Japan's first true rulers left no palaces, but their massive tombs reveal the rise of a rich and influential state
At a distance, they look like wooded hillocks with oddly regular shapes, their deep green breaking up the urban sprawl of the Osaka Plain in Kansai . But these are tombs of the mighty. Known as kofun, these dramatic tombs are architectural masterpieces and are the latest addition to Japan's UNESCO World Heritage site portfolio.
- Strolling along the 2.8-kilometer walkway that encircles the tomb dedicated to Emperor Nintoku (290-399), one of the world's three largest tombs
- Taking a drone VR tour at Sakai City Museum of all the tombs comprising the Mozu-Furuichi World Heritage site
- Seeing earthenware and haniwa terra cotta figures taken from the tombs at Osaka Prefectural Chikatsu Asuka Museum
The emergence of a sovereign nation
Japan's tumulus culture arose during the middle of the 3rd century AD, the beginning of what became known as the Kofun period (mid-3rd to late 6th centuries). Sakai was a key trading port handling traffic with the Asian continent, particularly China and Korea, and the royal burial mounds in those kingdoms likely spurred the trend here.
Flat, arable land in mountainous Japan has always been precious, so devoting vast swathes of ground to these enormous burial mounds was an extravagance only the most influential could afford, testifying to the country's growing wealth. The people of the time left no significant written records or palaces, however, only these tombs.
At 486 meters long and nearly 36 meters high, Daisen Kofun—the tomb of Emperor Nintoku¬ (290-399)—ranks as one of the world's three largest graves, alongside the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor in China and Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza.
A keyhole to the life of emperors
The 49 burial mounds are in two clusters—the Mozu tombs are in Sakai and the Furuichi cluster are in nearby Habikino and Fujiidera.
The tombs of Emperor Nintoku in Sakai and Emperor Ojin (200-310) in Fujiidera were both built in the early 5th century, the height of the kofun-building trend. These and the other burial mounds are now covered with trees and dense vegetation, with the largest also ringed by moats. The builders chose elevated sites so that the kofun had even greater prominence.
The four tumulus shapes—keyhole, scallop shell, square and round—present a hierarchy of rank in descending order. The keyhole-shaped tombs are the most impressive—the resting places of emperors—and their signature form is only found here in Japan. The bodies of other royalty and elites of the period occupy the smaller tombs surrounding the keyhole tumuli.
Artifacts and ritual guardians of the dead
Cylindrical earthenware vessels called haniwa were once lined up on each tier of the mounds. Haniwa were topped with various figures such as warriors, horses, armor and even miniature houses. Daisen Kofun reportedly had up to 29,000 haniwa, some set directly over the stone chamber where the monarch was interred. Building this monument to the fallen Nintoku took almost 16 years, with over 2,000 workers laboring every day.
Artifacts discovered at these kofun include jewelry, art, swords, armor and more. Many of these items point to the growing interaction and trade with other Asian powers—including gilt-bronze accessories and horse trappings—and a trading reach that extended to Persia.
Sky-high views and virtual tours
The 21st-floor observatory in Sakai City Hall offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city from a height of 80 meters. Visitors can spot landmarks including the Daisen Kofun and its satellite tombs, the Abeno Harukas building, Mt Ikoma, Mt Kongo, and Mt Rokko.
At the Sakai City Museum directly across from Daisen Kofun, you can see the tomb on a 200-inch screen and don a VR headset to experience a drone's-eye view of the entire Mozu-Furuichi Kofun group shot from a height of about 300 meters.
More history just down the road
Nearby the kofun is Takenouchi Highway, Japan's oldest major road, along which you will find historical sites such as temples connected to Prince Shotoku (574-622). Fujiidera Temple, the fifth site on the Saigoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, was established in 725 at the command of Emperor Shomu (701-756). The temple holds a National Treasure-designated sculpture of the goddess Kannon, with a thousand arms and eleven heads.
How to Get There
The Mozu kofun (Sakai) are on the coast, while the Furuichi tombs (Habikino and Fujiidera) are 10 kilometers inland to the east.
You can reach Mozu Station, on the JR Hanwa Line, from either Kansai International Airport or Shin-Osaka Station in around 50 minutes by train. The Furuichi kofun are best accessed from either Hajinosato or Furuichi stations on the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka Line, about an hour away from Shin-Osaka Station.
Photos courtesy of Sakai City, The Imperial Household Agency