Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Mounds of Mystery

Along the route I take to and from Ye Olde Academy there is a place where the road goes around a sharp bend tucked into the side of a steep hill. The side of the hill was thickly forested with trees that hung out over the road, and it had a very eerie atmosphere to it. Since the road was also kind of narrow and broken, it was a place I was only too happy to pass through as quickly as possible, especially after dark. Then a few years ago I noticed that the woods there had been thinned out a bit and the trees hanging over the road cut back. Soon work had started on what looked like a path, and the side of the road facing the woods was marked at intervals by what looked like miniature torii. Then, just over a year ago, the city of Kashima put up a very conspicuous sign on the corner identifying the site and indicating its significance. It's called "Meotozuka Kofun" (literally "Husband and Wife Burial Mound"), and it's an ancient kofun, i.e. a tumulus dating from the appropriately-named Kofun Era (250-538 a.d./c.e., or early Yamato period).

Since I drove by that sign and obviously ongoing work about a dozen times a week, I was always tempted to stop there and have a look, but I never got around to it. Well, today I had to drop by the school for a quick errand with my kids in tow, so I figured it was as good a time as any to find my round to-it.

This is the sign the city put up on the corner along the main route, looking away from the mound. The white letters on the turquoise background read "Kashima City Designated Historical Ruin". The large, dark-colored script reads "Meotozuka Kofun", and the smaller letters beneath it spell out the unusual name "Fubaicho" (kind of archaic, but would mean "accompanying mounds" or possibly even "retainers' mounds"), which is a cluster of smaller, satellite burial mounds in the same area. The white writing on black at the bottom with the arrow indicates a parking area, but the only one we could see was a recently-widened shoulder on the side of the road. I went ahead and parked near the nearby trailhead.

Work on the path has been proceeding very slowly and is clearly far from complete, which has made me wonder whether it is actually a neighborhood project rather than a municipal one. (Then again, Kashima has never seemed to be all that concerned about improving its image, unlike the neighboring city of Kamisu, which would be on anything with any tourist potential like fruit flies on a rotten banana.) I also can't help but wonder about the flowers placed at the trail entrance. Yes, I realize that this is a grave, but I sincerely doubt the people living nearby are direct descendants!

Here is the main tumulus viewed end-on. It is actually about 75m in length and has the keyhole shape typical of burial mounds for people of importance. If you look closely, you can see a lot of little stumps where smaller trees were cleared out to make the mound more visible. It used to be completely overgrown.

After looping a quarter of the way around the mound (and passing one of the satellite mounds), the path leads to a large, fresh-looking clearing that is obviously being developed into a sort of park. A large area marked with ribboned stakes has a sign indicating it is actually the parking area (probably due to be graveled if not paved eventually). There are also a couple of new-looking potties (but my son freaked out when he tried to use it because there was a huge spider on a web inside). A large, new sign gives a detailed, contour-map depiction of the various mounds and explains that Meotozuka Kofun was built in the early 6th century as the burial place for a clan chieftain and his wife. Apparently the contents of the satellite mounds is still a bit of a mystery.

Oddly enough, however, is this sign, perched at the edge of the tumulus' surrounding ditch. It gives the name of the tumulus (Meotozuka Kofun) superimposed over an image of its shape. The post seems rather new, but the sign itself is quite old. There is also a small, vaguely gazebo-like structure nearby which doesn't really look new. It contains only a few old metal chairs set facing the mound. Obviously the park and trail work is new, but the site itself has been known, designated, and visited for quite some time (though it's not on any of the maps or in any of the city's guides). I'm not really sure what the gazebo is all about, though, except that it faces directly toward what was probably once (and may still be) a shrine atop the mound, and there is a fire pit nearby. Have they been performing rituals there? Hmm...

As I was reading the new interpretive sign, my son noticed some old, log steps set directly in the middle of the tumulus and immediately made a beeline for them, crying, "Papa, papa, there's something up there! Look!" But when my daughter then said, "What are you doing, you idiot? That's a giant grave," he immediately froze and then tried to act non-chalant. His sister's warning that he might get cursed encouraged him to high-tail it back out of there...still trying to act like nothing happened. (It was pretty funny.)

We stuck to the loop path instead, but it wasn't long before we found where the work was still unfinished. (Directly ahead is the main road and an apartment block across the street. The whole area to the left has been cleared out quite a bit, [robinleach]and I don't know why![/robinleach] Maybe they're planning on making a whole picnic area with a view out over the lake. That would be cool!)

For a brief period the path vanished altogether, and we had to pick our way along the base of the tumulus. The kids seemed pretty nervous, especially since the ground was a crunchy layer of peat (humus?) that was tricky to walk on, but it wasn't long before we were on a finished trail lined with logs and paved with barkdust. It was actually darker than it looks in this picture (my camera adjusted for the light).

The trees growing on the tumulus are a mix of sugi and a few different dissiduous (i.e. they lose their leaves) types. The ones up on top look rather old and gnarled. If I had a bit more time (and a few less antsy kids) maybe I'll go have a look up there.

Not all is dark and eerie, however. Here are some pansies growing near the front sign. Flowers of the same type and color were planted either on the ground or in planters in various locations in the park. Grave memorial flowers for someone who died 1500 years ago? Hmm...

These fungi growing on a log also caught my eye. They seemed interesting and somehow colorful.

Unfortunately, the weather was even more colorful. It was calm and warm when we arrived and most of the time we were there, but there were also some clouds here and there that didn't look friendly. By the time we finished our visit and were heading back to the BLUE RAV4 it quickly turned several shades darker despite being mid-afternoon, and the sky over Lake Kitaura looked just plain bizarre, even spooky. We headed for home with a dark and ugly-looking thunderhead bearing down on us quickly from the West, but the sun was peeking through it here and there in streaks of bright light that were diffracting strangely, possibly because of desert dust blown over from Mongolia (a common occurrence this time of year). It wasn't long before rain started falling plop plop plop in slow, bloated drops that left yellow, grainy stains on my windshield. By the time we were across the Kitaura Great Bridge there was a steady downpour, and the wind was kicking up high waves.

And then, just as suddenly as they had started, the wind and rain stopped as soon as we came close to home. However, as we pulled into the local Seimiya Supermarket/Shopping Mall for a few errands, we were still being glared at by that freaky-looking sky:


It cleared up soon after we got home, but it has stayed eerily cold...and windy...clear up till now. Weird.

Was I supposed to pray or leave a sacrifice at that tumulus? Hmm...


  • Were I still in Japan, I would say that was a tumultuous ending to your tumulus trip. At which point if they understood me, my Japanese friends would usually say "samuiii"... Seriously I always thought that it was pretty cool to be able to come across things like that before they became overly commercialized or overrun with tourists.

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 2:29 AM  

  • Neato!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:03 AM  

  • Very nice pictures... :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 12:18 PM  

  • Your son's non-chalant reaction is priceless.

    Weird weather followed you home huh. I am tempted to echo your daughter's remark; "What do you expect, you idiot? It's a giant grave!"

    But we all know it's just weather. It's supposed to appear weird, moody.

    By Blogger agus, at 2:21 PM  

  • ooohhh, i love the sky picture. i caught one similar to this one when we were in california. it had been raining and when it stopped, i got something that was very much the same. i think it's beautiful.

    re: the mound... what lies beneath? did they put all the belongings and such in these mounds long ago? why are they so large? the reason i ask is that bahrain has large burial mounds very similar to this, altho they're in the desert area so there's no grass... but lots of them have been looted w/ ppl looking for valuables.

    it's good to see that graves are respected and not plundered and such. at least the ppl there respect their dead.

    it was surprising to see such a thing across from what seemed like a busy road w/ houses and things. i guess construction can go up any place though, huh.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 8:07 PM  

  • Wow! That's exciting. Great pics - I especially love the one of your son in the open area in front of the log steps looking non-chalant.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:19 PM  

  • "Grave memorial flowers for someone who died 1500 years ago?"

    Now that's a real memorial!

    Oh and your kids are just too cuteā€¦ sorry ;)

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 1:19 AM  

  • Did the CUMULUS chase you from tracing the TUMULUS through the HUMUS due to fear of the post-HUMOUS, said SNABULUS?

    If so, fabulous.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:47 PM  

  • T.I.A.
    I agree with you. I only hope this park work (and similar work being carried out on tumuli[?] over in Itako, Inashiki, and Namegata) isn't evidence that the commercialization has begun.


    Glad you like them! (So why is my readership still declining?)

    Long time no see! The weirdest thing was how quickly the weather changed from warm, sunny, and mild to cold and stormy under a really freaky sky. To make matters worse, I had washed my car only the day before, and the rain deposited a nice layer of yellow, Mongolian sand all over it. I washed it again today, and...oh, no. Look at the sky...

    Um Naief
    I don't think there are any valuables in those old tumuli because I've never heard of any being plundered. At any rate, it's not easy to get into them because the entrance is usually deeply buried. As far as I know, very few have been examined inside by archaeologists, and they're not really sure exactly what's in them. On the other hand, some of the tombs dating from the later Asuka Period (mid 6th to early 8th centuries), which were made of stone, have been examined, and most of them have been long since been plundered.
    In Japan you find a lot of old and even ancient things in and among the newer constructions. There are actually several small tumuli scattered all over the greater Kashima area (especially across the lake in Itako), and most of them are in residential areas. They just look like little humps surrounded by fences.

    Yes, it was definitely a classic mini-moody moment! I'm glad I had my camera on hand at the time.

    I've found that many if not most if not all ancient relics receive considerable attention, such as flowers from well-wishers. It all goes back to both the Shinto belief in the reincarnation of noble souls and the Buddhist belief in the reincarnation of all souls. According to the old tradition, an honored ancestor like a clan chieftain is bound to be living among us again.

    Give us a breakus.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:45 PM  

  • That sounds very interesting, kind of like visiting a neglected native burial mound here.... (with the attendant spookiness of "stick indians" or spirits, which can lead unwary forest visitors astray...)

    Although there is a slight prohibition against walking right on graves during our annual Memorial Day grave decorating event, mostly it's seen as superstitious and not really a concern.

    In fact, my daughter did what I did when I was her age at Mt. Calvary Cemetary - (it's at near the top of the West Hills, and has great views of the entire Portland area...) - She rolled down the green sloping hills!

    Maybe Snabby will make a post, as he took some pictures of the trip w/his phone.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 12:18 AM  

  • Wow, those mounds are like geographical features. I was expected a few defined bumps in the earth, rather like the smaller Saxon barrows dotted about the English countryside.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:38 PM  

  • Declining? But as I'm awared the comments are increasing :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 5:20 PM  

  • BTW, trees that lose their leaves are "deciduous", decidedly so...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:39 PM  

  • Ladybug
    I think all cultures give graves a special kind of respect...with the obvious exception of tomb robbers.

    Check out the wikipedia link about Japanese burial mounds from the Kofun Era. Some of them are huge. It's actually kind of scary. I once visited the site of the city of Asuka, Japan's first imperial capital (6th to early 8th centuries). Basically, you stand on a wide, flat area, and almost every hill you see around you is an ancient burial mound.

    Last October I was averaging more than 50 hits a day. Now I'm averaging only about 18-20. I think it depends on the topic. In October I was doing those "Moody's Believe It or Not" posts, and a lot of hits were coming from Central and South America.

    M'lady, I reserve the write to right in the klassique styl, i.e. it's concidered proper and even fashionibel to invente your own spelings for wordes. Therefore, I'll disside how to right deciduous!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:43 PM  

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