By Hiroshi Masumitsu / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterI hopped aboard the JR Joban Line, which I take every day to get to work. On this occasion, however, I boarded a train headed in the opposite direction from my usual route.
While taking in the calm, tranquil scenery, I thought about the coal mines that had dotted the area stretching from Ibaraki to Fukushima prefectures. At one point, 130 such mines had been in operation.
The area, known as Joban Tanden, supported the industrialization of modern Japan. As part of my quest to discover remnants of that era, I visited the Yumoto Onsen hot spring resort in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
The resort is said to date back to the Nara period (710-784). As I expected, the resort grounds were blanketed with steam.
A foot spa greets passengers as they step onto the platform at Yumoto Station. There are also many public bathhouses and free foot spas in the nearby hot spring area, with visitors casually dropping in and out. Occasionally, the smell of sulfur can be detected from roadside drainage ditches.
The water temperature at the source of the hot springs is about 58 C. Every minute, a total of 5.5 tons of hot water flow from the source to the hot spring resort and Spa Resort Hawaiians, a nearby tourist spot.
The bountiful hot springs actually share a deep relationship with the coal mines.
Coal was discovered in the Joban region late in the Edo period (1603-1867), with meaningful development of the mines beginning at the onset of the Meiji era (1868-1912). It was initially extracted using manual labor, before the process gradually mechanized as the mining operations grew in scale.
A mock mining pit can be found at Iwakishi Sekitan Kasekikan, a museum on the local coal mines that also houses fossils discovered nearby. The museum is about 10 minutes by foot from Yumoto Station. The evolution of mining technology is illustrated using mannequins and tools.
The exhibits also include a reproduced scene of mine workers bathing in cold water. “It was extremely hot in mining pits around here because water from hot springs would spew out. Bathing in cold water was essential for workers to prevent heatstroke,” said Fumihisa Watanabe, 48, a museum employee.
The hot spring wells above ground eventually dried up as the underground channels supplying hot water were cut off.
The entrance gate to the sixth pit of the Yumoto coal mine is also on display at the museum. In 1947, Emperor Showa entered the sweltering mining pit through the gate to encourage workers. The episode underscored the importance of the Joban Tenden region, which is close to the Tokyo metropolitan area.
One of my guides was Mikio Kumazawa, 74, a member of Iwaki Heritage Tourism Kyogikai, which promotes the industrial heritage of the local sites.
Kumazawa took me to the remnants of various facilities near the museum, including the loading site of a railway where coal was stocked onto trains specifically for transporting the material to the Joban Line. One of the facilities had electric fans for ventilating the mining pits.
My guide used old photographs to supplement his commentary, which helped me form an image of how workers lived in those years.
The highlight of the guided tour was a visit to the Uchigoko Chuo Sentan Kojo coal preparation plant, which began operating in the 1950s. At the plant, raw coal that had been extracted from mines was placed in water, upon which soil was removed from the coal because of the differing densities of the two materials.
These days, only part of the walls of the facility remain. However, the storage facilities for raw coal and huge funnel-shaped water tank illustrate the overwhelming enormity of the plant. Amid the silence, I felt as if the sounds and smells from the plant’s years of operation hovered in the air.
Japan’s coal mining industry began to decline in the 1960s, and coal mining companies developed drastic projects to protect local jobs.
Such efforts eventually led to the construction of tourist attractions utilizing the hot spring wells, which had previously troubled the local coal mining businesses. The development preceded the opening of the Spa Resort Hawaiians.
Young women born and raised in the coal mining community often put on performances featuring hula dancing, something that helped the undertaking become successful. The story of the women was depicted in the 2006 hit movie “Hula Girls.”
I enjoyed soaking in open-air baths and watching shows at the Spa Resort Hawaiians, while thinking about the rise and fall of the coal mines. Today’s hula girls have vibrantly publicized the reconstruction of the city and its nearby areas following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and their smiles and dances convey to visitors the strength of the local residents. Such strength has been passed down generation to generation amid the drastic changes affecting the city over many years.
Foot spas enjoyable
During my stay at a ryokan inn, I enjoyed baths in hot water channeled directly from the source, and made many trips to a local foot spa called Tsuru no Ashiyu.
The lovely warm water soothed my feet and legs after I had spent extended periods walking from place to place.
Everyone at the spa was very friendly to each other, even though we were all strangers, and time seemed to slow down for us.
There is a stage beside the foot spa. From June to September, the okami female hostesses of ryokan inns wear kimono and put on a monthly hula performance.
The city has an image as a place where people unwind. After my recent trip, I certainly want to visit again.
Take the Hitachi limited express train from Tokyo Station to Yumoto Station for slightly more than two hours. From Yumoto Station, take a courtesy bus for about 15 minutes to the Spa Resort Hawaiians. For more information, call Iwaki Heritage Tourism Kyogikai at (0246) 42-3155 for guided tours to Uchigoko Chuo Sentan Kojo and other sites. The association is based inside the Iwakishi Sekitan Kasekikan museum.
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