Everything You Need to Know About “Kofun,” Ancient Japanese Burial Mounds

Have you ever heard of "kofun"? Literally meaning “old tombs,” these megalithic structures were built between the 3rd and 7th centuries and hold the remains of emperors, Imperial family members, and the ruling elite of that time, not to mention countless sacred objects. Japan back then was not the unified country that it is now; the territory is thought to have been divided into various regions ruled by different clans, but not many details are actually known. The great number of questions that still remains unanswered today is precisely what arouses the imagination of many people about this puzzling period of Japan's history.

Types of Burial Mounds and Their Shapes

Japanese burial mounds can be roughly divided into two categories: Imperial tombs and others. The Imperial tombs were reserved for the emperor, his wife, his mother, and his grandmother. The Imperial House Agency - a branch of the Japanese government in charge of everything related to the Imperial Family - has identified a staggering 899 Imperial tombs in total.

The mounds have many different shapes, but the main four categories to classify them are as follows: “zenpo-koen-fun,” consisting of a square front and a circular end like a keyhole; “zenpo-koho-fun,” consisting of two conjoined squares; the square-type "hofun"; and, finally, the circular type “enpun.” There are also 12 other shapes made by combining the ones just described. You need to observe the structures from above in order to be able to distinguish one shape from the other due to their massive size.

The Largest Burial Mound in Japan! Daisenryo Kofun of Emperor Nintoku (Sakai, Osaka)

Built in the 5th century, Daisenryo Kofun is Japan’s largest burial mound. Located in the city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, the site is also known as the Mausoleum of Emperor Nintoku and it is said to contain the remains of the emperor of the same name, the 16th emperor in the order of succession in Japanese history. The tumulus is approximately 486m long and 2,850m in circumference. Reserve 1 hour if you wish to walk the whole course around the tomb.

According to Japan's first history book "Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan),” Emperor Hitoku was a wise ruler. It is said that he lived side by side with his subjects and was loved by everyone. One of the many accounts about his great deeds describes that he didn’t collect taxes during a major famine and thus had to live in a palace whose roof leaked during rainy days.

Daisenryo Kofun

7 Daisen-cho, Sakai-ku, Sakai-shi, Osaka

Enter a Massive Stone Burial Chamber! The Stone Tumulus of Ishibutai Kofun (Asuka, Nara)

Ishibutai Kofun is a rare type of tomb in Japan. Located in the village of Asuka in Nara Prefecture, this tumulus consists of an open burial chamber entirely made of stone where a coffin was stored. Built in the 6th century with 30 massive blocks of stone, the site shows how technologically advanced ancient Japan was. With an entrance fee of 300 JPY for adults, you can enter the stone chamber and see for yourself how immense the structure is.

The tomb is said to have belonged to a political figure of those days called Soga no Umako. Considered a tyrant, it is believed that after his death, his burial ground was opened up and everything from inside the tomb was taken away.

Asuka doesn’t have only Ishibutai Kofun to offer. Here you find a wide range of attractions, including one of the oldest Buddha statues in Japan located in the temple Asuka-dera, and other stone structures such as the massive granite slab of Sakafune-ishi, said to be the remains of an ancient Japanese civilization. All of these sites are located 1km up north from Ishibutai Kofun, so a good idea would be to rent a bicycle and visit them all.

Ishibutai Kofun

254 Shimasho, Asuka-mura, Takaichi-gun, Nara

See Amazing Terracotta Figurines "Haniwa" at the Burial Mounds of Imashirozuka Kofun (Takatsuki, Osaka)

Imperial tombs are places where only the Emperor, the Imperial Family, and personnel authorized by the Imperial House Agency are allowed to enter. However, the burial mound of Imashirozuka Kofun is the only Imperial tomb where anyone can enter without authorization. The reason for such liberty is due to the fact the above-mentioned agency erroneously put the tumulus under the jurisdiction of the city of Takatsuki, Osaka, some 100 years ago.

The tomb is considered to belong to Emperor Keitai who reigned in the 6th century and is the 26th emperor in the order of succession. Emperor Keitai is thought to have been a fan of sumo wrestling because many haniwa depicting sumo wrestlers were found buried around his tomb. Recreations of these haniwa figures are on display above the sites where they were excavated. There are many other haniwa around the area that are totally Instagram-worthy!

Imashirozuka Kofun

48-8 Gunge Shin-machi, Takatsuki-shi, Osaka

A Mystical Burial Mound?! Shiba Maruyama Kofun (Tokyo)

Situated near Tokyo Tower, the burial mound of Shiba Maruyama Kofun is under very special care as it is situated in the precincts of Maruyama Zuishin Inari Daimyojin, an auxiliary shrine belonging to Shiba Toshogu, a Shinto shrine that's designated as one of Japan’s national treasures. Visitors describe feeling energized when visiting the burial mound, which has made it somewhat popular among locals. Apparently, this used to be a keyhole-shaped tumulus, but its circular part was flattened and integrated into the adjacent park.

As a matter of fact, no one knew about the existence of this burial mound until 130 years ago. Japanese scientists observing the area from Tokyo Bay found the formation “to be weird for a mound” and decided to excavate it, only to find out that it was, in fact, an ancient tomb. The mound is considered to have belonged to a clan of the region in the 5th century.

Shiba Maruyama Kofun

4-8-25 Shiba Koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo

These ancient burial mounds are more than 1,600 years old! More than archeological sites of great importance, these are places of ancestor and nature worship and thus should be respected as such. In this sense, it is necessary to understand that they are not like other regular historical tourist spots. Have that in mind when visiting these amazing places.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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