Japan's first gold was discovered here on holy Mt. Nonodake
Wakuya is a small town in northern Miyagi that isn’t well-known even within Japan, much less overseas. This may be changing soon though, as archeological research has revealed that it was the place where gold was first discovered in Japan. In fact, this early Japanese gold constituted a large percentage of the gold that was used to gild the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple in Nara.
Gold was first discovered here during the Nara period (710–794 CE), and shortly thereafter the Michinoku gold industry began to flourish. At first people simply panned for gold in the rivers, but later more advanced mining techniques were employed. Though the mines here did eventually succumb to declining yield and revenue, one can still see the occasional hobbyist out in the river, panning for gold.
Ulala Tanaka/Ulala Tanaka
I was able to try gold panning in the river myself during a recent trip to Wakuya, through a river gold-panning tour offered by the local museum Tenpyo Romankan. For now these tours are offered only once in a while on a special-event basis, but the town is planning to offer them more regularly soon. Even if you can’t make it to one of these special-event tour dates, you can still try gold panning in the museum’s on-site workshop, which lets visitors pan for gold in troughs filled with sediment collected from the river.
Whether you plan on trying gold panning or not , Tenpyo Romankan is a must-see. The museum sits at the foot of holy Mount Nonodake, very near the place where gold was first discovered. It has good English translations illuminating aspects of Japanese history rarely presented in museums; in addition to exhibits on gold mining, the museum also delves into the daily life of people during the Nara period and the Korean immigration to Japan which occurred during that time.
Next door to Tenpyo Romankan are two other points of interest, making it an easy place to spend an entire day. First, there’s Koganeyama Shrine. Instantly recognizable by its large golden torii gate, it honors the site of Japan’s first gold mine.
There’s also a teahouse called Kugane-an located next to the museum and shrine, where visitors can enjoy a brief but proper tea ceremony service with matcha and wagashi sweets. Next to the main tea ceremony room is a smaller one with glimmering walls lined in pure gold leaf—ask to see it and they’ll be happy to oblige.
Since the decline of the gold mines, agriculture, especially rice cultivation, has become the primary industry in Wakuya. The town has developed a signature brand of rice called Kin no Ibuki, a variety bred specifically to taste delicious as unpolished brown rice. The town also grows delicious vegetables, and the local tofu shop makes delicious oboro tofu, a rich and creamy kind of tofu. The oboro tofu can be enjoyed on its own or in oborojiru, a soup that’s been eaten in the area since the Edo period. A few restaurants in town, like Tsukimichi, also use food as an opportunity to celebrate the area’s gold-mining past in a fun way by sprinkling meals with gold flakes.
Wakuya is also a good destination for experiencing Buddhism. Konpo-ji, a 1,250 year old temple on holy Mount Nonodake, still serves as a center of faith and worship for the townspeople. Visitors here can participate in a zazen meditation session led by the head priest himself, or try shakyo (sutra copying). The shakyo experience offered here is really something special, because after copying the sutra you can take part in the ceremony in which it is offered to the gods. It’s the only place I know of in Japan where this is possible.
Wakuya is unique not only in terms of its history, but also in terms of the openness with which the town invites visitors to participate in real cultural experiences. The area may soon start attracting more tourists as word spreads about these archeological discoveries, but for now Wakuya remains a welcoming town well off the beaten path.