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Welcome to Ancient Japan! Visiting Ancient Burial Mounds in Nara

Nara, which was the center of politics in ancient times, has many imperial tombs and tumuli of powerful people. Here are five recommended tumuli to visit.

1. Takamatsuzuka Tumulus

This is a tumulus that was built between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. It is a circular, two-tiered tumulus that is 5m high with a lower tier with a diameter of 23m and an upper tier with a diameter of 18m. In 1972, excavations uncovered richly colored murals in the stone chamber, making it an instant sensation as a rare archaeological discovery. In particular, the vivid paintings of women on the West wall of the stone chamber were reported on in the mass media as "Asuka Bijiin" (Asuka Beauties). The murals have been removed for repairs due to rapid deterioration. The original murals are not available for viewing, but neighboring the tumulus is the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum where one can see reproductions and reconstructed models of the murals and stone chamber. Please take a look at the Asuka Bijin, which once caused a sensation.

The "Asuka Bijin" with its vivid colors at the time of excavation.

1. Takamatsuzuka Tumulus

439 Hirata, Asukamura, Takaichi-gun, Nara

2. Kitora Tumulus

This was the second tumulus with murals to be discovered in Japan following the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus. It is a two-tiered circular tumulus with a top tier that is 9.4m in diameter, a terraced lower tier that is 13.8m in diameter, and a combined height of approximately 4m. It is estimated to have been built between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. A richly colored mural was found in the stone chamber in 1983, and mural paintings of the Four Divine Animals (Black Turtle, White Tiger, Vermilion Bird, and Blue Dragon) and the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac were identified through subsequent research. In particular, the celestial map on the ceiling has attracted attention as the world's oldest known scientific celestial map. These murals have now been removed and are stored in the Kitora Tumulus Mural Experiential Museum Shijin no Yakata, where it is exhibited to the public four times a year. The museum has a life-size replica of Kitora Tumulus, and four large screens that show the murals at a maximum of 100 times its actual size, so be sure to visit the museum as well.

2. Kitora Tumulus

136-1 Ueyama, Abeyama, Asuka-mura, Takaichi-gun, Nara

3. Ishibutai Tumulus

This is a tumulus that is representative of the Asuka region with one of Japan's largest horizontal stone chambers. It is estimated to have been built at the start of the 7th century. It was originally covered by a mound made by piling dirt, but the mound gradually disappeared so that the huge stone chamber is now visible. It is called Ishibutai (stone stage) because its unique form looks like a stage. The total weight of the stone chamber, that has been made by combining approximately 30 stones of various sizes, is approximately 2,300 tons! The interior is now open to the public and you can enter the empty burial chamber through a sendo (a passage from the entrance to the burial chamber), so be sure to take a look inside. The 2,300 tons of stones above your head can be quite awe inspiring.

3. Ishibutai Tumulus

254 Shimasho, Asukamura, Takaichi-gun, Nara

4. Kurozuka Tumulus

This is a keyhole shaped tumulus that was built around the end of the 3rd century. In 1988, it became an overnight sensation for the discovery of a 33-paned triangular rimmed ancient mirror decorated with gods and animals​, the largest number of panes on such a mirror in Japan. It is a mid-sized tumulus that is 130m in length and 11m high located along Japan's oldest road, Yamanobe-no-michi and is a part of the group of Yamato tumuli in the southeastern part of the Nara basin. The surrounding has been made into a park, and there is a beautiful side view of the tumulus across a pond. There is also a Tenri City Kurozuka Tumulus Exhibition Center near the tumulus with models that represent the stone chamber as it was at the time that it was excavated, and replicas of excavated artifacts. There are detailed descriptions for each exhibition, so it is an irresistible place for archaeology aficionados.

Triangular rimmed ancient mirror decorated with gods and animals​ excavated from Shinyama Tumulus in Koryo, Nara (property of the Imperial Household Agency)

4. Kurozuka Tumulus

1118-2 Yanagimoto-cho, Tenri-shi, Nara

5. Andonyama Tumulus (Emperor Sujin's Tomb)

This is Japan's 16th largest keyhole shaped tumulus that, like Kurozuka Tumulus, is along Yamanobe-no-michi, with a three-tiered mound spanning 242m. Based on its artifacts, it is estimated to have been built during the latter half of the 4th century. Although it is not known who was actually interred in it, the Imperial Household Agency has designated it as the tomb of the 10th emperor, Suijin, who is considered to have been the founder of the Imperial Court of Yamato. The area is surrounded by greenery and has great views, making it a place of rest and relaxation for people walking the Yamanobe-no-michi. It is not open to the public as it is managed as an imperial tomb, but just walking around the periphery is enough to feel the power of the person entombed in it.

5. Andonyama Tumulus (Emperor Sujin's Tomb)

Yanagimoto-cho, Tenri-shi, Nara

Tumuli may appear to be uninteresting, but can be exciting if you let yourself imagine the times in which they were built and the people entombed in them. Tumuli are usually in pleasant locations with a lot of greenery, so why not combine your visit with a picnic?

*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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