Despite my short stature, I have to bend nearly in half to enter the underground chamber of reconstructed fifth-century tomb in the Kumamoto Prefecture Decorative Tumulus Museum. The entire tomb is modeled after an actual mound in the nearby city of Yamaga, and inside the chamber, a replica stone altar sits under a rocky dome, bold geometric designs gracing its underbelly. Just above the decorations are a triangular black mouth and a pair of what seem to be scarlet eyes, as if to stare down intruders. To the right, a simplified human figure with arms raised stands against a blood-red background. Life in southern Japan during the third to sixth centuries — with violence and disease as a quotidian struggle — may not have been pretty but, if the walls of the chamber are anything to go by, death certainly was.
Large tumuli, known as kofun in Japanese, were once such a ubiquitous part of the landscape that an entire historical era was named after them: the Kofun Period (250-552). The introduction of rice farming during this era and the establishment of permanent settlements in the preceding Yayoi Period (200 B.C. to A.D. 250) had given way to regional power bases, which were governed by members of an emergent ruling class. When they died, their bodies were laid to rest in stone chambers dug deep into natural hills or — toward the end of the period — in subterranean rooms that soil was heaped upon to create a manmade prominence. The possessions these leaders took with them to the afterlife, and the decorated tombs themselves, are one of the best insights we have into early Japanese culture. And there’s nowhere better to get a look at these resting places than in Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture.
Despite the seismic activity in Kumamoto Prefecture in April, which damaged a number of Kyushu’s cultural and historical sites, the Yamaga kofun seem to be untouched. A short drive to the south, Kumamoto and many of the surrounding municipalities are still recovering from the earthquakes that claimed at least 49 lives and caused widespread destruction. In a region that historically sees little seismic activity, the violent upheaval and continuing aftershocks have left many on edge. Communities are struggling to pick up the pieces.
In contrast, the bucolic countryside of the Yamaga region, only 30-40 minutes’ drive to the north, feels worlds away. From ground level, Yamaga’s turf shows no signs of scarring — there no jagged rents in the earth like those seen around Kumamoto. The conditions inside the tumuli are more difficult to determine: Due to their age and the fragility of the items contained within their chambers, most of the remaining kofun scattered across Kyushu are closed to casual visitors. Even the colorful recreations at Yamaga’s unique museum are off-limits to those who would like a close-up glance.
Luckily, my observations from afar are thwarted (in the best of senses) by museum curator Keitaro Sakaguchi and I’m “adopted” into the group of budding scholars he is guiding through the grounds. At his gentle prodding, we slip past the “No Entry” signs blocking access to the recreated tombs and immerse ourselves in the shapes of an ancient world.
“Kumamoto has the highest concentration of decorated and painted-wall tumuli in Japan,” Sakaguchi says, illustrating his point with a map of the archipelago that shows the location of more than 250 named burial chambers. The dots congregate in thick clusters around the Kikuchi River Basin, an area of Kumamoto that encompasses a number of cities, including Yamaga, Kikuchi and Nagomi. Many tombs have also been discovered just over the border in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Kyushu’s tomb-building “boom” came via the Kansai region, when inhabitants of the Nara area ventured across the Inland Sea in the fourth and fifth centuries to settle the fertile plains of western Kyushu. In turn, according to Sakaguchi, the inhabitants of Kumamoto later took to the ocean themselves and spread their grave-digging culture to other outer coastal regions, notably Shimane and Tottori prefectures and the southeastern part of Tohoku.
Sakaguchi takes us on a circuitous but chronologically correct route through the museum’s exhibits, while he elaborates on the development of tomb architecture. We marvel over the still visible carvings on a coffin lid from one of the earliest recorded tombs near Amakusa and murmur our appreciation over the square tombs of the following generations. A splash of red pigment in a fifth-century tomb from Kumamoto marks the first use of color in burial chambers, while those across the room from a century later display even greater artistic evolution.
Having spent an hour crawling around subterranean exhibits, it feels good to get a breath of fresh air at our final stop. The path from the museum’s entrance spirals up to the roof deck, designed by famed architect Tadao Ando to resemble one of the tombs surrounding the museum. From the platform, the landscape beside the riverbank rises and falls in a series of dimples and mounds, with each rise marking the presence of a tomb beneath. I count at least a half dozen unassuming grassy hillocks that conceal a host of historical mysteries.
Following the tour, my initial aim is to head next for nearby Nagomi and its massive keyhole burial tomb. But I’m sidetracked near the museum’s parking lot by a sign for the Kodai Hasu-en (Ancient Lotus Garden).
It seems only fitting that a museum highlighting Japan’s early culture should also boast a garden devoted to one of its primeval flowers. Lotus plants claim a lineage of several millennia; one species in the garden’s ponds, the Oga lotus, can even be traced back to seeds unearthed by archaeologists at a Yayoi Period site. Early Japanese boiled lotus roots for sustenance and used the leaves in place of dinnerware. When Buddhism reached Kyushu’s shores in the middle of the sixth century, the lotus was appropriated as a religious symbol and is often seen gracing Japanese gravestones today.
Though the lotus season is just beginning, the garden’s meandering waterway is already choked with plants. Hidden among the broad leaves, I spot the occasional pale pink bud, with petals slowly uncurling to reveal a sunshine-colored center. The garden’s path is also lined with barrels, each boasting a handful of lily pads and a single cream-colored bloom.
After a bowl of udon noodles from the restaurant opposite the garden, I make my way west on country lanes to Nagomi. A massive stone statue on the crest of a hill guides me into my next destination, the Etafunayama Kofun Park.
Yamaga may have the greater concentration of tombs, but Etafunayama is the undisputed winner when it comes to historical contributions. I circle its 62-meter-long keyhole-shaped mound, trying to imagine the initial reactions of 19th-century historians as they removed decorated mirrors, comma-shaped jewelry and bronze shoes from the depths of the 1,500-year-old chamber. These finds pale in comparison to the Etafunyama sword, however. The weapon is inscribed with 75 characters, a phrase thought to be the earliest recorded sentence in Japanese history.
The sword now resides at the Tokyo National Museum, along with most of the kofun’s other treasures, but a small exhibit in Etafunayama boasts a few replicas and what appear to be one or two original finds. I admire the intricacies of a gilt bronze headdress before taking the path outside the tiny museum up to Stone Men’s Hill.
Most of the early kofun were guarded by haniwa, clay or terra-cotta sculptures, which were placed at the apex of each grassy tomb. In Kyushu, however, sculptors soon turned to the area’s abundant supply of volcanic rock, and sekijin (stone men) began to replace the clay guardians. I wander along a row of replica statues — age and the natural elements necessitated the careful preservation of the originals, which are also held at the Tokyo National Museum. I note the small embellishments and the figures’ missing limbs. They may be replicas but these faithful copies still fulfill the role of watchmen.
A few meters away, the long mound of Etafunayama sits silent and unnoticed by most in the modern world, yet the protectors remain, watching over any secrets still buried deep in the Kumamoto soil.
The Kumamoto Prefectural Decorative Tumulus Museum is a short car or taxi ride from Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture. Admission is ¥420 with an English pamphlet. The Satoyama Ancient Lotus Garden is free to explore and also offers beautiful displays of wisteria in spring. The Etafunayama Kofun Park is also free to visit. While Yamaga and many areas of Kyushu remain untouched by the recent quakes, the city of Kumamoto itself and many communities nearby still in need of assistance. While tourism in the prefecture will help support local businesses, those who want to do more can donate either time or money to organizations such Second Harvest (www.2hj.org), the Japanese Red Cross (www.jrc.or.jp/english), or It’s Not Just Mud (www.itsnotjustmud.com).