Most people are not aware that one of the largest burial tombs in the world is right here in Japan, in the southern part of Osaka. These kofun are scattered throughout Japan. Although they are referred to as keyhole tombs, they do come in a variety of other shapes, from circular to square. These are huge burial mounds that were created for important people in the 3rd to 6th centuries, not surprisingly known as the Kofun period. In most cases, you would never know what you are looking at, as the mounds are not that high, and are usually covered by trees. In every case it looks like a small inaccessible forest, as they are always fenced and gated. Most kofun mounds have not been excavated or examined in any way. The Imperial Household Agency says it’s because they are sacred sites, others imply that it’s because the few tombs that have been excavated have exhibited items and art that have strong Korean or Chinese influences and that the people buried in the tombs may not be as high ranking as they were thought to be, providing difficult questions that the Japanese would prefer not to pursue. Either way, the tombs are closed to all, including the members of the current imperial family.
I’ve already been to a few of these tombs in Kyoto and Nara, and I hoped to see the largest one in Hyōgo when I was there yesterday, but unfortunately I missed the closing time (you can actually walk out onto the mound here). However, the ones that really interested me are the ones located in Sakai-shi, a city on the southern edge of Osaka and close to Kansai airport. These are known as the Mozu Kofugun, which are a cluster of keyhole tombs all within the same vicinity. They are currently under consideration for World Heritage status. The largest of the kofun is known as Daisen Kofun of the Emperor Nintoku. While only 35m high, it is 486m in length, which is twice as long as the base of the pyramids in Giza, and also has more volume. This keyhole-shaped kofun is surrounded by three moats, a testament to the importance and power of the man buried within.
Of course, the best way to get a sense of scale of these tombs is to see them from above. In most cases, unless you have a drone, it’s mostly impossible without the help of Google maps (or in my case, the maps in Pokemon Go). However, in Sakai, the massive city hall is only a ten-minute walk away from the tombs, and it has a large observation deck on the 21st floor, allowing an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding area. The pictures they use to promote the viewing area includes pictures of the Daisen kofun that look like this, but the reality is far different in person. You could see all the different mounds, but they were shapeless from the distance, just looking like small forested hills (the main image for this post is of most of the tombs in the area. The bigger blob is Daisen kofun). I was glad I went to the top, but it was disappointing not to see any of the distinctive shapes. From there, I decided to go walk around the main Daisen kofun, but I was less than a quarter of the way around when I decided to call it quits. The strong heat (>36°C) and humidity on an August morning was getting to me, and despite having an umbrella for shade, I knew I needed to get somewhere cooler. So I don’t have as many photos as I would have liked for these tombs, but I think I’ll go back again in cooler weather.
Monuments: None really. These are large mounds, surrounded by moats and fenced off, so there’s not much to see (although they are nice areas to walk around, something we don’t get much up in the heavily built-up cities of Japan)
Grounds: See above. If going in summer, brings lots of water and some kind of protection from the sun. Going up to the observation deck in Sakai city hall is a must to get a sense of scale.
Visitors: A few people in the observation gallery, and just locals going about their business in the areas around the mounds.
Notes: The kofun are to the south-east of the city hall, which means morning light will be working against you, causing a lot of reflections off the leaves of the trees, plus the windows in the observation area. I think a late afternoon viewing would work better, and may provide some shadows that could highlight the potential shape of the tombs (I’m just guessing here, until I go again, but it’s how I interpreted the light this morning).
Site: Mozu kofungun (百舌鳥古墳群)
Established: late 4th-5th centuries
Location: The Daisen kofun is closest to Mikunigaoka and Mozu stations, whereas city hall is near Sakaihigashi station. It’s not far to start from one and walk to the other
Hours: the Sakai City Hall Observation Lobby is free, and open from 09:00 – 21:00 daily. The mounds themselves are inaccessible, but they are free to walk around anytime, day or night.