April 26, 2019

Osaka's Daisen Kofun

The ancient Mozu Kofun Cluster in Osaka's Sakai City allegedly contains the tomb of Emperor Nintoku. It now has UNESCO World Heritage Status.

An artist's arial rendition of Emperor Nintoku's Daisen Kofun mausoleum and the Mozu Tomb Cluster in Sakai, Osaka

As much as it pains me to write this, I absolutely loathe Osaka these days. This is really saying something as the city once ranked among my all-time favorite places to party. Sadly, much like Kyoto sitting only 30 minutes to the north, Osaka has borne much of the brunt of Japan’s recent tourism boom. Frankly put, the streets are simply too jam packed with endless legions of tour groups hailing from neighboring Asian countries. In fact, should you dare to venture to popular areas like Dotonbori, you’ll be lucky to even hear an utterance of Japanese as you wander about. What’s more, many of the former shopkeepers have been largely replaced by foreign staff to better assist the endless throngs of tourists. As you might imagine, all of this has really eroded Osaka’s authenticity.

Alas, even though most of Osaka has been commodified into a hideous tourist trap, a handful of yet-to-be-spoiled hidden gems remain within this tragic monstrosity. With that said, we’ll be taking a look at just one such place. Known in English as the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku (or Daisen Kofun in Japanese), this behemoth complex is approximately 840 meters long and allegedly belongs to the 16th emperor of Japan. The massive keyhole-shaped structure is ranked as one of the world’s three largest tumulus together with the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China and the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. To put its size in perspective, the girth of Emperor Nintoku’s final resting place is about twice that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, albeit at only a quarter of the height.

Note that the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku is part of a huge group of tumuli that originally numbered more than one-hundred. Collectively called the Mozu Tombs, these structures were erected eons ago during Japan’s so-called Kofun period (about 300 to 538). While many have stood the test of time, entropy and erosion have claimed approximately half of the tumuli cluster. To ensure that future generations can enjoy the Mozu Tombs, the national government has been petitioning to have the tombs registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. While nothing is official yet, word on the street is that they will finally have their wish granted sometime this year.

Getting to the Daisen Kofun

Let’s pause for a second to get our bearings and cover some key logistics. Unlike many of the world’s other ancient burial sites of yesteryear, the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku is actually quite simple to reach. Located only about 20 minutes south of Osaka in neighboring Sakai city, all you need to do to get there is hop on one of the express trains on the Nankai Koya Line that depart regularly from the Nankai Namba Station. En route, you’ll need to make a quick transfer at Mikunigaoka Station. To simplify things, just refer to the ever-helpful friend Hyperdia or a similar service to help calculate the train schedule for you. Your final destination will be the sleepy Mozu Station.

Now, should you be the type to enjoy a good walk, know that you can simply get off at Mikunigaoka Station as I did and hoof it around the tomb. Depending on how fast you walk and which direction you opt for, doing so is bound to take a good twenty to thirty minutes. While the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku isn’t much to see from the ground, exploring it on foot will allow you the opportunity to experience just how massive the tomb is within every fiber of your being. What’s more, the perimeter is dotted with many cherry trees meaning that in early spring, it’s rather a pleasant and picturesque walk all things considered.

Lastly, while the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku is by far the main attraction here, there are many other tumuli to explore in the area as well. I mean, just take a second to explore the embedded Google Map above. Every one of those massive keyhole-shapes designates the markings of another tomb. If you want to spend more time delving into the area, I suggest renting a bike from the Sakai City Tourism Center. As far as I could tell, they speak a modicum of English and are able to handle non-Japanese speakers.

The Controversy Around the Daisen Kofun

A torii gate at Emperor Nintoku’s Daisen Kofun mausoleum in Sakai, Osaka

Now before you get your hopes up, know that you cannot actually venture inside the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku. Sorry, Indiana Jones wannabes. You see, the Imperial Household Agency actually is in charge of overseeing the site. As such, tourists, archaeologists, and even royalty can generally only venture as far as the bridge over the second moat. While the powers that be have been trying to pressure the Imperial Household Agency to allow the tomb to be surveyed following the application for UNESCO World Heritage status, there’s been a fair bit of resistance. In fact, it was only just recently in 2018 that the agency finally caved and allowed for a joint excavation of one of the dikes surrounding the massive tumulus.

Officially, the Imperial Household Agency has stated that the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku is a consecrated site and should not be defiled by the likes of commoners. When asked to comment on why the agency is reluctant to allow even archaeologists to explore the structure, the response holds that the mound is “an Imperial Family tomb where peace and sanctity need to be maintained.” Knowing Japan as well as I do though, I call bullshit here. Rather than being concerned about upsetting the specter of a long dead emperor, I have an inkling that the Imperial Household Agency is actually worried about unearthing imperial connections to Korea which would undermine the established narratives.

What all this means for prospective visitors like you, the reader, is that you’ll only ever be able to make it as far as the bridge leading up to the torii gate pictured above. Don’t feel badly about being kept out though. Ever since a devastating typhoon damaged the lower part of the tomb’s keyhole shaped structure in 1872, no one has been able to approach it. As this insightful article on Gaijinpot recounts…

During the restoration at that time, many artifacts were uncovered. The findings provided a substantial amount of information. However, some of the artifacts were inconsistent with what was previously known about the time period, casting some doubt on the identity of the tomb’s owner. No further activity is allowed on the island, so the mystery of the occupants may never be solved. The main part of the tomb at the top part of the keyhole has remained completely untouched for over a thousand years and will likely remain that way for many more.

As you can clearly see, possibly outside the exception of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, no one in recent history has been close to the alleged Tomb of Emperor Nintoku. Unfortunately, answers to the questions of what mysteries the mausoleum holds and to whom it legitimately belongs will need to wait. Hopefully, with the push for UNESCO World Heritage Status, the Imperial Household Agency will finally relent and allow scholars to further investigate the tomb in depth.

The Daisen Kofun & the Sakai City Museum

The Sakai City Museum near the Emperor Nintoku’s Daisen Kofun mausoleum and the rest of the Mozu Tomb Cluster in Sakai, Osaka

Given that you can’t approach the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku up-close in person yourself, isn’t it rather silly to recommend that travelers swing by for a visit? Well, while you would expect the answer to this question to be a resounding YES, there’s certainly a saving grace here. You see, the nearby Sakai City Museum has gone to terrific lengths to curate any and all known facts about the mysterious mausoleum. Venture inside and you’ll be dazzled by an impressive array of artifacts and educational panels that bring this inscrutable period of Japanese history to life. Recently, the museum also created a handy virtual reality experience that further highlights what we know about the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku.

Oh, and antediluvian crypts aside for a second, also know that the museum’s exhibits are not only related to the surrounding tumuli cluster. In fact, the Sakai City Museum does a superb job of chronicling the area’s long history from its earliest years to the modern era. In addition to ancient artifacts, you’ll also encounter many curations from Sakai’s lucrative period of high trade as an autonomous city. Moreover, you’ll also get to check out an impressive array of firearms from Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1603) that were produced at the behest of the warlord, Oda Nobunaga.

Frankly stated, I consider the Sakai City Museum to be mandatory viewing for all those who venture as far as the tomb. Trying to save a few hundred yen by skimping on the entry fee is nothing short of robbing yourself of the richness of this potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.You’ll find the epic Sakai City Museum located here in Daisen Park. This open green space sits directly in the middle of the Mozu Tomb Cluster and is also home to the Sakai Municipal Library, the Sakai Bicycle Museum, the Sakai City Japanese Gardens, and the Sakai City Urban Greenification Center.

Attractions Near the Daisen Kofun

Namba Yasaka Shrine during cherry blossom season, a great add-on to the Emperor Nintoku’s Daisen Kofun mausoleum

Before wrapping things up here, I’d like to take a quick second to introduce one final hidden gem in Osaka that I discovered on the way back from sourcing the content for this article. Though I had originally intended to give this unique attraction its own piece at a later date, there are so many other areas that need exposure. Given that I don’t see myself visiting the Osaka area again in the near future, I’m just going to tack it on here; article consistency be damned. Seeing as it’s only an eight minute walk from the Nankai Namba Station, I can’t imagine finding a better place to feature it.

So, what’s this spot that I speak of? Well, if you look at the background of the above shot, you can barely make out the shape of a giant lion head. This unique piece of architecture belongs to Namba Yasaka Shrine and almost feels kitschy enough to hail from from Las Vegas. While the shrine does indeed pay homage to the guardian deity of the Namba area, it’s the retro style, twelve meter tall lion head that makes it worth visiting. Apparently, those living in the region believe that the enormous lion’s mouth swallows evil spirits and thus is said to bring good luck. A bit weird, eh?

Interested in popping by for a quick visit? Know that Namba Yasaka Shrine can be found here only a few minutes away from the bustling Namba area. Should you be fortunate enough to be visiting during spring as I was, you’ll be greeted by the sight of some spectacular cherry trees. Given this quirky location is not that far out of the way for travelers visiting the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Sakai, it’s worth popping by if only to gawk at the shrine’s peculiar feature.