A great many scenarios may arise when this saying can come into play, but please believe me when I say that this is an entirely positive use of said phrase. It was a phrase originally presented to me two years ago when I was traveling to Japan to study abroad in Tokyo. The busy bustle of city life is a great attraction to many, but it is devoid of much of the substance that makes a culture unique. It is for this reason that the phrase, “when in doubt, get out,” comes into to mind when thinking of traveling and in particular, traveling to some of the more secluded areas of rural Japan. The countryside is where the real traditions live, where the old ways still hold sway over the modern push, and the source of a great nation can emerge.
A little bit about me before I get into my travel review. My name is Brennan Duff and I am an American working in Hyogo Prefecture as an elementary school English teacher. Because of the program I belong to, I will be staying in Japan for at least one year as a school teacher. I arrived in Japan only a few months ago, but my education and passions have made me rather knowledgeable of many aspects of Japanese history, language, and culture. It was for these reasons that I decided to join a bus tour of the Tajima region of Hyogo Prefecture.
As a resident of the southern end of Hyogo, I was curious to venture into the north and see some of the other regions in my neighborhood so to speak. My community is coastal with a large number of fields growing a wide assortment of vegetables; quite the contrast from the mountainous regions of northern Hyogo. Tajima is a region of tall mountains, narrow valleys, and coastal access to the Sea of Japan. Specifically, I was traveling to Ikuno (生野町), one of the many townships that make up the larger city of Asago (朝来市). I left from Kobe with staff from the prefectural international association, other members of my program, and students who were studying abroad. We got on our bus and set off to the north.
It’s important to note that this trip was a bit of a wild one. Specifically, we were embarking only hours before a typhoon was scheduled to hit the area. Not only that, but the typhoon that had hit exactly one week prior had inflicted some rather serious damage to some of the main locations we were planning on visiting. For that reason, we focused our stay on Ikuno.
One of the first changes that was easy to note was the spacing: the mountains were becoming taller and closer. Now, mountains in Japan are nothing new considering that the island nation is still undergoing the natural process of being created. This leaves very little middle ground between valley floor and towers of stone. Leaving Kobe the mountains were considerable, but the large presence of buildings meant that the terrain was manageable enough for human habitation. The closer we got to Tajima the less room houses seemed to have. The thin stiches of roads barely weaved through the tapestry of rice fields. Homes seemed to challenge the looming mountains for the four feet needed to park a car. Out here, humans had no claim to the land, only a delicate balance of trust between farmers and their grand masters. Out here, you’re reminded why in Shinto, the mountains are gods.
Next to change were the trees. While the coastal areas of the south are filled with deciduous trees and bamboo groves, the trees of the north were mostly coniferous trees standing silently in the storm. Not only did the types of trees change, it was the color of the trees as well. What deciduous trees remains seemed to primarily be sakura cherry trees turning from burnt yellow to red. These trees grew in their own groves surrounded by the taller silent keepers. The further north we drove the more vibrant their colors became. Soon enough it began to feel like we were entering a painting of autumn colors save for the vibrant green of the grass patches and moss-covered stones.
Our first stop, Mikobata Senkojo Mine, one of several branches of the Ikuno silver mine that made the area famous. Though the mine is no longer in service, nor is the complex still standing, it is an amazing site to behold the size of the foundations. Marked as an industrial heritage site, it’s not entirely clear just from looking at this mine that this was one of the most important operations of human engineering in Japanese history. Of the mines that we saw, this one was by far the most modern which helped get a grasp for how long people have mined for the ore in the area. Despite there not being much to see of the mine, I would recommend seeing this mine because of how it compares to the main Ikuno mine which I will speak about momentarily.
The highlight attraction of the day was Ikuno Ginzan Mine, the main silver mine in Japan that was in use from around the ninth century to the 1970s. Approximately one third of the world’s silver came from this mine and most of it was excavated in the nineteenth century when Japan was in the throngs of modernization. The outside the mine appears to be little more than a quaint natural preserve, save for the gates adorned with the chrysanthemum flower, the crest of the Imperial Family. The colors of the maple trees, the landscaping, and waterfall overshadow the stone doorway into the heart of the mountain where people for hundreds of years carved out silver ore. A jaunt through the museum and then into the mine helps the visitor see and feel the history of the mine, a feeling that is made more powerful after visiting the Mikobata Mine. Beautiful veins of stone and utilitarian feats of engineering make the inside of the mine a fun place to explore, especially with mannequins reenacting daily chores in the mines. Back in the visitor’s center of the mine, we made our own silver pendants at the Marie workshop. I made mine into a silver necklace with a chain from the gift shop.
The last stop in town was also the most important part of the silver mining operation. We went into the town of Ikuno, a lovely little town adorned with Renoir statues, to a building dating back into the Edo period of Japan. This building was a home and office for the officer of the shogunate who would document and oversee the production of silver ore in the region. Today, the building is a rest stop, historic landmark, café, and gift shop.
Before returning to Kobe, we took a detour deeper into the mountains to a hot spring called Kurokawa Onsen. A small public bath off the beaten path, the space is very comfortable and the staff is very kind. We stopped for a lovely bath and dinner. Each gender has two baths, one inside and the other outside. I particularly recommend he outdoors bath in the colder weather because the water is so warm. The food afterwards was very delicious. They have many of the staple dishes found in many restaurants around Japan, but they also had local delicacies like thinly sliced wild boar and deer.
Going back to my home was very welcomed after a long and busy day, but I am already looking into making plans to visit again and enjoy such a different culture from my own while only a short drive away.
For more information, click the link below:
・Ikuno NAVI生野NAVI / Ikuno NAVI
・Ikuno silver mine 生野銀山 / Ikuno silver mine
・Marie (silversmithing studio) 銀細工工房マリー / Marie (silversmithing studio)
・Kousyataku(Takashi Shimura Memorial Hall)甲社宅（志村喬記念館）/ Kousyataku(Takashi Shimura Memorial Hall)
・Kassel(Hotel)カッセル / Kassel
・Idutuya 井筒屋 / Idutuya
・Asagoshi朝来市 / Asago city
・Ikuno hashed rice MAP生野ハヤシライスMAP / Ikuno hashed rice MAP
・Kurokawa hot spring黒川温泉 / Kurokawa hot spring