Heritage

Standing on the Sites of Ancient History

During the Kofun period, which spanned the mid-third century to around the seventh century, burial-mound tombs were built for emperors and members of the ruling class. The most famous, and the largest keyhole-shaped burial mound in Japan, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, dated to the fifth century. The Nintoku tomb is 486 meters long and 35.8 meters high. It doubles the length of the largest of the great pyramids of Giza. Senshu is home to the Mozu Kofun Group, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. The town of Misaki, in the southernmost part of Senshu, also has a number of similar tombs, including the Udohaka burial mound.

Tomb of emperor Nintoku viewed from above. Its size and rounded keyhole shape are clear to see. (Photo courtesy of Sakai City)

44 of the tombs are located in Sakai. Originally, there were more than one hundred, but over half disappeared in the tide of urbanization. The tombs were made of heaped earth, and the tallest among them, standing as high as a ten-story building, was clearly visible from the sea. But over the centuries, seeds carried by birds and wind took root on the earth of the tombs and the mounds gradually became forested. The outlines of even a gigantic mound like the Nintoku tomb are blurred and cannot be seen clearly except from the air. Centuries ago when there were no buildings and the area was a flat plain, mounds large and small would have been easily recognizable.

 

First visit the Sakai City Museum and burial mounds found around Daisen Park adjacent to the Nintoku tomb. The museum’s revamped exhibit on the Mozu Kofun Group is a must for grasping the full extent of the burial mounds in the area. You will see the burial mounds in an entirely new way after viewing the exhibits and videos. Several small burial mounds are clustered around the Nintoku tomb, and historians surmise that these were for members of the emperor’s family and his retainers, or for funerary accessories.

At the Osaka Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture, a diorama allows visitors to imagine life in the Yayoi period.

Senshu also has historical sites from the even earlier Yayoi period (approx. 1,000-800 BCE-300 CE). The Ikegami Sone site contains the remains of a Yayoi period settlement measuring 350 meters north to south and 300 meters east to west encircled by a moat, according to archaeological evidence. The settlement probably had 1,000 inhabitants mainly engaged in rice cultivation; visitors can see a partial reconstruction of a structure from the period at the site. The nearby Osaka Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture features a depiction of a dwelling, giving a glimpse of Yayoi period daily life.

 

Dotocho Park in Sakai contains a reproduction of a pagoda built at Onodera Temple by the eighth-century Priest Gyoki. It consists of an earthen tower covered with fired clay tiles like those used for roofing traditional buildings. It looks like a tile-covered pyramid and is certainly a unique sight. It might even be mistaken for a modern sculpture blending seamlessly into the landscape.

 

Sakai residents live with this heritage, seeing burial mounds from their windows or walking respectfully past them on the way to school or work. To them, the unusual combination of a city where past and present live side by side is perfectly ordinary, but that is what makes Senshu an extraordinary place.

Connecting with the Ancients

The Saigoku Thirty-three Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) at Rinshoji Temple. Though small, they are an impressive sight.

Visiting temples is one of the many ways of getting in touch with Japan’s past, particularly by communing with the feeling of the sculptors who  created Buddhist images and the priests who commissioned them.

 

Senshu has nothing on such a grand scale as the Great Buddha of Todaiji in Nara. But every temple in Senshu has several Buddhist statues in addition to its principal image, and you may find one you like in an entirely unexpected place. The “once in a lifetime meeting” concept that originated in the way of tea (chanoyu) means treasuring the moment of the encounter, as it will occur only once, never to return.

 

Rinshoji, the temple introduced in the “Design” section, has a small shrine dedicated to Avalokiteshvara (Kannon). When the doors to the shrine are opened, one is greeted by an expanse of glittering gold. In western Japan, Buddhist adherents practice the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage, visiting 33 temples throughout the region in the belief that they will be reborn in paradise when they complete the circuit. The shrine at Shorinji houses miniatures of the Kannon figures at the 33 temples. The figures were created sometime in the Edo period (1603–1868).

 

The principal image of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, flanked by two attendants at Tenkei-in Temple (introduced in the “Tea” section) is small but has a very handsome face. Reservations can be made to view these figures, allowing you a private viewing without having to contend with crowds.

Experiencing ritual purification under a waterfall at Shipporyuji Temple. A participant wearing traditional white garb is under the cold waterfall while the yamabushi guide chants a mantra.

In the Izumi mountains lies Shipporyuji Temple, where visitors can experience the life of a Shugendo practitioner for a day. Shugendo, known for demanding physical and spiritual discipline, is an ancient tradition of mountain asceticism that incorporates elements of Buddhism. Generally speaking, even today women are not permitted to practice Shugendo. Shipporyuji is the only temple that allows women to join Shugendo practice and consequently, many women participate in the experience it offers. The one-day program includes trekking over rugged mountain trails and undergoing ritual purification under a waterfall. An advance party of men dressed as yamabushi checks that the route is safe to traverse, but the difficulties of the walk are real. One can only wonder what the ancients thought as they confronted unforgiving nature, thoughts that can bring us nearer to the spirit of prayer.

 

For Senshu tourist information inquiries, please contact the Senshu Japan Concierge Team.

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