Mound burial sites are nothing new. Almost every civilization has had mound burials at some point in their history. Known under a variety of names, tumuli, barrows, and kurgans all come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the geography and the culture that created them.
While the Mayans were building their pyramids in Mesoamerica, the Japanese were building unique keyhole shaped burial mounds for royalty, called kofun. These kofun are the reason this period is called the Kofun period (古墳時代). The most famous kofun in Japan is located in Sakai City in Osaka Prefecture.
Myths or History?
While Buddhism was spreading across mainland Asia, Japan remained mostly isolated. Through some interaction with Korean kingdoms, we have sources that shed some light on Kofun period culture, though much remains a mystery. Much of the history is shrouded in myth.
According to Japanese myth, Emperor Nintoku, the 16th emperor of Japan, was a talented engineer and architect who built canals and other public structures. He protected his people against famine. Nintoku supposedly reigned for about 86 years until his death at age 142. The tall tales surrounding his life are mostly from sources published long after his death. With the facts of his life having been reworked into legend, it is difficult for scholars to separate the truth from the fiction.
The Largest Mystery
What we do know, however, is that the kofun attributed to him is one of the largest tombs in the world. Known as Daisenryo Kofun (大仙陵古墳), the massive keyhole shaped mound is twice the length of the Great Pyramid of Giza and protected by three moats. While its three tiers are only a quarter of the height of the Great Pyramid, the kofun supposedly has a much greater volume. We can only guess how big the structure truly is because nobody is allowed on the sacred grounds.
Tourists, archaeologists, and even royalty can only go as far as a bridge over the second moat. Nobody has been across the inner moat since a typhoon damaged the lower part of the keyhole shape in 1872. During the restoration at that time, many artifacts were uncovered. The findings provided a substantial amount of information. However, some of the artifacts were inconsistent with what was previously known about the time period, casting some doubt on the identity of the tomb’s owner. No further activity is allowed on the island, so the mystery of the occupants may never be solved. The main part of the tomb at the top part of the keyhole has remained completely untouched for over a thousand years and will likely remain that way for many more.
The Imperial Household Agency (宮内庁, Kunaicho, IHA) maintains that the grounds of imperial tombs are sacred religious sites. As such, the sites are protected from outsiders. This has caused a considerable amount of controversy over the years. Some argue for the sanctity of imperial burial sites, while some argue for archaeological investigations and advancement in historical knowledge. Others point to government conspiracies trying to hide imperial connections to Korea. In order to seek a compromise, the IHA does employ archaeologists to excavate certain designated tombs and to help with tomb maintenance.
Back to Nature
In order to protect the kofun against further damage due to weather and other environmental factors, the IHA allowed trees to naturally grow on the kofun. From most vantage points, the kofun seems to be a forest on a hill. From the sky or the Sakai City 21st floor observation deck, you can see the unique shape that really identifies it as a kofun.
Visiting Daisenryo Kofun isn’t just about walking along a nice trail and looking at a torii gate in front of the spooky forest resting on the kofun. You can also experience traditional Japanese green tea at a nearby tea house or visit the Sakai City Museum for models of the kofun site and displays of some of the artifacts recovered. There are many smaller kofun all around the park and city, known as the Mozu Kofungun (百舌鳥古墳群).
All of these kofun sites have been reclaimed by nature and look like hills, but some offer unique views of nature amid Japan’s concrete jungle. Itasuke Kofun, south of the park, is home to an entire family of tanukis, also known as raccoon dogs. They are a sort of mascot for the kofun. The family can sometimes be viewed sunning themselves on the remains of the concrete bridge or swimming in the moat. Due to the protection of the kofun, the tanukis know they are well protected and aren’t as camera shy as their unprotected counterparts.