Admire a Rare National Treasure Found Within the Ancient Tombs of Saitama, Japan

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  • As you can probably tell from my other article, my fascination with kofun (古墳) has taken me all over Japan in search of the next 1,500-year-old ancient tomb to admire. The search for kofun can sometimes be a mini adventure which leads me to unpopulated forest areas or remote mountaintops. In contrast, kofun can also be found in the middle of suburbia; in some places, almost in someone’s backyard or within school grounds.

    Somewhere in between those extremes, we also have the more accessible kofun, those which have had public parks built up around them and thus are presented as tourist attractions and educational facilities. Sometimes these parks also contain a museum which holds relics discovered from within its surrounding kofun.

    Sakitama Kofun Park (さきたま古墳公園) in Saitama Prefecture (埼玉県) is one such place where you can see a number of kofun, plus visit the associated museum which houses a very special National Treasure (国宝) of Japan.

    The Kofun Within the Park

    Author’s photo

    Kofun are typically thought to be football field-sized, gigantic keyhole-shaped structures, but in reality, they do vary greatly in size and shape. Sakitama Kofun Park gives you a glimpse of that variety amongst the nine kofun within the park’s grounds. You will see the more common keyhole-shaped tombs in differing sizes, but you’ll also find an enormous circular tomb called the Maruhakayama Kofun (丸墓山古墳).

    The Maruhakayama Kofun is rather outstanding as not only does its 105-meter diameter rank it as the biggest circular kofun in Japan, but once on top, you’ll have great views of the park and a clear outlook across to Gyoda City (行田市). In fact, the view is so ideal that the famous samurai from the Sengoku period, Ishida Mitsunari (石田 三成), took advantage of the height of the kofun to use it as a strategic position for his attack on Oshi Castle (忍城) in 1590. You can have a clear view of the castle from the elevated position atop the kofun.

    Author’s photo

    Amongst the other kofun within the park, two stand out for differing reasons. The 120-meter long Inariyama Kofun (稲荷山古墳) is significant due to the fact that, in ancient times, it was the final resting place of some of the National Treasures now on display in the museum. It’s also visually outstanding due to the almost perfect geometry of its reconstruction.

    Author’s photo

    Equally as fascinating, but for a different reason, is the Shogunyama Kofun (将軍山古墳) as it actually contains a small museum inside the inner chamber of the tomb. Although the inside of the kofun is far more modern than you’d expect, it features a very interesting life-size exhibit displaying the way the tomb’s contents appeared when first discovered. This display is quite enlightening as usually, the general public is only able to see a little more than an empty cavern within kofun that have had their inner tombs left open by archaeologists.

    The National Treasure

    Author’s photo

    The sword, known as the Inariyama Kofun Sword (稲荷山古墳出土鉄剣) or also literally “Gold Iron Sword (金錯銘鉄剣),” was discovered during the excavation of Inariyama Kofun in 1968. It was a remarkable find due to the fact that some 10 years after the discovery of the sword, X-ray imaging revealed 115 Chinese characters inlaid in the sword in gold. Translation of the characters revealed the owner to be a warrior named Wowake, and also provided detailed information such as the names of his ancestors and the name of the king whom he served. It also provided the year of the inscription, which is thought to be 471 AD based on modern interpretations of the Chinese dating system of the time. The sword has proved invaluable within the field of Japanese archaeology as it has allowed researchers to use it as a reference point to determine the age of other artifacts from the era. It has been regarded as the archaeological find of the century by some people in the field.

    The sword is on display in the park’s impressive Sakitama Ancient Burial Mounds Museum (さきたま史跡の博物館) and is obviously of great value as the security guard was keeping a close eye on people looking at the sword in its glass case. Curiously, photos are forbidden for some other items in the museum, however, photos of the sword are allowed. There are actually other similar swords on display in the museum, albeit they come without inscriptions.

    You’ll also find other interesting kofun artifacts on display such as Chinese-influenced bronze mirrors, clay haniwa (埴輪) figures, jade magatama (勾玉), and fascinating armor made for horses (including a full face mask). Some of these have also been categorized as National Treasures.

    What else is in the park?

    Author’s photo

    The park itself is rather large as it would have to be close to one kilometer between its farthest points. In fact, it actually extends out from both sides of the main road that passes through it.

    As well as the nine kofun and the two museums, you’ll also find two traditional style farmhouses – one from the late Edo period (江戸時代) and the other is from the early days of the Meiji era (明治時代). Both buildings have actually been moved from their original locations elsewhere in Saitama and reconstructed within the park.

    You could easily spend a few hours here if you want to have a good look at everything, but as there aren’t any eateries in the park, it’s a good idea to bring food and drinks. There is a large undercover picnic area where you can sit and eat.

    This picnic area and the park, in general, happened to be full of school kids when we went there, and it was very pleasing to see that they were being educated about this underappreciated part of Japan’s history. Of course, many of them would just see the park as a big playground to run around in, however, if the impact of the history around the kids stays with at least a few of them throughout their lives, then that bodes well for the future preservation of kofun and people’s interest in them.

    In fact, I read that the park is under consideration for World Heritage status. If that comes to fruition, then it would really take this place, and kofun in general, further up the tree of historical recognition where I think this era of Japan’s ancient history deserves to be.

    Sakitama Kofun Park Website
    Sakitama Ancient Burial Mounds Museum Website