Jade Hunting Expedition – Part 1

Itoigawa City– Niigata Prefecture – Japan

Golden Week; May 3rd-7th gave me five days to go south and hunt for Japanese jadeite. I’d tried to get down to Itoigawa twice last year, but the weather was against me. I’d planned on camping, and was washed out the previous occasions. This time the weather was sunny, so, after an eight hour drive to the southwest along a quite scenic coast highway, I reached Itoigawa, where the Southern Alps hit the Sea of Japan. It took me a little while to locate the campground I’d seen on a map.

Part 1 of these notes covers my trip to the Oyashirazu Pier, the Jade Museum there and my interaction with the local jade hunters. In Part 2 I shall relate my adventures in the Kotakigawa Gorge and exploring the ancient Jomon village of Chojagahara.

Note for Gem Geeks–a very detailed article on Japanese Jadeite can be found in this issue of the official GIA magazine: GEMS & GEMOLOGY, SPRING 2017, VOL. 53, NO. 1

In about 2,500 BCE the Jomon village of Chojagahara, situated on a hill overlooking Itoigawa, was the center of a trade network providing jade for beads an stone axes to Jomon settlements throughout Japan. But by 700 AD jade ornaments had fallen out of fashion and the source for the jadeite was lost. That source, in the Kotakigawa Gorge, wasn’t rediscovered until 1939.

It took me a little while to locate the campground I’d seen on a map. Just as it was growing dark I followed the directions given me by a couple of local farmers, then found the sign and followed a narrow, one-lane trail up the side of a steep hill into the forest until I came to the campground. Hardly anyone was staying there, even during Golden Week.

My first goal was a visit to the Oyashirazu Pier. That’s where I’d heard that jade could be found on the beach, a Jade Museum was there and, best of all for me, local jade hunters set up tables with rough and finished jade for sale. I tried my hand on the beach, but didn’t really know what I was looking for. I’d purchased rough jade before, but it was always already in the wholesale market.

I had no idea how to pick it out from among thousands of other pebbles, or river rocks. Luckily, I showed what I found to one the the guys selling jade and he picked up some small pebbles of rough jade he had on his table and then held them both in the sun to show me the difference. It was an “Ah-Ha!” moment of satori-like comprehension…a nice little trick that would come in handy when I went to the jade canyon the next day.

On the pier the most interesting find was blue jadeite. I’d seen lavender jadeite in Burma and Thailand, and blue-green Mayan jadeite in Belize, but never such a deep shade of blue. I talked for a while with an old couple. They lived near the Kotaki River and after I showed them the large piece of deep blue, Treasury-grade lapis on my belt buckle that I had cut at a friend’s workshop down in Bali, they realized that I was a lapidary, too. The old man went to his car and brought back four pieces of very translucent blue jade that he was cutting. I asked him “How much?” in Japanese, then threw in a 150 gram slab of  blue jade that they had already polished; we bargained for a bit and came to a price we all thought reasonable.

I spent all morning at the pier, bull-shitting with the old Japanese rockhounds, walking on the beach not finding jade, and checking out the jade museum with the huge boulder as the main exhibit.

That afternoon I drove back to Itoigawa City and followed a turn-off for 7 klicks up into the mountains to a beautiful park and the Fossa Magna Museum. The museum was dedicated to that area’s geology and had a whole room devoted to the local jade. The specimen gallery was nice, too. Outside the flowers were blooming and the red maples glimmered, so I had a little picnic lunch on the grass.


Luckily I headed back to the campground early as I had a few wrong turns to take before finally rediscovering the right way back up the hill. But I still got in early enough to select a better, more remote campsite and still have plenty of sun left to chill out and prepare my camp.  The next day I planed a serious expedition up into the Southern Alps in search of the jade Canyon and try to discover rough jade in the wild.

That part of the adventure shall have to wait until Part 2.








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