Visit the Mozu Tombs – Japan’s newest UNESCO site

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Tomb of Nintoku Tenno in the Mozu group of tombs in Osaka

A sudden mound behind the parking area, covered in trees. Beyond an old-fashioned residential neighbourhood and a canal – just a large expanse of green, where dozens of egrets are nisting. We are on our way to visit the Mozu tombs in Osaka, which were only included on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list in 2019. The tombs date from the 4th to 6th century and belonged to early kings or rulers. Some of them are very large, and many have a very peculiar shape: Artificial hills in the form of a keyhole, surrounded by a moat (or sometimes several moats).

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Keyhole-shaped restored tumulus grave near Inuyama

Just two days after the announcement of the UNESCO decision, we made our way to Sakai, a southern suburb of Osaka. Around here, there once was a fertile plain where the small „Kingdoms of Wa“ appeared, the first state-like structures on the Japanese isles. Archeologists do not know much about them yet. But they assume, that the people buried their kings and the local elite in tumulus graves that still dot the area.

From the station of Mikunigaoka, we have to determine the right direction, but soon we notice the first strange and knobbly hills. In a sea of concrete houses, these hills stick out because there are trees on them. And it certainly won’t do in Japan to build a house on a grave that may well house a former emperor, considering that all Japanese emperors before the previous one were also gods!

Nintoku’s Tomb

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Soon we reach a fenced-off water channel with only trees visible on the other side. This is the moat of King Nintoku’s tomb. At 486 m length, it is the largest tomb in Japan – and as emphasized in the museum, it is at least longer than the Egyptian Cheops Pyramid and the tomb of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in Xian, guarded by the famous terracotta army. Both of these tombs are much higher and more voluminous, though.

On the southern side of the tomb we reach a park area providing access to the prayer area. Nowadays this is a Shinto-style courtyard with a Japanese Torii facing the original entrance of the tomb. There’s also a visitor centre renting out bicycles to people who want to visit the Mozu tombs in the larger area. Behind that, a history museum shows models of the tombs, aerial views, and artefacts found in the tombs.

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A reconstructed ancient tomb in Aotsuka near Inuyama

In Mozu alone, there are 44 preserved tombs, but apparently there must have been thousands in Japan. The artificial hills were originally not covered in trees. Instead, on the bare earthen (or grassy) mounds, large numbers of “Haniwa” votive goods were placed along the upper part of the hill: ceramic pots or figures, models of houses and shrines. In the tomb chambers below, archaeologists have found more ceramics, jewels and precious stones, as well as armours and weapons. The regular exhibition in the museum was quite interesting. They also had some short documentary films explaining the history of the tombs.

Is it worth visiting the Mozu-Furuichi Tombs?

Actually there is not very much to see at Sakai and you must not go near the venerable tombs. It is only possibly to have a look on the hilly burial places from beyond the moat – the most impressive view would of course be from high above, but since there are no high towers around, aerial photographs have to do. There are a number of smaller hilly tombs in walking distance.

It might be a good idea to read up on Japanese early history before you venture out to Sakai. The on-site museum gives a good insight too – but is mostly in Japanese. Unless you collect UNESCO sites or have a strong interest in Japanese history a visit to the Mozu tombs might be somewhat disappointing.

How to visit the Mozu Tombs in Osaka

You can reach Sakai in around 15 to minutes either by JR (Japan Railway) or on the private Nankai line from Osaka Namba. If you walk around a bit and also visit the museum this will be a half-day trip.

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