ayabe trilogy (part III): the ghost of the king


On my final night in Ayabe, Akita and I drove up to visit the ancient burial mound of the King of Ayabe.  The mound has been recently restored and turned into a kind of public monument, replete with paths leading up to the crown of the king’s tomb where there’s a ring of benches that you can sit on as you can look out over the city of Ayabe and the surrounding countryside.  There were no other cars in the parking lot when we arrived, just around sundown, though there was a sign warning us to beware of bears (the mound is located at the edge of a set of unpopulated mountains and apparently the occasional bear roams down in search of food).   Akita and I took the path to the top of the burial mound and watched the setting sun, off in the distance.  When the sky became dark enough a set of automatic sensors were triggered and the floodlights that illuminate the mound came on, bathing the hill in a frenzy of white light.  The mound is illuminated at night so that it can be seen from the nearby highway, but the effect of the lights on this night was to illuminate the fog that was rising from the top of the mound as yesterday’s cold snow evaporated upwards like a spirit mist.

Ancient burial mounds like this — called kofun (古墳) in Japanese — can be found all over the islands of Kyushu and Honshu.  According to the excellent Japanese Archeology entry on Kofun Culture,

There are about 30,000 kofun mound tombs in Japan. These date from the 3rd century to the 7th century. Of these, 188 are designated as ryo, the tombs of emperors and empresses, and another 552 are designated as bo, the tombs of other members of the royal family. There are 46 more designated as ryobo sankochi, or possibly the tombs of members of the imperial family, and 110 other types of “burials” that are treated the same way as imperial mound tombs. These 896 tombs and “burials” are centered on the Kinki District. They were officially designated at the end of the Edo Period and the Meiji Period, based on the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, Engishiki and other ancient documents. About 600 decortated tombs are known, from Kyushu in the south to the southern part of Tohoku in the north. These date to the 5th and 6th centuries. They are about 1% of the total known mound tombs.

These tombs were built between the 3rd century and the 7th century and they give their name to the Kofun period of Japanese history, the period in which the Yamato court rose to power.  Many of the kofun (called zempō-kōen-fun (前方後円墳)) are keyhole shaped, a shape that’s unique to Japanese prehistoric burial culture.  The largest of this type of kofun, the Daisen kofun in Sakai City, is reputed to be the burial site of Emperor Nintoku and is the largest burial mound in Japan (and among the largest in the  world).  Because the Daisen kofun is considered to be the final resting place of a member of Japan’s imperial lineage it is treated as sacred space and no visitors are allowed inside the grounds.  If you visit the Daisen kofun you can gaze past the locked entry gate at the wooded, keyhole-shaped island that sits across from you, but it just looks like an enclosed natural park unless you can get up into a tall building and look down on it, or better yet — see it from the air.

All of the tombs that are linked with the current imperial family (740 in all) are closed to the public, and most of them are closed to archeologists as well.  The ostensible reason for this has to do with the violation of sacred space (the Emperor is supposed to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu, after all), but it has also been suggested that too thorough an investigation of these grave sites might reveal that there are actually blood connections between the ancient imperial rulers of Japan and their Korean counterparts; in other words, the “pure” bloodline of the Japanese imperial family might not turn out to be so pure after all.

The kofun of the King of Ayabe is of the round empun (円墳) variety rather than being keyhole-shaped like the more famous burial mounds, but any disappointments about the simplicity of shape are more than made up for by the public access that’s been granted since there’s no historical connection between the former ruler of Ayabe and the current imperial family.  Standing on the crown of the hill, watching the sun set in the distance, I wondered what this place would have been like during the Kofun period, over a thousand years ago.  Certainly none of the city lights would be visible, and none of the streams of cars moving along the highway, nor the floodlights illuminating the terracotta haniwa sculptures that ring the burial mound in concentric circles.

The alien shapes of the reconstructed haniwa sentries ringing the mound like so many ceramic teeth are a perfect reminder of the difficulty of placing ourselves within the affective “structures of feeling” of those who lived so long ago that the historical record can only speak of their traces in whispers.  In fact, the terracotta shapes that ring the Ayabe kofun are so strikingly geometric and abstract in design — looking almost like some kind of primativist take on the classic 50-gallon oil drum — that at first I thought they must be some kind of extrapolation of traditional forms rather than an actual recreation.  As it turns out, however, geometric forms like this are fairly common among the many varieties of haniwa and don’t at all, as I mistakenly thought, indicate some kind of neo-haniwa that’s been updated to please the contemporary palate.

When I asked if people often came out to visit the kofun, Akita told me that the place was generally pretty empty.  “Sometimes,” he said, “local hippies will come out here and form a drum circle when the moon is full.”  I didn’t ask Akita if the king’s body is still entombed inside the kofun mound, but it’s interesting to think about the body of the king, lying in a stone coffin below the earth while wild-haired hippies pound primal rhythms in a circle under the moon and bears prowl the outer perimeter of the oil-drum haniwa, waiting for everyone to leave so they can search out leftover food in peace.

The King of Ayabe would probably be just as surprised by the changes that have gone on under the tomb as he would be by the transformation of his burial mound into a public park.  A branch of the local highway now runs through a tunnel that has been dug directly below the kofun, so in addition to the hippies and bears above there’s also a river of automobiles flowing through the gaping hole that runs through the bottom of the hill.  As Akita and I drove through the tunnel, I thought of the King — perhaps floating somewhere in the space above, surrounded by offerings of swords and bronze mirrors — holed up inside a stillness in the mountain that will last forever while, outside, all that is solid continues to melt into air.


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