The Ashio Copper Mine: digging through history

Japan doesn’t have a lot of mineral resources, but has done its best to exploit what there is.  The copper mine at Ashio, in the Watarase valley of western Tochigi Prefecture, is a great example of that.

Although the mine was closed in 1973 after three centuries in operation, it is now open to visitors who wish to learn more about the mine and its history.

Visitors first gather at the visitor center, with its displays of copper ore and visuals relating to the mining operation.  A small trolley train carries visitors into the mine, deep inside Mt. Bizendateyama. 

Once inside the mine, visitors get off the train and walk through the mine’s exhibits.  The main part of the mine is off limits to visitors, but the barrier is equipped with a floodlight to allow visitors to look down the tunnel and a sign informs visitors that there are approximately 1,500 kilometers of tunnels beyond this point.  A video later in the route helpfully points out that this is roughly the distance from Tokyo to Fukuoka.

The visit route is organized to allow visitors to pass through time.  The first part of the tunnel is roughly hewn with displays on mining in the Tokugawa Period (ie, up to the middle of the 19th century), including life-sized mannequins in work poses. 

Copper was first discovered at Ashio in 1610 and mining with hammers and chisels commenced shortly thereafter.  Even with this simple mining tools, about 1,500 tons of copper was mined annually at the mine through the end of the 18th century when the mine was closed for various reasons.

The displays here, and throughout the tour, also explain the different roles of those working in the mines.  Of course there are those who dig, but there are also people to frame the tunnels to protect against collapse, remove rubble, plant charges (once dynamite began to be used), etc.

As you might expect, the ceiling is a bit lower in this oldest section and gets progressively higher as you progress through the historical periods.  As a relatively tall person, I found the need to crouch a bit from time to time to ensure I didn’t bump my head.  Also, although apparently the mine is perpetually damp, I visited just after a particularly heavy rain and the mine tunnels were quite wet.  If nothing else, the atmosphere helps one to appreciate the extreme conditions involved in mining.

The second part of the tunnel tour features displays of mining in the Meiji/Taisho Periods.  The mine was re-opened in 1877 after it was purchased by Furukawa Ichibei, a mining magnate of the Meiji Period industrialization.  Although Furukawa owned mines across Japan, Ashio proved to be one of his most productive and lucrative mines.  By 1885 the mine was producing more than 4,000 tons of copper per year, more than 3/4 of the total production of Furukawa’s mines.  It was even more productive in the 1890s. 

Although the tour is silent on the subject, it was during the 1890s and early 1900s that the activities of the Ashio Mine began to have serious environmental impact, polluting the rivers flowing from this area across the Kanto Plain to the sea, destroying fish and other wildlife populations and, after some serious flooding, rendering rich farmland sterile.  As a result, in 1907 the miners themselves rioted for three days, dynamiting and destroying significant portions of the mine’s processing facilities.  The company responded by commencing some basic filtration and other protective measures and in 1911 Japan’s first Factory Law was enacted to address industrial pollution.

Such changes also bring innovation; a small-scale rock drill was developed at the Ashio Mine by the early 1920s.  Introduction of train service also facilitated transportation of the ore.

The next period of the mine’s life displayed on the tour is that of the Showa Period, when modern equipment began to be used.  Although it is now well known that POW slave labor was used in the mine during World War II, this is another aspect of the mine’s history on which the tour is silent. 

Early mechanized drills, as well as their later, more sophisticated cousins, are included in the displays.  There is also a mock up of workmen taking their lunch break inside the mine (see above, bottom right).  Given the amount of time that could be lost leaving the mine for a meal break, eating inside the mine was, doubtless, very common.

At this point in the tour a small side tunnel takes visitors to a small shrine.  Such a place to honor the gods of the mountain and ask for their protection from accidents is common inside mines in Japan, just as one finds god shelves in homes and various commercial establishments throughout the country. 

Back in the main tunnel, which is now wider and more modern, one feels that the tour is nearly finished, although it fact there is more to see.  First, pass by two mannequin workmen doing basic maintenance work on the tunnel. 

After this, the temperature begins to rise (caves and tunnels are usually cooler than outside temperatures, especially on a hot summer day) indicating that you’re nearly out of the tunnel.  In fact, the next section is a series of exhibition rooms.  First a room with a video of details about the mine.  Among the information imparted: the fact that in addition to 1,500 km. of tunnels, they are in layers that is a kilometer from top to bottom.  An animation shows how the ore from the deepest sections is brought to the surface.

In the next exhibition room are sample ores and dioramas of the above ground facilities of the mine, where the ore is smelted to produce use-able copper. 

Outside the mine are further exhibits on the early (Tokugawa Period) smelting process, which must have been extremely hot, miserable work.  Apparently, the workers wore water-saturated straw mats over their loincloths to protect themselves. 

Nearby is a modern exhibition hall with diorama displays on how copper was melted into coins during the Tokugawa Period, a time when coins were the only form of currency available.  Both the process (on display step by step) and the security measures taken to prevent theft by the workers, are fascinating to observe.

When finished, there is a staircase leading to a gift shop and on out to the opposite side of the parking lot from where you entered.

The Ashio Copper Mine is a 5-10 minute walk from Tsudo Station on the Watarase Keikoku train line (check the train timetable carefully; there is less than one train an hour).  It is also about a 30 minute drive from the center of Nikko city.  Trolley trains depart the visitor’s center for the mine every 15 minutes from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.  Admission is JPY820.  Be sure to request an English brochure, as there is little to no signage in English inside the tunnels.

© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer
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