Several years ago I had a chance to visit the Ohira mine at the invitation of its owner Ishihara-san of the Tamba region of Kyoto. He is the 5th generation to run the mine and he remembers his grandfather working at both ends of the process, at the mine and in the shop along with 20 or so other employees. The Ohira mine is a realitively new mine going back only a couple of hundred years, it is on the eastern side of Mt. Atago maybe 15 miles at most from downtown Kyoto as the crow flies. He drove the one lane, at times dirt road to the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell, and he asked me to promise not to tell anyone where his mine was to circumvent trespassers. He has had some problems, but to tell you the truth after hiking for 30 minutes up a steep unmarked overgrown path to get to the mine head, I can see that easier pickings for trespassers to fool with could be found somewhere else.
We walked up through a lovely forest as it was, with native chestnuts trees and nuts upon the ground which turned out to be large and meaty and tasty when roasted. Along the way we passed a couple of exploratory shafts like this one.
This could be one of many dozens of test holes used to search out the vein of sharpening stone material from which this mine is known for. Evidently when one mine shaft has played out it is guesswork to follow the vein that is generally about 20-40 meters within the mountains surface.
Seems pretty simple at first, but the snow in the winter and 98percent humidity in the summer, the bears and snakes, cave-ins, crushed fingers plus everything needs to be hauled down the hill definitely puts a spin on the easy part. Like I said in his grandfathers time there were 20 or so employees, some were women and children who did much of the hauling. The bucked with a gas powered winch is a new thing, in the old days all the stone was hand carried down the mountian side or sledded down along chutes. The earlier shafts were at higher elevations too so farther to move the stone. Ishihara-san has one part-time employee but he himself does not work in the mine anymore. Most of the good stone is depleted and his main stock is uchigumori of which the Ohira mine is famous for.
Above are nearly paper thin pieces of uchigumori which are not cut with a saw but are actually coaxed with a dull chisel to seperate along the grain. The waste is enormous in making these and you need to start with a really pure piece of uchigumori toishi to begin with. The next step is to hand sand them until they really are paper thin, then a layer of mulberry paper is lacquered on the back with true urushi. All along this process there is more waste and broken pieces. The final product is a finger stone used by professional sword sharpeners in polishing (not sharpening) the surface of the sword to create a certain watery look. Ishihara-san told me the Office of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs visited his shop way in the mountains there to poll him on his estimate as to the amount of uchigumori left in his mine because this stone used in this form above is integral to the complete and correct restoration of historic samuri swords. Without this stone, and there is no manmade substitute for it, the history of the sword may vanish in its purest traditional sense as far as the polishing part goes.
Looking out from the mine into the valley where his house is located in a quaint village it does not look like much has changed in the last few hundred years, still men and women sharpen and polish steel with their choice of stone.
I have bought stones from Ishihara-san for a few years now, he is the real deal and has been very generous with his time and knowledge.
Ishihara-san is a member of the Kyoto Miners Union, and maybe the oldest active member still working. I have sorted through thousands of stones in his shop to only come up with a few, and I am lucky enough to have a good collection from his grandfathers era when the stones were very fine and fast cutting. Blessed with five daughters but no sons, he will maintain the Mt. Agago shrine at his own expense but only time will tell regarding the mine.
Not all roads lead to Atago, a shame. This one did. Alx