Ask the average traveler who knows little of Japan beyond the “must-see” sights what a kofun (古墳) is and you’ll probably get a blank look. The same question might not get a much deeper response from those more traveled in the country, or at best they might tell you, “Oh, aren’t they those huge Emperor’s tomb things around Osaka (大阪) and Nara (奈良)?”
It’s not only tourists, though; whilst the Japanese are fully aware of what kofun are, they usually dismiss them as rather uninteresting. Maybe I can’t relate as I’m a big history buff, but I’ve always been a little bewildered by the lack of interest shown by the locals towards something so historic. And particularly strange is the lack of awareness of tourists as it’s estimated that there are actually around 160,000 kofun in Japan. Gunma (群馬) alone has 8,000 officially recognized kofun in its vicinity, an example of which can be seen at Omuro Park (大室公園) in Maebashi City (前橋市).
Within Omuro Park, there are three larger kofun and a couple of smaller ones, all dating from the 6th century. The really nice thing about visiting kofun in a place like this, as opposed to a more famous one such as the Daisen Kofun (大仙古墳) in Osaka, is that although Omuro’s largest kofun aren’t small (the biggest is Nakafutago Kofun [中二子古墳] which is 111 meters long), they aren’t behemoths either like their imperial relatives in the Kansai (関西) area.
One benefit is that they can be seen in their entirety at ground level so their fascinating keyhole shapes can be admired without needing to have an aerial view. They are also fully accessible; you can climb on them, touch them, even have a nap on them if you wish, unlike those tumuli of the Japanese monarchy which are usually (always?) off limits to the “common folk.” Don’t get me wrong, I love to see ANY kofun, but you don’t get much perspective looking at the gigantic ones where you can only see one corner and/or are blocked off by imperial gates.
Another drawcard of Omuro Park is the presence of haniwa placed on and around a few of the kofun. Haniwa are terracotta figures that were used as funerary objects, arranged in various formations on the surface of the tomb and around the outer boundaries of the tomb area. Although many theories exist on their function, it’s generally agreed that they served both ritual and practical purposes. Ritual in that they were symbolic of living things and items in the reality of the era and thus were in place to accompany and protect the deceased, and practical as they were used as boundary markers and also for retaining functions of the actual kofun structure.
Obviously, the haniwa seen at Omuro Park are replicas, but originals can be found in many museums around Japan. The smaller Shoufutago Kofun (小二子古墳 – 38 meters) is the highlight of the park as far as displaying a large variety of haniwa including a range of human figures, horses, houses, and ceremonial sunshades, all of which represent aspects of life during Japan’s Kofun period (古墳時代) i.e. from 250 to 538 AD.
As far as kofun locations go, Omuro Park is very “user-friendly.” As well as being a kofun display area, it’s also a public park used by joggers, dog walkers, and the like, and thus is nicely maintained with lawns kept short and trees trimmed. This is a key point since if you’re anything of a kofun seeker like I am, you’ll know that accessing some kofun can get a bit “rough and rugged” as the sites are often forgotten and neglected. More often than not, you’re fighting your way through all sorts of bushes, branches, weeds, and undergrowth, with the added risk of getting bitten by all kinds of insects and even snakes, so a nice and neat place like Omuro Park is a welcome change.
The park also has informative signs about each kofun (albeit in Japanese only), detailing things like the kofun dimensions and describing the ancient relics found within each kofun. All these add up to a leisurely and informative stroll amongst the ancients.
Even if kofun aren’t a usual feature of your Japan travel itinerary, I suggest devoting a couple hours of your time to check them out at Omuro Park, or anywhere you can find them really (Yes, there are 160,000 to choose from!). For those living in Japan, go out this weekend and see a kofun, you probably have one around the corner.
I’ve yet to come across a kofun that isn’t free of charge to view (although some have museums that charge a small fee) and you’ll very likely be one of the only people at the kofun as I have never come across a busy one. You’ll be looking at something built around 1,500 years ago, surrounded by much mystery, and theorizing due to lack of written documentation from the time, but it’s no less fascinating. That kind of thing should be on more people’s must-see list, I think so anyway.