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Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006



There's gold being panned in them thar hills

Staff writer

There may be many perfectly good reasons to spend a weekend sloshing around in water panning for gold. Trying to get rich isn't one of them.

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A young contestant (above) on the lookout for all that glitters at the Yunooku Gold Mining History Museum's "6th Annual Goldpanning Competition." A sample of gold panned from a river. Your scribe struck by gold fever. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTOS
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Such was the prime nugget of wisdom I came away with after spending one recent sunny morning in Minobu Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, where I became one of about 100 contestants in the Yunooku Gold Mining History Museum's "6th Annual Goldpanning Competition."

I'll admit it: Aware that I would be allowed to take home the gold I found, I had checked its price on the Tokyo Commodity Exchange. At 2,384 yen a gram, it was up 2.1 percent from a week earlier -- enough for some serious pocket money should I score, say, a conquistador-worthy 10 grams.

Also, being an incurable urbanite, I made sure to pack fresh clothes in the event -- horrors! -- that I got wet.

Obviously, I had taken matters altogether too seriously. Contestants didn't wade up to their waists in river water, as I had thought.

Instead, in our event -- a 500 yen recreational version of the World Goldpanning Association's annual competitions around the globe -- we did our panning in plastic tubs, sifting sand pre-seeded with gold.

A lost cause

There were 11 granules for each beginner and eight for "veterans." Using plastic dishes with ridges to catch the gold, the aim was to sift nimbly to retrieve as many specks as possible in 15 minutes.

After the children's division had a go, it was time for me to compete as one of the "adult beginners." I was a lost cause. Taking pity on me, the referee -- the referee! -- looked up from his stopwatch and discreetly suggested a clockwise/counter-clockwise motion. Suddenly the first glimmer of gold appeared. Then another, and another. But the six granules I managed to locate still earned me only eighth place out of 19. Total value: about 240 yen. Sheesh. A granule and a gram were clearly not equivalent, I realized with chagrin.

I obviously needed to learn some tricks from Toshiro Nomura, a high-school teacher who attended the contest with his students. In the "veteran" event, Nomura for some reason I couldn't deduce stepped into the tub, then began expertly working a personally handcrafted panning dish, shifting the water and sand around "just so." Deftly, in only 1 min. 43 sec., he had struck gold and scooped first place.

If it was any consolation, Nomura's booty of eight granules wasn't worth that much more than mine.

But to Japan's goldpanners, who number some 20,000 according to the All Japan Goldpanning Association, money clearly isn't the point.

"People who come here are interested in Japanese history and the history of Japanese mountains with gold deposits," the museum's head curator Kazuo Taniguchi told me. He said, for example, that in the early 16th century, present-day Yamanashi Prefecture became the first place in Japan where gold could be mined from mountaintops rather than having to be retrieved from rivers -- a discovery that he said made the country's first coin currency possible.

Taniguchi also shared another tidbit of sure interest to any gold buff: Geological forces pushing gold upward through the Earth's surface tend to deposit it on the western side of mountains. From there, water runoff takes it into rivers, where goldpanners find it.

Arcane maxim

Bookish knowledge was one thing, but Naoto Amano -- an amateur goldpanner who cited as his biggest find a 4.9-gram nugget -- said serious hobbyists also showed up at events like this to compare methodology. Among the techniques he's picked up: searching for gold nestled in water among other heavy metallic objects, like old screws and bolts; and donning a wet suit to probe deeper spots.

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"Big gold goes where hands don't reach," he said, as if coining some arcane goldpanning maxim.

I couldn't resist asking: "Could you tell me where you found that 4.9-gram nugget?" Strictly for journalistic purposes. Natch.

"There's no way I would tell you that," said Amano with a glint in his eye.

"Why not?" I asked, suspecting that goldpanners may not be so immune to greed after all.

"Respect," he explained to singular effect. Goldpanners, in other words, had their codes. "There are people who dig up minerals in places they shouldn't. The same goes for goldpanning. Some people destroy nature, shaving riverside rocks to get at gold. That shifts the flow of rivers and destroys roads."

The hour was getting late, and I prepared to rush home. Thinking about Amano's words, I realized the man was getting at something important. On the way to my Tokyo-bound train, I paused to gaze at the Shimobe River flowing past the museum. My eyes followed its course back into the mountains beyond. Sure, there might be gold in them thar hills -- and panners told me the Shimobe River had some, too. But what drives them probably isn't so much the gold itself as the tingle of cold river water on their skin and and the pleasure of being out in the fresh country air.

A sense of adventure, the thrill of the chase; goldpanning has it by the bucketful.

American author Henry Miller put it best. "Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such."

If goldpanners have a credo, then maybe that's it.

The Yunooku Gold Mining History Museum is a 5-minute walk from Shimobe Onsen Station on the JR Minobu Line in Yamanashi Prefecture. For more information, visit www.town.minobu.lg.jp/local_minobu/kinzan/index.html

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