By Avi Landau
Approximately 6,000 ancient tumuli (KOFUN) have been identified in Ibaraki Prefecture (with about 200 found within the Tsukuba City limits). They were built over a period of just over 400 years – with the first square HO-KEI SHU-KO-BO (方形周溝基) type tombs appearing in the 4th century, and the last of the ZENPO-KO-EN (前方後円墳) type burial mounds (often called key-hole shaped tumuli in English because they look like key-holes when observed from the sky) completed by the mid-7th century. They were built to inter local rulers, strongmen, and great warriors, men (and sometimes women) who had originally come (or who`s ancestors had come) from western Japan (the Island of Kyushu and the area around Nara and Kyoto) to at first take, and then maintain control of what was then known as the Land of Hitachi (now Ibaraki Prefecture) for the Emperor and the Yamato Empire.
They were buried together with weapons, equestrian paraphernalia, and embryo-shaped beads called MAGATAMA. The tombs were often surrounded on the outside with terra-cotta figurines (HANIWA) depicting a wide range of motifs, including houses, warriors, horses, sumo wrestlers, animals, probably meant to keep the deceased company in the after-life. And the tombs kept getting bigger and bigger – so if the introduction of Buddhism to the area hadn`t changed funerary practices, the whole country might have ended up covered in tumuli !
The 7th century Torazuka* Kofun tumulus (虎塚古墳) in Hitachi Naka (north of Mito) is perhaps the most famous of Ibaraki`s ancient tumuli. It is not especially large, nor were the weapons and other funerary goods found inside of special interest – and none of the usual HANIWA figurines were found there at all! What makes it extraordinary are the paintings found on the walls of its inner chamber, where 1,300 year ago, a single adult male warrior was laid to rest. The curious geometric patterns were rendered on the wall using red ocher (red iron oxide) – BENGARA in Japanese (deriving from the Dutch word Bengala, as in Bengal, India) and they are very difficult to keep well-preserved. For that reason, the general public is let into the burial chamber for only about 16 days a year, 8 days in spring and 8 days in autumn (though the actual dates change from year to year).
The open-for-viewing dates for this autumn are October 31st thru November 4th and then November 8, 9, 10, and 11.
And if you`d just like to focus on one localized area, after you`ve finished contemplating the meaning of those mysterious rust-clored patterns painted on the burial chamber walls, there are some more ancient tombs nearby, more than 300 of them, at a site called the Ju-goro-ana.
Getting to the Torazuka Kofun
By car : Ten minutes from the Hitachinaka I.C. on the Kita Kanto Expressway.
By Train: Take the Joban Line to Katsuta Station (and then taxi for 10 minutes)
Change at Katsuta to the Hatachinaka Kaihin Tetsudo Nakaminato Line, get off at Nakane Station and walk for 25 minutes.
Admission is 150 yen for adults and 80 yen for children ( a bargain!)
I have written about other interesting Kofun in Tsukuba and the surrounding area:
The only Kofun in which human hair was preserved – Tsuchiura`s Mushazuka Kofun
* The name Torazuka Kofun (literally – the Tiger Mound Tumulus) got its name from an interesting local legend. The Soga Brothers, whose story of avenging their father`s murder has been reworked again and again over the years in Japanese theater and literature, are said to have fled to what is now Hitachinaka (after having exacted their revenge), hiding out in the burial cave that are now named after them – Ju-goro- ana (the brothers` names were Ju-ro and Goro, so the caves are now called the Ju-ro- and Go-ro holes!) ,. When Ju-ro`s wife, whose name was Toragozen, got word of where her husband was, she went to be with him. Tragically, or so the story goes, Toragozen became ill and passed away – and a large tomb was built for her. It was called the Torazuka Kofun in memory of her.
An interesting way for the locals to explain the presence of large tombs whose origins were a mystery to them.