The Home of Japan's Ancient Rulers – The Saitobaru Burial Mounds
Located a short forty-minute drive from Miyazaki City, the small city of Saito is a picturesque little town that also happens to be home to one of Japan's most important archaeological sites. Scattered across a large plateau on the outskirts of the city are the Saitobaru Burial Mounds, a collection of three hundred and thirty-three kofun, a type of grave used in Japan during the Kofun period, an era pre-dating written records. This collection of graves is one of the largest in Japan and the largest in Kyushu. It's a great place to visit if you have an interest in Japanese history, but the massive parkland also makes it an enormously popular place to visit for viewing vast fields of flowers at different times of the year.
What are Kofun?
Kofun are a type of burial mound, built as tombs for powerful members of early Japanese society. These were mostly used during what is known as Japan's Kofun period from approximately 250 - 538 AD. Many kofun still dot the Japanese landscape throughout different areas of Japan and as they predate written records, they remain important archaeological sites and give an insight into the early formations of Japanese society. Those buried inside Kofun were usually interred with various possessions including bronze mirrors and weapons. An interesting feature usually found inside kofun are clay figures called haniwa. It is believed that these were buried alongside the dead to replace a much earlier custom where Japan's ancient warlords were buried along with their servants. Though burial mounds are common in many cultures throughout the world, many kofun have a distinct keyhole-like shape, something that is thought to be unique to Japan.
History of the Saitobaru Burial Mounds
The Saitobaru burial mounds were constructed from around the end of the 3rd Century through to about the 7th Century AD. Spread over a plateau on the Western side of Saito city, there are a total of three hundred and thirty-three burial mounds of various shapes and sizes, making it the largest of such sites in Kyushu. It is believed that the rulers of several different groups scattered throughout the area began to construct tombs in the area, giving some insight into how society in Southern Kyushu was organized at the time. The modern excavation of the site began in 1912 and aside from external excavation and radar scanning, some of the tombs remain largely undisturbed and are preserved as they were originally found.
The Site Today
Today the Saitobaru Burial mounds are a popular destination both for tourists and for those living close by. The burial mounds are spread over a large parkland which makes it a popular spot for walking or jogging. At certain times of the year, the fields are covered with seasonal flowers making it a great spot for photos or even cherry blossom viewing during sakura season. In April and May the fields are full of canola flowers, in July there are sunflowers and in the later months of the year, around October-November, cosmos flowers bloom around the burial mounds.
The site has a visitor's centre with a small store selling local goods. The site is also home to a recently opened and very modern museum that covers the history of the area in exceptional detail though the displays are mostly in Japanese only. The burial mounds themselves are free to visit and are scattered over a wide area. They are usually accompanied by plaques that give a great deal of detail in both Japanese and English.
The two largest mounds in the area, named Osahozuka and Meshahozuka, are unfortunately closed to the public. These two massive tombs are said to be those of Ninigi no Mikoto and his wife, Princess Konohakusakuya, the originators of the current imperial line. As such, only members of the imperial family are allowed to enter the fenced off area, aside from during a weekend long festival in November where members of the public are able to enter to pay their respects. The two tombs lie secluded under a forest and even viewed from behind the fence enclosing them, project a mood of serenity and peace.
Perhaps the most prominent burial mound aside from Osahozuka and Meshahozuka, is Oni-no-iwaya. At 7.5 metres high and surrounded by an earthen wall, this kofun is probably the first you'll see on arriving at the site. Unlike the other mounds in the area, this one remains open so that you can actually step inside the tomb and see what it is like inside. The name of the tomb comes from an old story of an ogre that built a burial chamber for Princess Konohakusakuya in one night as he grieved.
The Saitobaru burial mounds are a great spot to visit in Miyazaki prefecture, especially if you have an interest in the history of the local area. Miyazaki’s relative lack of development throughout Japanese history means it doesn’t have a huge number of more recent historical sites to its name, but it does have a lot of older sites related to the ancient tribes that lived in Japan. In that respect, the Saitobaru burial mounds are one of the most important historical sites in the prefecture. Given that it’s a fairly short trip from Miyazaki city, it's fairly easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around. If you can time a visit right, you can witness the spectacular sights of the flowers in full bloom or even attend one of the various festivals held at the spot in November or January. Even without the flowers though, it’s a beautiful spot with lovely views of the surrounding mountains. With its somewhat secluded location, it’s easy to feel transported back in time, long before written records, to when Japan’s ancient rulers wandered the surrounding hills.