and the Hon Yama. Kato-san was just the last to walk and work here, there were earlier ones who broke the stone and their backs, pridefull of their product but not known beyond their years, a continuous field of what many deem as the original mountain of stone mined by an unbroken line of labors serving not themselves so much as the demands of a nation.

When at last I saw this group of stones in the late afternoon, I became even more determined to return the following day to this, what looked like an omen of a footpath.

The second days remembrances in Part 2.

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