June 14, 2019

The Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

Found up in the middle of nowhere in Saitama, the so-called Hundred Caves of Yoshimi have often been referred to as "Japan's Cappadocia."

The Hundred Caves of Yoshimi in Saitama Prefecture, the so-called "Cappadocia of Japan"

Let’s face it. Saitama gets a pretty bad rap. Known to many Tokyoites as little more than a lame bedroom community for the capital, the prefecture is rarely something that foreign tourists even consider visiting. As a big fan of Saitama, this is a real shame. You see, dotted all across Tokyo’s northern neighbor are a whole host of hidden gems. Of course, chief among these is my beloved historic town of Kawagoe yet this is only the very tip of the iceberg. Honestly speaking, I am continually shocked by the depth of gems within Saitama Prefecture. Really, when you stop to think about it, it makes one question who the hell came up with the mainstream travel itineraries. Senso-ji? No thanks, I’ll pass. I’d rather not lose an eye to a selfie stick right now…

Now, as you probably have guessed, today we’ll be taking a look at yet another site in Saitama. Known as the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi (Yoshimi Hyakuana in Japanese), this collection of manmade tombs is obviously quite ancient. While scholars aren’t exactly sure on the exact dates, the evidence that they have excavated pegs these hollows at having been dug sometime during the later half of Japan’s Kofun period (about 300–538). While locals have long since known of the existence of the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi, archeological investigations into their origins only began in 1887. Initially, there was some fierce disputes regarding the function of the cavities but further research concluded these were indeed mausoleums.

As longtime readers know, I’m really bullish on finding places where you can viscerally feel history in every fiber of your being. In this regard, the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi deliver in spades. You see, much of the hill into which they are carved is comprised of large quantities of tuffaceous sandstone. Similar to the rock from which Oita Prefecture’s stone Buddhas are carved, this bedrock is easy to manipulate and work with. In fact, if you touch rock formations with your hands, you’ll see for yourselves just how fragile it really is. It’s no wonder why the people living in the area chose the site as the final resting place for their ancestors. I mean, would you want to dig through something that was hard as a diamond?

Speaking of final resting places, you should probably know that the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi were not fashioned for just anyone. Instead, these caverns were reserved solely for local high ranking noble chieftains and their kin. While Japan’s history tends to center around the imperial court, you need to keep in mind that the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi date back to Japan’s Kofun period (about 300–538). At this time, the Yamato polity that would go on to form the imperial court was still in the early stages of extending its influence. In fact, it wouldn’t be for many more years to come that the entirety of the country could be said to be under its control.

Anyway, while these days the interior of the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi is entirely exposed for all to see, this was not always the case. Instead, these tombs were sealed shut by dark green blocking stones. When the slabs of rock were removed during the site’s excavation over a hundred years ago, archaeologists found bed-shaped platforms called kanza in Japanese. It is now believed that these served as a coffin like object placed upon these kanza to house the deceased’s body. In addition to the kanza, scholars also uncovered intricate drainage systems evidencing detailed planning and construction.

Getting to the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

The bus stop to the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi at Higashi-Matsuyama Station

Let’s take a quick break and talk about how to get to the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi as it’s a bit of a hike. To begin with, you’re going to need to make your way over to Ikebukuro. From there, you’re going to want to get on one of the rapid Tobu Tojo Line trains bound for Ogawamachi. You’re destination will be the sleepy Higashi-Matsuyama Station but keep in mind some trains will require that you make a connection en route. Here, I suggest that you just head on over to the ever-helpful Hyperdia to consider a route that does not require you to make a transfer at Wakoshi. This way, you can likely snag a seat for the entire fifty-two minute duration of the ride.

Once you arrive at Higashi-Matsuyama, you’ll need to navigate your way out of the station’s east exit. There, on your right, you’ll find a collection of bus stops. Here, you’ll want to make your way over to the number three spot as can be seen in the image above. These buses are bound for the Menkyo Center but you’ll want to hop off approximately five minutes later at the Hyakuana Iriguchi stop. From there, the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi are a few short minutes away on foot. While the caves should be easy enough to see, here’s a link to a Google Map just in case. Scared of taking the bus? Fret not. You can actually just hoof it all the way to the tombs in about twenty minutes.

Exploring the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

Inside one of the caves at Saitama Prefecture’s Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

Once you arrive at the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi, you’ll have to fork over a token 300 yen to actually enter the site. This is a small price to pay as the money goes to keeping the tombs in prime condition. Moreover, you’ll also receive a wonderfully written English pamphlet that will explain many of the nuances within the location. Anyway, after passing through the gate, you’ll find the collection of caves on your left hand side. To the right, you’ll find the Yoshimi Burial Cultural Property Center. This facility features several hands-on crafting experiences for a nominal fee; however, you’ll likely need a Japanese speaker with you to get the most out of it.

Now, despite the cardinal reference to “hundred,” the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi, actually total well over two-hundred tombs. The slope on which the caves sit has a rather steep 45-degree gradient but there are plenty of stairs for ease of access. As previously mentioned, all of the tombs have been opened over the years back when the site was first excavated. As such, you can actually pop inside if you don’t mind risking getting your clothes filthy. If you’ll go to any lengths for authenticity like I do, keep your eyes peeled for some luminous moss. The hill into which the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi is carved is one of the few sites within the Greater Tokyo region where this particular type of moss can be found.

While exploring the site, you’ll likely come across several massive tunnels. One would think the tunnels lead the way to additional tombs yet this is actually not the case. Surprisingly, the folks who made the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi weren’t the only ones digging here. In fact, these shafts are a part of an underground network that once housed an aircraft engine factory for Nakajima Aircraft Company during the final years of World War II. Why here you ask? Well, the tunnels blend perfectly with the caves and thus the site offered great protection from air strikes. Alas, a handful of the burrows were lost in the process of creating the factory.

Attractions Near the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

The gate to Iwamuro Kannon-do near Saitama Prefecture’s Hundred Caves of Yoshimi

In addition to the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi, there are actually a few other spots of minor interest that are located relatively nearby should you feel an itch for more adventure. Here are some of my favorites with an accompanying Google Map link…

  • Iwamuro Kannon-do
    You’ll catch a glimpse of this temple when making your way to the caves. It’s dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy and dates from the early 1600’s. You’ll find two caves on the ground level that house 88 stone Buddha figures to represent the famous Shikoku pilgrimage.
  • Gankutsu Hotel
    In the early 1900’s, a bored farmer with a chisel and hammer started carving the rock face to look like a Mediterranean luxury hotel. In primetime, it looked like this. It’s a shame that the site wasn’t better protected from the elements seeing it was a real labor of love.
  • Matsuyama Castle
    Today, little remains at this lonely site; in days of yore, a mighty castle stood here. If you follow the VERY steep path that leads up from behind Iwamuro Kannon-do, you’ll soon find yourself at the former site of this razed fortress.
  • Tosen-ji
    This final spot is of a far more recent vintage than the above three. That said, know that this temple is dedicated to those who have been “chosen” by fate and therefore is very popular with both lottery winners as well as local politicians

Of course, in addition to the above recommendation, I really do suggest that you check out Kawagoe if you can manage to find the time. It’s on the way back and can be easily added to a day exploring the Hundred Caves of Yoshimi if you get an early enough start.