Tue, Jan 28, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
Japan is an island renowned for its numerous mountains and peaks, the most famous of all being Mt. Fuji. Most of them are being contemplated for their beauty, but some of them can be climbed for those seeking adventure. But what if I told you that some of those mountains are not just what they seem to be?
All across Japan, behind what looks like hills of various sizes and shapes, hides a piece of Japanese history: these hills are called kofun – or in proper English megalithic tombs or tumuli. Since the center of ancient Japan was located in what is now Nara Prefecture, it is no surprise that prefectures in the Kansai area hold a great number of these tumuli, Hyogo Prefecture having the most.
The city of Asago, located in the middle of Hyogo Prefecture, is no exception to that. Within a total surface area of 403 square kilometers (approx. 156 square miles) and consisting of 84% mountains and forest, this little city of around 30,000 inhabitants hides no less than 1,450 kofun, 7 of which are recognized as cultural treasures.
By their size and shape, it is possible to infer that people of power lived in Asago and its region during the Kofun era. The most prominent tumulus in Asago is called Chasuriyama Kofun and gave its name to the city mascot Chasurin, a little boy from early age Japan. The Chasuriyama tumulus is one of the biggest round tumuli in the Kansai area, with a diameter of 90 meters and topping at 18 meters. It was built during the first half of the 5th century and is now located in the Tsutsue neighborhood of Wadayama.
It contains two chambers from which 1,750 artifacts have been excavated! They were found in the chambers as well as in the central part of the coffin, divided in three parts. They included mirrors, jewels, saber, etc., with a great number of items made out of iron. Some of these artifacts were judged to be of great value and in 2013. 664 of them were recognized as cultural assets.
Believe it or not, you can now climb this round tumulus. Standing at the top of what is essentially a tomb, you get a good view of the city – and a good impression of how important the person buried here might have been. The content of the burial chamber seems to concur on the fact that this is the sepulchre of someone powerful. It is also now clear that Chasuriyama Kofun was used as a mountain castle during the Middle Ages.
Another important tumulus is the Jonoyama Kofun, located in the Higashidani neighborhood of Wadayama. Built around the second half of the 4th century, it was discovered during the construction of the Wadayama By-Pass in 1971 – which is now passing at the bottom of the tumulus for preservation.
A great array of artifacts were excavated from its chamber, in particular three big Shinjukyo bronze mirrors (deity and beast mirror). These were historically given by the Yamato court to confer power over land to its owner, and belong to the list of artifacts recognized as important cultural assets. An enlarged replica of one of these mirrors is now exhibited at Asago Archaeological Center.
A mere 100 meters away in the Hirano neighborhood of Wadayama, Ikeda Kofun, a key hole-shaped tumulus, was found. Judging by its size (approx. 136 meters lengthwise) and the presence of numerous artifacts, it is said to be the tomb of a powerful lord in the region. In particular, a great number (approx. 30) of haniwa – terracotta figures meant to protect this sacred area – were shaped like waterfowls.
Funanomiya Kofun in the Kuwaichi neighborhood of the former Asago-cho is another key hole-shaped tumulus, built during the second half of the 5th century. Recognized as historical ruins by the prefecture, it has the particularity to be surrounded by a moat – which means it was surrounded by water, meant to symbolize the divide between the world of the dead and the world of the living.
If conducting excavation searches in those tumuli proves to be a great historical asset, it is unfortunately not always possible. The Komaruyama Kofun in the neighborhood of Okada in Wadayama, for example, hasn’t been excavated yet because of mud slide risks. Therefore, its layout still remains a mystery.
Because Japanese written history only started during the 8th century, kofun are important sources of information about the way people lived during ancient times in Japan. Even though all we can do is make suppositions from what we excavate from the ground, there is something mystical about the whole process of figuring out early forms of civilization. If you have the heart of an archaeologist/adventurer, you may want to take a detour – in space and time – to visit Asago city’s oldest assets.
(Photos courtesy of Asago city)
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Laetitia is 27 and comes from France where she grew up in the Normandy region. She studied Japanese language and culture for 3 years and international relations for 2 years at the University of Strasbourg. After working in France for a while, she decided to settle down in Japan and applied to the JET Programme. She now works as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) for Asago City Hall where she helps manage the city’s relations with France and promoting this charming countryside. She likes eating good things, singing everywhere and learning new languages. She dislikes goya (an awfully bitter cousin of cucumber), negativity and natto (fermented soy beans).
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