Sakubei Yamamoto and his Historical Coal Mine Paintings
Yama Visitors

Visitors of a sort largely unseen in the present age

Coal mine life had very little to offer in terms of amusements, so the entertainers and merchants who would stop by from time to time would always draw a crowd. We don't tend to come across these sorts of people today, but we can at least get a taste of what they were like through what Sakubei saw at a particular yama (a slang term for a coal mine).

A stunt performer swallowing a sword (street magician).

The Geta (traditional wooden sandals) Repairman
There were not so many varieties of shoes available in the Meiji era as there are today; geta were by far the most common footwear. The straps were made of peelings from bamboo shoots, and as such were prone to break frequently. The geta repairman made frequent appearances at the yama.

The Bucket Repairman
These old-style buckets were essential to each household in an era before disposable plastic ones were available. Bucket repairmen would visit the yama often to replace the bottoms or the rings that held the buckets together.

The Caster
The caster carried a small pair of bellows around with him, doing the indispensable job of repairing pots, kettles, and the like. Since repairs were performed chiefly by pouring in melted brass, utensils of the same metal were quite commonly used from house to house.

The caster would repair pots, kettles and the like.

The Pipe Mender
Most people at the time did not smoke paper-rolled cigarettes as they do today; the yama people mostly smoked shredded tobacco. Young and old alike would carry a tobacco pouch around with them, and would often need the shafts of their pipes replaced. The pipe mender showed up just about every day.

Experienced masseuses would walk the streets on their own, tooting their flute to announce their arrival – but at the yama, most masseuses who came by were blind and lacking so much experience, and could be seen being lead about step-by-step by women and children.

Lamp Sellers
Lamps were a necessity at nighttime, and so vendors would visit the yama selling them and performing repairs. Both hanging and standing lamps were available, but the hanging type was the most common.

Stunt Performers
These performers came to the yama from time to time as sort of street magicians. They impressed onlookers by performing magic and sword swallowing, along with mysterious feats such as gulping tobacco.

The fancy getup of the Horai mame vendor was quite popular with the children.

The Horai Mame Vendor
This merchant walked about selling hard candy-coated soybeans known as horai mame in triangular packs of 10 out of a bucket balanced on top of their head. However, the contents of the bucket were not limited to sweets; there were also national and naval flags, pinwheels, and other items for sale. With their gaudy clothes in a fashion paralleled by the stunt performer, they would dance merrily through the streets while striking their uchiwa daiko (a small, flat drum resembling a hand-held fan). Needless to say, the children tended to like them.

The Dango Confectioner
Dango are little rice dumplings, usually sold with several pieces stuck on bamboo skewers. To make them cheaper, lots of non-glutinous rice was used in the ingredients, so a cherry blossom, chrysanthemum, orange peel, or a piece of chicken would be stuck on the end of the skewer to keep the dango from coming off. They would generally cost 1 or 2 sen (1/100 of 1 yen) each, while more expensive ones might cost as much as 5 or even 10 sen. This was a trade that required some skill.

Bun-mawashi, quite popular at the time, was a sort of lottery game resembling roulette.

The Candy Crafter
Like the dango confectioner, the candy crafter's occupation demanded some degree of dexterity. Blowing through a thin bamboo straw, the candy crafter would alter their breath while using their hands to deftly craft birds and gourds out of a slightly-heated brown candy base. The candy figure would then be colored red or blue and sold at the price of 1 sen per piece.

Bun-mawashi (similar to roulette)
Also called dokkoi-dokkoi, or "close match," this game was played using a piece of white cardboard with a stick standing on the center. On the top of the stick, another thin stick was attached horizontally, having a needle hung from a string at the end. 1 sen would get you one spin; if it stopped with the needle on the right space, you would win yourself a generous portion of premium sweets.

The Lottery Vendor
The prizes were red and white colored sweets of various sizes. About a hundred slips of paper were put into a bundle held together with a hair tie, ten of them having numbers written on them. The sweets were likewise divided up so that pulling out a numbered slip of paper would win the corresponding lot of sweets for its bearer. The lottery hawker would cry out, "One try, one sen, can win you sweets worth one yen!" (1 yen = 100 sen). It sounds like a good deal, but in practice it seems that playing the lottery resulted in nothing but white slips (Sorry! Try again...).

The Konbu Merchant
In a blue kimono with white splash patterns, wearing traditional leg, wrist and hand wrappings as well as straw sandals, the konbu merchants walked about selling konbu (kelp) out of a bamboo zaru (a container round at the top and square at the base) balanced on their heads. Their products sold easily as they were of good quality and had a low price; many female konbu merchants came by from Oshima.

The konbu vendor with a bamboo zaru on their head. Left: selling cayenne pepper.

The Flea Powder Seller
"Fight the fleas that bite at night! Flea powder! Flea powder!" cried the flea powder vendor as they walked through the town. One tin can of flea powder cost 10 sen, equal to the price of 10 cups of rice – which was quite expensive, making it rather impractical to buy. Whether or not they knew that they likely wouldn't sell anything, the flea powder vendor would still make their way up to the coal mines from time to time. As they were accompanied by a generous dose of insect powder, the effect on the eyes and nose was a bit unpleasant.

The Ginger Vendor
This vendor sold ginger out of a great big bamboo zaru, a round-mouthed, square-bottomed container. It was considered a luxury food item at the time, but nonetheless was considered indispensible in cooking saury, sardines, mackerel, and other blue-backed fish.

The Fu Vendor
Fu, bread-like pieces of dried wheat gluten, was sold out of a zaru container, in which it was piled up in a big mound. It was an essential addition to one's breakfast miso soup, but it seems that Sakubei was not so fond of it.

The Ameyu Vendor
Sweetened potato starch dissolved in hot water. It sold for 1 or 2 sen per cup.

The fish peddler came to the yama to sell fish as there were no stores selling them fresh at the time.

The Snow Cone Vendor
Snow cones were sold seasonally for about two months during summer. Nothing outrageous, they consisted simply of crushed ice doused with with sugar syrup; however, they were quite popular since ice cream and the like were not available at the time. The vendor would ring a bell, calling out "Cold ice! Cold ice!" The price was 2 sen for a large, 1 sen for a small.

The Fish Peddler
There were no stores selling fresh fish at the yama as there are in present-day Japan; fish were sold by a fish peddler. However, there were no proper freezing methods, and the fish were transported in a horse-drawn carriage, making it impossible to eat fish in the summer. Out of necessity, the fish brought to the yama were primarily dried or salted.

a scene at the Yama : The Atoyama and Cramped Coal Beds
When the coal bed has a low ceiling, carrying the coal out (the work of the atoyama, the workers at the end of the line) becomes extremely difficult. The forward progress of the sakiyama (miners) was fast, and the space between the ceiling and the sura (a wooden box for carrying coal) was quite narrow – the bane of the atoyama. This sort of coal bed was called shakunashi – "barely a foot high." The space between the coal bed and the ceiling was no more than about 15 centimeters.