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A Trip to the Sado Gold Mines, Where History is Etched in the Mountains

Inside the tunnels of the Sado gold mines, the author encounters 400 years of industrial history at a site that once led the world in gold extraction.



Doyu-no-Warito, a site of open-pit mining, which has become a symbol of the gold and silver mines of Sado Island. (© Sankei by Kenichi Honda)

Sado City, situated on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, is seeking the registration of the Sado gold mines as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is expected to conduct an on-site survey by autumn. Crucially, the city's aspiration for world heritage status hinges on the outcome of this assessment. Therefore, the engagement of the local community in this survey holds immense significance. I had the opportunity to visit the sites likely to be included in the survey.

Departing from Niigata Port in Niigata City, I boarded a car ferry and reached Ryotsu Port on the eastern shore of Sado Island. It took about two and a half hours. I then rented a car at the port and embarked on a journey to explore the gold mines.

The Sado gold mines encompass two distinct former mining sites: the Aikawa-Tsurushi Gold and Silver Mine and the Nishimikawa Placer Gold Mine. My first destination was the Aikawa-Tsurushi area.

Sado gold mines are a Tokugawa-era unique industrial site featured in an application for UNESCO World Heritage Site status (© Sankei)

First Destination: Aikawa District

The Aikawa District of Sado City is located in the central-northern part of Sado Island. Kirarium Sado, an information center that plays an important role in the region's tourism, is located here.

The facility features a mini-theater that utilizes multimedia aids to portray the history of the Aikawa-Tsurushi Gold and Silver Mine, as well as the Nishimikawa Placer Gold Mine. Additionally, near the information center is the site of the Sado Bugyosho (Sado Magistrate's Office), which oversaw the mining operations.

A Passage Through Time

Next, I headed to a site that symbolizes the Sado gold mines, the Historic Site Sado Gold Mine. I chose the "Two Tunnel Excursion Course" (¥1500 JPY or about $10 USD). The course takes you to both Sodayu and Doyu mines. 

Venturing into the underground tunnel, it was slightly chilly inside, with the temperature hovering around 10°C (50°F). I was guided through the hand-dug tunnels dating back to the early Edo period. Figurines and audio were used to vividly reconstruct the mining practices of that era, transporting visitors back in time to almost four centuries ago.

The Minamizawa Drainage Tunnel, the sole operational facility at Sado Gold Mine. Photo taken with special permission. (© Sankei by Kenichi Honda)

The Doyu mine includes the relics of mining facilities from the Meiji era onwards. There is also a spot for photos at the Doyu-no-Warito, a site of open-pit mining, another major feature of the Sado gold mines. Open-pit mining is a technique for mining ore veins that are visible on the surface.

78 Tons of Gold

At a later date, I had the privilege to visit the only facility at the Sado gold mines that is still operational: the Minamizawa Drainage Tunnel. This crucial structure plays a pivotal role in draining the water that springs up inside the mines. It isn't open to the public, but I was given special permission to see it.

Since its establishment in 1601, the Sado gold mines produced a remarkable 78 tons (86 US tons) of gold over 388 years. During the 17th century, it led the world in terms of volume and quality of production.

History Engraved in the Mountains

The Nishimikawa Placer Gold Mine holds the distinction of being Sado Island's oldest gold mine. According to local guide Kazuo Yoshikura, the practice of extracting gold from sand is believed to date back to around a thousand years ago, during the Heian period. "There's even a mention of Sado Island's gold extraction in the Konjaku Monogatarishu," he explains.


Furthermore, the miners employed a distinctive technique called Onagashi, which enabled them to extract significant amounts of placer gold. This approach entailed breaking up the mountain's surface where placer gold was located. These were then deposited into the waterways below. A substantial volume of water was channeled through these waterways to wash away sediment and stones so that the placer gold settled at the bottom could be collected.

The marks of bygone eras are still visible on the exposed mountainside of Toramaru-yama. The site is believed to have yielded the greatest amount of placer gold in Nishimikawa. Presently, Nishimikawa is inhabited by around 60 residents in 25 households. Although the economic focus has shifted to agriculture over time, local initiatives remain dedicated to the preservation of the gold mine sites.

Getting There

To get to Sado Island from Tokyo, take the shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to Niigata Station. This will take around two hours. Then, from Niigata Station, a 10 to 15-minute taxi or bus ride will bring you to Niigata Port Sado Steam Ship Terminal. From Niigata Port to Ryotsu Port on Sado Island, it takes around 1 hour by high-speed boat and 2.5 hours by car ferry. An alternative route is available from Naoetsu Port in Joetsu City, Niigata Prefecture, to Sado Ogi Port.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kenichi Honda

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