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 in Egypt and the tomb of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in Xian in China, 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. You can also reach the Mozu tombs from nearby Kyoto in a day trip. Also check out our tips for unusal off-the-beaten-path highlights in Kyoto.

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  1. The hilly tombs reminded me of the Indian Mound in the US. However, it looks like Mozu Tombs is more to a place where you stop when driving through the area. You don’t really need to make a special trip there.

  2. I love visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, especially when travelling. You know that when they have that status, there is good reason to visit.

  3. This is another place that I did not see on my trip in Japan. its awesome that Mozu Tombs is one of the UNESCO sites, I usually love to visit them during my travels. But if there is not much to see there, then may be it might not be worth visiting. Having said that I have always found Japanese history and culture fascinating, so maybe I will add this to my list.

    1. Dear Raksha, in order to appreciate the site I would advise to read up a bit on the history before you go. The museum nearby also offers good insights.

  4. The Mozu Tombs look so interesting. I love the design of them and how they seem to blend right in. It is good to know that it is best to read up on the history before visiting. I do always find myself appreciating a destination more if I know more about it, so it is definitely something I would do if I make it to the area.

  5. How interesting – I’ve been to Japan a little before the pandemic, hence, it has a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, I missed this site – my stay in Osaka was far too short, anyway. I was amazed how many of the castles and shrines etc were completely reconstructed relatively recently. We don’t do that in Europe, do we?!

    1. Dear Renata, no we don`t. But then, Japan has a long tradition of wood constructions and due to fires and also weather they are used to reconstruct buildings. Mostly they did exact copies. There is a different tradition and also cultural relation to copies, I would say.

  6. This looks like such a neat trip! I have never had the opportunity to visit Japan before, but it has been on my travel list for quite some time now. I also enjoy learning about the history of any of the destinations I visit so I would love to learn more about The Mozu Tombs if I ever get the chance to see it!

    1. Dear Sophie, the Mozu Tombs are an interesting part of the Japanese history. However I would probably not recommend them for a first time visit to Japan.

  7. I am always interested in reading about new sites that get added to the UNESCO lists. We missed the Mozu Tombs when we visited Osaka and don’t even remember hearing about them. The graves certainly are large and strange. Funny to read they were surrounded by moats like forts often are. We would certainly want to visit the museum since you can’t get very close to the tombs. A fascinating tip for a return visit to Osaka.

    1. Dear Linda, the Mozu tombs are a fascinating glimpse into the Japanese history for sure. Sadly they are not very accesible to tourists – not only physically but also intelectually. The on-site museum does have some beautiful objects but they are not presented in an interesting engaging way. But if you go back to Osaka in the future the Mozu tombs are definitely worth a half-day trip.

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