As I peered out the window from my vantage point on the 21st floor of the Sakai City Hall, in the distance I could see Abeno Harukas — Japan’s tallest skyscraper, which houses a train station, hotel, museum, department store and offices. But this modern curiosity was not what I was looking for. I was searching for something much older, more subtle but no less marvelous.
I walked to the other side of the room and looked out again. It was hard to see its famous keyhole shape, but there it was: a large wooded hill rising abruptly among the city dwellings. I was gazing at the fifth-century Nintoku-tenno-ryo Kofun, Japan’s largest kofun (burial mound) and one of the grandest mausoleums in the world.
In order to appreciate the kofun in all its splendor, though, you have to exercise the imagination. First, erase the urban sprawl and go back in time a millennium and a half. Then, denude the tumulus of trees and vegetation and picture a three-tiered earthen mound covered in stones and lined with haniwa clay figurines. Finally, imagine numerous kofun of different shapes and sizes dotting the landscape.
Sakai, located at the head of Osaka Bay, is one of 33 cities that make up Osaka Prefecture, but it has a rich history as an independent town. In ancient times, it served as a burial ground for powerful local leaders. By the 16th century, it was flourishing as a domestic and international port and had become an important center for commerce and industry. The Portuguese missionary Gaspar Vilela, who first visited Sakai in 1561, described the large town as one filled with influential merchants, adding that “in the whole of Japan there is no place as safe as Sakai,” while outside of it “there is killing and wounding.” The town did not, however, come out of that era of domestic conflict unscathed and during the 1615 Siege of Osaka it was burned to the ground.
My 77-year-old volunteer guide explained as we walked up to the kofun’s sacred torii gate, the closest you can get to the monumental tomb, that the construction of the mound took more than 15 years. A man with his fingers entwined into the gesture of a Buddhist ritual seal was sitting on the ground chanting. Beyond the gate was the innermost of three concentric moats that surround the 486-meter-long burial mound, which was covered in the dark greens of late summer.
Tradition holds that the tomb is that of Emperor Nintoku, the 16th emperor of Japan. However, exactly who is interred remains a mystery. As we walked along the outer moat, encompassing an area big enough to house 12 baseball stadiums, I noticed a number of smaller kofun surrounding the main one. It seemed likely that they were the burial mounds of family members and retainers of whichever powerful lord lay below. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, my guide suggested I stop at the Sakai City Museum in Daisen Park across the road where I could learn more.
One of the best attractions at the museum is its 3-D film about the kofun and their two clusters — Sakai Mozu and Furuichi — with an impressive CG-rendering of what the area may have looked like during the Kofun Period (mid-third to mid-sixth century). Exhibits also explain that the Sakai Mozu cluster — which was once home to more than 100 kofun (44 currently remain) — and the nearby Furuichi cluster were placed on the tentative list for inscription as UNESCO World Heritage in 2010. Other excellent displays outline Sakai’s history, including information on the haniwa found at the kofun and muskets manufactured in Sakai after their introduction to Japan by the Portuguese in 1543. Two teahouses outside the museum also represent Sakai’s famous tea masters, among them Sen no Rikyu, who greatly influenced the development of the traditional tea ceremony.
As I later walked through the city, passing by a number of modest temples, I discovered it offers other interesting historical tales. Myokokuji Temple, for example, has a gruesome story that dates back to the early days of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). In 1868, a French vessel dropped anchor in Osaka’s bay. At the time, Sakai port was closed to foreign traffic and samurai from the Tosa Domain were charged with the protection of the city. A fight broke out and 11 French sailors were killed, an act that infuriated the French government. France demanded an indemnity, and as a result 20 of the samurai involved in the conflict were sentenced to seppuku, or ritual suicide. Myokokuji was chosen to host this grisly event, and on the appointed day, 11 samurai cut open their bellies, after which the French captain left and the remaining men were spared. The temple still houses relics from that day, such as blood-stained trays and clumps of hair that belonged to the Tosa men.
My next stop was at the Sakai Traditional Crafts Museum. Sakai was known for its production of iron tools, which probably began in the fifth century during the height of the Kofun Period when tools for constructing the majestic tombs were in demand. Later, in the 16th-century Warring States period, the city prospered as an arms producer and was renowned for its muskets. Then, in more peaceful times, it turned to cutlery. Today it is celebrated for its high-quality knives. In fact, the majority of professional chefs in Japan use Sakai blades.
The white-walled crafts museum, which was designed to look like a traditional Japanese warehouse, has devoted its second floor to Sakai cutlery and kitchenware. The showroom is filled with knives of various shapes and sizes. A large wide blade was for filleting whale meat, a long narrow one for slicing giant tuna — both sharp and dangerous in appearance, like weapons of war. There are also displays detailing how, much like samurai swords, each knife was forged by hand and required several craftsmen to complete.
Back downstairs, Sakai’s other traditional crafts are showcased. Displays of hand-woven carpets, traditional sweets, incense and other products reveal how, as times changed, craftsmen had to adapt their skills in creative ways. By the end of the 19th century, it was the gunsmiths, skilled in metal processing, who were able to repair and produce spare parts for a new import to Japan — bicycles. Today, Sakai is also known for its high-grade bicycle parts and produces about 40 percent of bicycles manufactured in Japan.
When I left the museum, I noticed streetcar tracks in the middle of the broad avenue. Tram lines once crisscrossed Osaka but the Hankai Tramway, with its origins stretching back more than 100 years, is one of the last remaining — and in its own way, it’s a connection with Sakai’s past. After the buzzer sounded and the door closed, I found a seat in the one-car tram and watched the city go by as the carriage rolled back to the present of Osaka.
Getting there: Sakai Higashi Station on the Nankai Koya Line is a 15-minute ride from Namba Station in Osaka. There is a tourist information center near the station and City Hall is nearby. Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line is the closest station to the Nintoku-tenno-ryo Kofun. The Hankai Tramway runs from Tennoji Station, or Shin Imamiya in Osaka. For more information, visit www.sakai-tcb.or.jp/english.