Ep. 026: Kofuns, the "Pyramids" of Japan

Royal burial mounds in the Land of the Rising Sun

Everyone knows about the pyramids of Egypt, burial monuments for the pharaohs. But burial mounds of one sort or another are found the world over. In Japan, they're called kofun, meaning simply "ancient tombs," and we'll visit a few on this episode of--


It has been my great good fortune to have visited a handful of Japan's some 161,560 kofun. Some of these were in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo; the others were in the Nara and Asuka area, a more likely spot to find ancient artifacts.

The heyday of kofun building was from the early 3rd century to the early 7th century CE. The center of that period gives one of the eras of Japanese history its name: The Kofun Period (roughly 300 to 538 CE), the first period in which Japan's still-existing Imperial government makes an appearance. It may have been the power dynamics of a centralized government that led to the building of massive memorial tombs for rulers. (The largest is 1300 feet long--that's over four football fields! Not counting end zones...) The arrival of Buddhism in the imperial court, with its preference for cremation, may have brought about the end of the practice.

Sakitama Kofun Koen

Inariyama, "Fox God’s Hill," a "climbable" kofun; in high summer

The kofun park in Saitama seems to date to the tail end of the kofun building era--not too surprising, really, as Asuka is one of the earlier seats of what is now Japanese culture. Saitama's tombs seem to date from the 5th and 6th centuries.

My first visit there was done solo on a hot summer day in 1998. My pictures from that trip show a lush, green environment--quite different from my second, browner visit in late winter a few years later.

The largest kofun in that park displays the classic "keyhole" shape, in which a round burial mound is connected to a trapezoid platform used for ceremonial purposes. The occupant of the moated Futagoyama ("Twin Hill") Kofun is unknown, but his importance is indicated by the number of haniwa or clay figures of humans, horses, and other animals found in it. These are likely to have been a humane innovation by Emperor Suinin (whom we'll meet in a moment) of the earlier practice of "emperor following" in which people and animals were sacrificed. (The famed terra cotta sculptures found in China may be considered a precursor to Japan's haniwa).

Another keyhole mound I saw there is the oldest in the park, the Inariyama ("Fox God's Hill") Kofun. It's smaller than Futagoyama, and has the added benefit that we can climb stairs to its top. Some of the area's richest treasures, including a sword engraved with 115 kanji characters and made in 471, were excavated from this mound in 1978.

Maruhakayama, "Round Tomb Hill," also climbable; in late winter

A third kofun differs significantly from the other two in that it is almost perfectly round, as its name, Maruhakayama ("Round Tomb Hill") Kofun would indicate. It's the largest circular-shaped tomb in Japan. It, like Inariyama Kofun, is climbable--apparently a rare feature, as none of the other seven kofun in the park, or for that matter anywhere in Saitama, can be climbed. Where trees stand at its top now was once the camp of a general intent on attacking a nearby castle in 1590.

Local government is hoping to get the park declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, there's a good museum on the grounds.

A Personal Connection--and an Adventure

At the time I first visited the park in Saitama, I had been teaching two older ladies (72 and 84) in Tokyo. Yoko and Kimiko were the highpoint of my week, and taught me more than almost anyone about Japanese culture. When I told them I was going to the Saitama Kofun Park, Yoko told me that her grandmother's house--a place she had played in while growing up--had been moved into the park and made an exhibit. I was so excited to see it, and come back and share my pictures with her!

Yoko-san's granny's house in Sakitama Kofun Koen

The other memory I have of this trip is not quite so sweet. I mentioned before that my first visit to the park was done alone. Arriving at Gyoda Station, I stopped in a shop for directions, and the nice lady working there offered to drive me out to the park when she got off work in a few minutes.

This kindness became a problem when, as the sun was going down, I attempted to get back to the station on my own. Had I known what I was doing--which so often I did not--I might have found the bus, or--with a map--walked the four or five miles fairly directly.

Instead, I got lost. (Well, not permanently, 'cause here I am!) At one point, hoping to ask directions, I opened a door that I thought was the entry to a small shop, and stepped into the foyer of a private house where a high school girl was doing her homework at a low table! Her granny shooed me out before I had a chance to ask for directions!

At last, I found the elevated train line, and started to follow it, figuring there had to be a station pretty soon, whichever way I turned.

Hah. After a while, I spied a taxi, waved it down, and told the driver my plan. He informed me that this track was for the shinkansen, the bullet train, and in the direction I was going the next stop would be at Omiya--just 20 miles away! But if I turned right, I'd be back at Gyoda Station in under ten minutes. Nevertheless, he insisted that I get in, and drove me to the station "sabisu"--for free. (I must have looked like I needed it!)


Royals and Monkeys in Nara and Asuka

Now, we go south, to the area of Asuka, Japan's capital from 538 to 710; and Nara, capital from then until 784. These are known as the Asuka Period, which succeeded the Kofun Period, and the Nara Period. The area is well known for its kofun, and there are so many weird stones in Asuka that someday they'll be the subject of an entire episode.

Many of the region's numerous kofun are named for one leader or another. We will visit only two intact mounds, that of the possibly-legendary 11th Emperor, Suinin (who reigned, they say, from 29 BCE to 70 CE--a period of 99 years!--but late-third-century seems more likely); and pay a sort of visit to the tomb of the 29th Emperor, Kinmei (539-571), the first non-legendary Japanese Emperor--that is, the first to have been assigned verifiable dates.

Little is known about Suinin; even the name was assigned long--perhaps even centuries--after he died. And though his grave site is actually unknown, a large keyhole kofun in Asuka has been designated as his mausoleum by the Imperial Household Agency, and who's going to argue with them?

It's located on Nara's quieter west side, and has all the usual features: the keyhole shape (obscured by foliage), a shrine gate at the foot, and a fully-encircling moat. In addition, there is a mysterious, small, round island in the moat. You can see it clearly in Google Maps' Satellite View. Perhaps it was for a stone lantern or other such approach marker, and its counterpart on the other side has been swallowed up by the encroachment of land into the moat?

The round island at Suinin’s kofun

As mentioned above, some people credit Suinin with the institution of using haniwa instead of the gruesome custom of "emperor-following," where an entire court would be sacrificed with the king. According to a quote I found back in 2005 on a now-defunct kofun homepage sponsored by the city of Sakai, where the largest kofun in Japan is located:

"After Emperor Suinin witnessed the horrible sight of the Emperor's entourage being buried alive in the areas around the Emperor's tomb, he had this practice stopped and had clay images of people and horses instead lined up in the tomb, and this became the beginning of the practice of using clay figures, or 'haniwa.'"

And a passage from the Nihon Shoki, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history, quotes an imperial edict issued by Suinen which says in part: "From now on make it a rule to erect clay figures and not to hurt people."


Ceremonial area before the tomb of Emperor Kinmei

Now, in Asuka, about an hour south of Suinin's (alleged) tomb is the kofun of Emperor Kinmei. And as much as I'd like to drone on about yet another emperor and his yet-another alleged tomb, I'd rather take a little swerve to the side and talk about a unique feature of the tomb of his granddaughter, Princess Kibi.


Kibi had the good sense to be buried near her grandfather. Her daughter Kogyoku was Empress Reignant 642-645; abdicated in favor of Kibi's son, her brother Kotoku (645-654); and when he died, reigned again, 654-661. So though she never reigned herself, Kibi's mighty important.

Her tomb is on a small rise with a torii gate and a wrought-iron one. And for some reason, the small round mound of her kofun has been chosen as the repository for four peculiar fellows.

Randy little fellow on Princess Kibi's kofun

Actually part of a group of five--their missing companion is about five kilometers away, at the site of a ruined castle--these stones have come to be called the Saruishi or "Monkey Stones." They were excavated in a nearby field in the Edo Period and moved to where we see them today. They may have been tomb guardians, as they were found near another mausoleum, and ancient records mention such artifacts. Others speculate that, given their obvious--uh--attributes--they may have been some kind of fertility fetish. In fact, local women "pray" to these statues for easy and safe delivery of children.

Like many of the "mysteries" of Asuka, by the way, these stones bear similarities to others found in Korea. Also, three of them are said to have faces on the back, which we can't see in their current positions. Some say the two figures on each stone are male and female (reinforcing the fertility idea); others claim those are monsters on the back.

High Pine Hill Kofun

A pleasant 15-minute walk from Kibihime and her monkeys leads us to Takamatsuzuka ("High Pine Hill") Kofun, which also has a Korean connection.

Modern doors allow scholars access into Takumatsuzuka

The mound is a more-or-less a circular knob covered in bamboo (and there was indeed a "high pine" on the top in the Edo Period). The metal doors set in concrete that we see on the mound's side are obviously modern, allowing access for scholars to an amazing find.

The tomb, accidentally discovered by a local farmer in the 1960s, was probably built around the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th. When excavated in 1972, it was discovered that the interior was painted with frescoes of people in Korean-style clothing. Though the identity of the occupant is unknown, speculation includes: three different sons of Emperor Tenmu (631-686, and the grandson of Kibi); another Japanese noble; or--get this--Kudara no Konikishi Zenko (617-700), son of the last king of one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.

Mural depicting women, from the west wall of Takamatsuzuka (Wikipedia)

Although the general public can't enter, there are reproductions in a museum next door. And they are magnificent. In addition to the human figures, the murals depict the heavens, both literally in terms of constellations, the sun, and the moon; and figuratively in terms of celestial guardians.

This sanctifying of science brings up the issue: were there any connections between the "mystery stones" of Asuka, and the idea of archaeoastronomy, the understanding of the skies by the ancients? Could there have been alignments or positions reflecting the heavens, lost to us now because the key figures have been moved? We'll never know.

The Stone Stage

Call to mind all the stories of buried treasure. A Chinese monk walking across his temple's courtyard trips over a stone and, digging around it, discovers it's the bump on the head of an ancient iron Buddha (true story). Shipwrecked sailors make it to a small island, only to discover it's the back of a mostly-submerged whale (total cartoon).

Imagine approaching this in the old days. Would you guess it was a tomb?

Well, once upon a time in Japan, people used to see a flat stone on the top of a hill in Asuka, and called it the "stone stage"--Ishibutai. It seemed a reasonable assumption. Until it became clear that in fact this had once been part of a broad, flat, square-ish earthen mound, 164 feet on a side.

This is another form of kofun, which may have housed one Soga no Umako, member of a powerful clan, but dear to me for having built Asukadera Temple (one of the oldest in Japan, about which I'll also write someday. I'll have to ignore the fact that Soga also murdered several people to put his niece, Empress Suiko, on the throne, consolidating the pro-Buddhism party's hold on the government.) Soga's clan fell out of favor after his death, and much of the mound may have been removed as punishment. The rest was erosion.

The mound wasn't excavated until 1933. While the body and grave goods had long been looted, some artifacts were found in the remains of the mound and the former moat, which was also uncovered.

The revealed stones of Ishibutai

Looking at the bared structure reveals the technique of building a kofun. A chamber is made of megaliths--the two top pieces weigh 60 and 77 tons. The chamber would have been plastered inside, and the walls painted as at Takamatsuzuka. The whole shebang was then buried in an earthen mound, though a stone passage was built for entry, which would also accommodate drainage for the chamber itself. The inner chamber at Ishibutai is made up of 30 stones, and is 25 feet long, 11 feet wide, and 16 feet high. It's quite a thrill to walk inside.

The passage into the kofun, and the drainage channel


Okey dokey, folks. That's going to do it for this episode. If you ever get to Asuka, let me recommend getting a good map of the sights--especially the many weird stones--and renting a bicycle. I've done the area once that way, and again on foot. Either way, I'd love to do it again!

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Meet the two fiercesome guardians of Chinese temples, known as Heng and Ha!