Treasures of Kesennuma Port
There are estimated to be about 3,000 fishing ports in Japan. In this island nation, where seafood is essential to both cuisine and culture, every one of these ports plays an important role in supporting the national seafood industry. Of these 3,000 ports, 13 are designated as National Fishing Ports of Japan. These 13 are tasked not only with bringing in the largest share of Japan’s national seafood haul, but also with implementing new technologies, shaping broad-reaching fisheries regulations and policy, and generally being the vanguards of the commercial fishing industry. Kesennuma, the northernmost city in Miyagi Prefecture, is home to one of these 13. Yet the history of Kesennuma as an economically significant region predates this modern-day commercial fishing. What were the city’s original claims to fame? Gold and salt.
Kesennuma is home to two historic gold mining sites: Oya Mine in the southern part of the city and Shishiori Mine in the north. The heyday of gold mining in the region is said to have been in the middle part of the Heian period, when these mines were renowned for supplying gold to the Oshu-Fujiwara clan. The Oshu-Fujiwara were the founders of Hiraizumi, and much of the gold used at Chuson-ji Temple there is said to have been to have been sourced from the mines in Kesennuma.
The methods used to extract gold during the Heian period were quite simple, but the advent of modern technology brought about an age of industrial mining from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. At the peak of its production capacity in the early 1940s, Oya Mine is said to have had over 1,300 employees producing about one ton of gold per year. Tours of the abandoned mine itself aren’t currently offered, but during our visit we checked out the museum at the site of the mine. I spent a while looking at a diorama of the mining complex and tried to imagine what kind of community the people working there might have lived in. Mining was a full-time, year-round gig, and miners brought their whole families to live with them in their company-provided quarters. The layout of the mining settlement makes you feel like the place was more of a miniature town than an industrial site.
The Shishiori Gold Mine in the northern part of Kesennuma, while not as large is the Oya Gold Mine, is known for producing a 2.25-kg nugget of ore which was approximately 83% gold, the largest gold nugget ever produced in Japan. Though that “Monster Gold” nugget was melted down long ago, visitors can see other large specimens of real gold ore as well as mining equipment at the Shishiori Museum. During our visit there, we tried using a flashlight and magnifying glass to identify tiny specks of gold in one of the rocks on display. I’m still not sure if I can tell the difference between a speck of gold and a bit of sparkly quartz, but maybe you’ll have better luck than me!
If gold was one of the reasons why Kesennuma was an important part of the ruling clan’s economic strategy, salt was another. During the Edo period, salt pans in the Iwaisaki area produced much of the salt for the Sendai Domain. In an era where refrigeration was nonexistent, salt was valuable not only as a condiment but also as a means of preserving food. We visited the Iwaisaki Salt-Making Center, which continues the region’s salt-making tradition to this day. Starting with a pan of concentrated seawater, we spent about 20 minutes boiling and stirring until all of the water had evaporated and only a fine, powdery salt was left.
Though all of us started with the same ingredient and boiled our seawater for just about the same amount of time, each person’s batch of salt ended up tasting different! Our guide explained that when making salt, even small differences in variables such as the pace of stirring can have a profound impact on the final product. After bottling up our salt to take home, we took a walk out to Cape Iwaisaki to enjoy the amazing view of the Pacific and take photos with the Dragon Pine, a pine tree broken into the shape of a dragon by the 2011 tsunami.