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Goin’ Japanesque!

Lesser-Known Attraction of Nara: Tour of 1700 Year Old Ancient Tomb!? Part 2

In the previous article, we visited the Hashihaka Tomb, which may possibly be the tomb of Yamatai Kingdom’s Queen Himiko. We are continuing our tour of Nara tumuli. What are we waiting for, let’s go!

Lesser-Known Attraction of Nara: Tour of 1700 Year Old Ancient Tomb!? Part 1


Kusahaka Tumulus


The Kusahaka Tumulus is a representative tumulus from the terminal phase of tumulus. It is a rectangular-shaped tomb but today, it is surrounded by residences in 3 directions, to the east, west and south and the shape of the tomb has been altered. Let’s take the narrow street next to the private houses and head to the Kusahaka Tumulus.

Access: Kusahaka Tumulus is a 20 minute walk southward from the south exit of JR/Kintetsu Sakurai Station. (It is recommended to bring a flashlight to the Kusahaka Tumulus.) Information: Map

Writer’s Photo: Sign Next to a Private Residence

“Really?! Is this the right path?” as you wonder, just keep walking next to the private residences for about 5 minutes and you will arrive at the tumulus.

Writer’s Photo: Entrance to Kusahaka Tumulus

Indeed it’s right in back of a private residence.

Writer’s Photo: Look in through the passage tomb to see a stone sarcophagus deeper within.

It is a horizontal stone chamber with openings on both sides to the south and east. As you lower your head to walk through the passage tomb of 1.5 meters in height, 2 meters in width and 8.8 meters in length, you arrive at the burial chamber. Visitors are able to enter as they wish.

The size of the burial chamber is 4.4 meters long, 2 meters tall and 2.7 meters wide. The ceiling is a bit higher compared to the passage, but the characteristic feature of the Kusahaka Tumulus is the low ceilings relative to the size of the burial chamber.

The back wall, the back wall to the chamber and parts of the approach uses large single stones per row and you can see that there was an effort to build the stone chamber from using a smaller number of stones by using large-sized stones. Large pieces of granite are used not in their natural shape, but cut to shape and you cannot help but stand in awe wondering “How did they do it 1700 years ago?”.

Writer’s Photo: Kusahaka Tumulus, Stone Sarcophagus

We have arrived at the burial chamber and have come face to face with the stone sarcophagus. In the opposite corner from the entrance to the stone sarcophagus, there is an opening made by grave thieves. Due to the grave thieves, the tomb furnishings and entombed individuals are unknown. Many questions fill your head like “Who was buried in this tomb?” and “Who buried them?”.

We were able to have the precious experience of going through the approach, to touch the large stones of the approach and burial chamber and to touch the stone sarcophagus. We wonder if it was quite different from the tombs that you have seen in books. 


Ishibutai Tumulus


The last tumulus of this article is the Ishibutai Tumulus.

Access: From the Kusahaka Tomb, pass through the Abe Monju-in Temple one of the Three Monju Bosatsu of Japan and head for the “Abe Monju-in” bus stop for the bus headed to Ishibutai. Take the Nara Kotsu Bus and get off at Ishibutai. (Please note that the number of buses is few and limited). Information: Map

Writer’s Photo: Entire view of Ishibutai Tumulus

This is a view of Ishibutai Tumulus during the season of cherry blossoms. The large stones of the Ishibutai Tumulus and the cherry blossoms make a good scene.

The Ishibutai Tumulus is located in Asuka of Nara Prefecture and it is from the late Kofun Period. It is designated as one of Japan’s Special Historic Sites. Originally, it was covered in a mound of soil, but now the soil is gone to reveal a monolithic structure of stone, which is the horizontal stone chamber. There are no other examples of ordinary tumuli which have lost their soil to reveal just the stone structure. You can see a clear difference between the Hashihaka Tomb and Kusahaka Tumulus that we have seen earlier.

Writer’s Photo: Passage Tomb Entrance

An open black space awaits you as if you are being swallowed underground. The Ishibutai Kofun is inferred to be the tomb of Soga no Umako, a powerful being of the time.

Writer’s Photo: Inside of the Burial Chamber, It is surprisingly bright

Looking up, you will be surprised at the size of the stones used on the ceilings. The weight of the stones used on the ceiling is about 64 tons for those on the north side, 77 tons for those on the south side. More and more questions arise such as “where did they get such large stones?” and “how did they build the structure at a time with no heavy equipment?”.

The reason that the inside of the burial chamber is surprisingly bright is because the sunlight shines through the cracks between the ceiling stones. Soga no Umako, who once had all the power he could wish for; I wonder what he is feeling now in a bright burial chamber with many tourists innocently taking pictures.

 “Time will change, people will change and trees will change as well, but the tumulus will remain as the day it was built and will continue to remain”. Whether knowing or unknowing of such ancient people’s prayers, the excited voices of the young visitors echo through the burial chambers.


Haniwa Manju Cakes

Writer’s Photo

So we have fully enjoyed the tumuli in Nara but how about a souvenir that is related to tumuli? From the Ishibutai Tumulus, there is a bus bound for Kintetsu Kashiharajingu-mae station, so board the bus and head to the 1st floor of the Kashihara Oak Hotel.

There you will be able to purchase a Japanese snack shaped like “haniwa” which are clay figures that were placed in tombs. There are 4 shapes: the horse, warrior, bell and vessel. It is made of a light fluffy cake outside similar to castella, with high quality smooth bean paste on the inside. Information: Map


So there you have it, we have introduced an in-depth tumuli tour of Nara; quite different from your average tourist destinations. If you get tired from walking around the tumuli, get a Japanese-style energy boost with a cup of hot green tea and haniwa manju cake.

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About the author

I am a licensed guide (in English) who was born and raised in Nara. I hope to convey the beauty of Nara and its history, the current Nara as well as the old and new of Kansai Area. Trust me to keep you in the know about Nara and the Kansai Area!

View all articles by Atsuko