Matsumoto’s Kōbō-yama: The Life & Times of a Non-Descript Mountain
Kōbō-yama does not draw much attention from the tourist and backpacker crowd. Visitors to Matsumoto, once they turn their eyes from the castle and the easy bustle of downtown, are drawn to the serrated alpine skyline across the valley to the west. Even to the natives Kōbō-yama goes largely unnoticed. And this is not surprising. Standing barely 50 meters above the traffic rolling up and down nearby Route 19, Mt. Kōbō can hardly be called a mountain at all.
Yet there is something very interesting about this very non-descript place. Two very interesting things, actually. One floats overhead and all around, as fantastic as it is fleeting. The other lies underfoot, old and unmoving and fantastically understated. One requires perfect timing. The other is constant as time itself.
Come in mid-April if you want to see both.
Kobo-yama's quiet welcome
Kōbō-yama’s Spring Fling
Just like the rest of Japan, Kōbō-yama (弘法山) comes alive in Spring with the ephemeral beauty of the famed cherry blossoms. And while many other places around Japan are far more well-known for their own annual flowery display, Kōbō-yama puts on a show worth seeing.
From the bottom – and from far enough away to see it all at once - Kōbō-yama looks like it is made entirely of cherry blossoms. And this may not be too far off. Though small in stature, Kōbō-yama is home to over 2,000 cherry blossom trees. Viewed from a distance they form a thick white blanket, neatly woven and uniform in color, draped over the mountain as if Mother Nature were hiding something.
Up close the view is quite different. Though no less stunning as a collective whole, the trees are surprisingly spread out. Well-worn walking paths, buttressed with wood-and-dirt staircases along the steeper parts, wind up through the trees and the lush grass toward the top of this big hill which, since it is a hill, offers little level ground to those looking to spread out their blue plastic sheet for an O-hanami (flower-viewing) party.
But few people come to Kōbō-yama to sit on the ground under the trees.
At the top of Kōbō-yama the scene once again changes completely. Kōbō-yama’s highest point, which from certain angles is not even visible from street level, bears no trees at all. Instead, a large grass-covered mound rises up, inlaid with a curious square pattern of stones, backed with a mix of Yoshino and deciduous to lend contrast to that white forest blanketing the hillside. Up here unobstructed views await – of the surrounding rice fields, of Matsumoto City, of the valley and the Alps beyond. And underlining all of it are all those cherry blossoms, now exploding in a mix of white and purple, all around at your feet.
Up here, Kōbō-yama’s cherry blossoms no longer appear as a pure white blanket. Here they crowd together to from a multi-colored wall of flowers, stunning even under overcast skies, not entirely unusual for April in Matsumoto. The crowds do come, but there is plenty of room to breathe. And, since this is Japan, during O-hanami season there are food and drink vendors, hawking their goods from the rest area adjacent to the parking lot three-quarters of the way up the south side of the mountain.
Kōbō-yama’s Funerary Past
Also up here you will find yourself standing directly on top of Kōbō-yama’s other defining aspect and the explanation for those neatly-arranged stones: a burial mound dating back to the late 3rd Century. Yes, the entire top of Kōbō-yama is a 1,600-year-old tumulus, a two-part construct known as a zenpo-koho kofun (前方後方古墳). And this particular tumulus is believed to be the oldest of its kind in all of eastern Japan.
One of four different styles of the many tumuli built in the Yamato Era (which ran from the mid-3rdC. to the mid-6thC.), Kōbō-yama’s tumulus consists of two sections: a square-shaped, 6-meter high and 33-meter long ‘rear’ mound fronted with a slightly rectangular 2-meter high, 22-meter long fore section. In line with others of the period, Kōbō-yama’s kofun hides a stone chamber 1 meter deep, 1.5 meters wide and 5.5 meters long. The stones for this chamber were brought from the surrounding Azusa, Narai and Tagawa Rivers. In this chamber was placed a wooden coffin, likely containing the person who at the time ruled over the area.
Though precious little is known for certain about the history behind Kōbō-yama’s kofun, excavations did reveal, among other items, earthenware, iron swords, arrowheads, mirrors, jewels and a glass pendant – all of which are on display at the Matsumoto City Museum of Archeology.
At Kōbō-yama’s Feet
Next to the trailhead on the north side of the mountain stands a statue of Izumi Kotaro, the legendary human child of two dragons who lived in the ponds formed by the waters flowing down from the mountains surrounding Matsumoto. It is said that Kotaro’s mother was so ashamed of her appearance that she hid beneath the waters but Kotaro, riding on the back of a rhino dragon, smashed through the massive rocks of the ponds, releasing the waters, allowing them to flow north to the Sea of Japan. A fuller (and, perhaps, more accurate) explanation of the Legend can be found etched into the stone pedestal of Kotaro’s statue.
Along Kōbō-yama’s northwest slope stands the modest Shōichii-inaridaimyōjin shrine. ‘Shōichii’ translates (roughly) as ‘positive first place’ and an ‘Inaridaimyōjin’ is a demon who eats human hearts. The half dozen red-painted torii leading away from the road make for a nice introduction to the shrine. The spirits that may or may not be lurking among the trees make an extended visit inadvisable.
Kōbō-yama’s Place in Time
For the history buff, Kōbō-yama makes for an interesting stop. Though there is little that remains of the tumulus besides a square pattern of stones in the ground on top of the mounds themselves, the lore of beasts and legends may make up for the lack of physical intrigue. It should be noted that there are several other tumuli in town, though none can compete in terms of size.
For the cherry blossom lovers, Kōbō-yama blooms like crazy around the middle of April. Coupled with the backdrop of the Alps to the west, Kōbō-yama makes for an appealing springtime stop in lively, lovable Matsumoto.