Diego sets off on a journey to discover a very different, very ancient Japan – a land and society far removed from (and far older than) the samurai and shōgun that have long dominated popular conceptions of Japanese history.
The destination: a complete, and quite enormous, Iron Age town resurrected from bare earth and ashes, where one might glimpse a lost world that some modern-day Japanese might not even recognise as Japanese.
An early train service brought me from Fukuoka to the city of Saga, capital of Saga Prefecture in northwestern Kyūshū.
Saga itself isn’t without its fair share of historic attractions – as I’ll demonstrate in a future post – but for the moment I had something (or rather somewhere) else in mind.
After dropping off my bags at the hotel, I quickly returned to JR Saga Station and boarded a local service on the Nagasaki Main Line. Today’s rolling stock was a rather nice looking 817 series EMU, featuring varnished wooden seat backs and black leather upholstery – not something one would normally see on a typical non-express urban train.
I disembarked at Yoshinogari-Kōen Station and set off on foot towards my primary objective for the day. It was a pretty featureless stroll, but in some ways a very memorable one – read my previous post for more about the experience.
At the end of that walk was the monumental east entrance of the Yoshinogari Historical Park (吉野ヶ里歴史公園, Yoshinogari Rekishi Kōen), the site of a vast settlement occupied during the Yayoi period (roughly spanning the years from 300 BC to AD 300). This sprawling open-air site, consisting of archaeological remains and meticulously reconstructed buildings, is perhaps one of the best places in the entire country to learn about life during that era.
The grounds were so huge that it took me three hours or so to see most of its key sections, and even then I didn’t see absolutely everything. Be prepared for fairly long (but pleasant) walks, tuck a bottle of water into your bag, pray for fine weather – and most of all, set aside plenty of time to fully appreciate the site and its significance.
Take a look at the map above. When I said vast, I certainly meant it! In fact, at the height of its power, the Yoshinogari settlement was so large and complex that some scholars believe it might have been the capital of the ancient state of Yamatai, which flourished at about the same period. Not everyone agrees, and I don’t know enough about the matter to speculate either way, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that conjecture was correct.
The structures spread out across the sprawling compound, whilst based on rigorous scholarship, are ultimately just conjectural representations of what might have stood here during the Late Yayoi period. Indeed, a signboard near the main entrance stresses that even though the reconstructions are founded upon a rich and varied body of evidence – archaeological data, Chinese historical accounts, even analytical studies of local folklore – nothing is known with absolute certainty, and changes might have to be introduced if new information comes to light. Nevertheless, speaking as a casual history enthusiast (not an expert by any means), I’d say the job was very well done, and undoubtedly helps bring the period to life more effectively than static museum displays or complicated blueprints in a scholarly journal.
After all, a map is one thing, a picture is another … and a complete Iron Age town, with buildings that can be entered and streets that can be walked upon, is leagues above the rest.
One of the first things I saw was a palisade of logs, with a ditch on the inner side. A field of sharpened wooden stakes (sakamogi) stood a little further within, driven into the ground with points aimed menacingly at any intruders who might have made it past the first two lines of defence.
Far from an idyllic world of peaceful farmers and artisans, Yayoi Japan witnessed violent conflicts between communities over water and land – two very important resources in a rice-growing culture. As I observed throughout the Yoshinogari site, walls and moats and lofty watchtowers are amongst the most prominent features of the landscape: distant ancestors, in a way, of the mighty castles and fortresses that would dominate the country centuries later.
I soon reached a heavily fortified compound known as the Minami Naikaku. This enclosure in the southern part of Yoshinogari is believed to have served as a seat of administrative power, with houses of key officials (known as taijin) and a spacious meeting hall clustered around a vast open space where public gatherings might once have been held.
An interesting feature of the Minami Naikaku is a compound within a compound, partially surrounded by its own low stockade and moat (probably more symbolic than practical), featuring a small group of large houses. Scholars believe that this was a sort of palace or royal enclosure for the most important taijin – titled, rather appropriately, as the Ō (king) – and his family.
From here, I walked north and slightly east towards another walled enclosure – smaller in size, but more heavily fortified and featuring significantly larger buildings than those in the Minami Naikaku. This was the Kita Naikaku, believed to have been the spiritual nerve centre of the entire settlement: a place where the calendar was controlled, prayers were offered, and festivals were administered. It is believed that only the Yoshinogari ruling class were allowed into this sacred precinct, presaging the restrictions we see even today on common folk entering the ritually sanctified inner compounds of some top-ranked Shintō shrines (such as Izumo-taisha).
One of the most prominent structures in the Kita Naikaku is the Shusaiden, a large ceremonial hall where important political and religious functions were held. Based on the available archaeological and historical evidence, it was deduced that the building once stood about 16.5 metres tall, supported on massive wooden beams and pillars that held the floor far above the ground below.
A spacious room on the hall’s main floor hosted gatherings of the Yoshinogari elite and village heads from the surrounding area…
…whilst on the floor above them, sacred rituals were performed to invoke ancestral spirits and receive their guidance.
Just beyond the northern walls of the Kita Naikaku is a long row of low grass-covered protrusions, leading towards a massive rectangular mound. These marked the positions of graves, scores of them, each holding a large burial jar of unglazed clay (or kamekan) into which a deceased Yoshinogari subject would have been sealed for their passage to eternity.
Naturally, the mortal remains of the leaders who sat at the pinnacle of Yoshinogari society had to be disposed of in a manner befitting their high status. For them, a more prominent memorial was raised in the form of a massive earthen mound, the Kita Funkyūbo, which would eventually house the graves of fourteen kings or local chieftains. Of course, the scant evidence from archaeological excavations and the silence of the historical record make it near-impossible to ascertain either the precise status or the identities of those entombed here. Nevertheless, the size of the monument – and the artefacts buried with those interred within – speak of the social pre-eminence these people once enjoyed in life.
A modern entrance built into one side of the mound allows visitors to step into its hollowed-out interior (once completely packed with earth, of course), where the royal graves lie exposed in situ.
There’s even a cutaway mock-up of how a newly interred Yoshinogari personage would have looked in his cocoon of clay, with vesture and burial goods intact.
But the cemetery, or indeed the Yoshinogari site as a whole, didn’t end there. I continued northwards on a long paved walkway…
…that brought me into another graveyard, perhaps several times larger than the first, where countless little mounds of earth stretched off into the distance almost as far as the eye could see. Some were covered with grass, some were bare as if recently piled up, whilst others were laid open with replica burial jars exposed.
Of the more than 3,000 pot burials found thus far across the Yoshinogari site, over a thousand were unearthed in this northern cemetery, with small clusters of kamekan apparently indicating family plots where related individuals were buried together.
Bordering the graveyard is the so-called Ancient Forest Zone, an area where carefully selected types of trees are being planted in order to recreate the woodlands that once covered this hilly region before it was settled.
Nestled within this forest is the Ancient Plant Museum, where visitors can learn more about the relationship between the Yoshinogari settlement and the local plant life. The museum also (rather conveniently) includes a rest area, as well as a stop for the minibus that transports people between the far-flung parts of this sprawling park.
After taking a short breather, I boarded the next available minibus and rode it back to the southern portion of the park, where my next stop was a large group of buildings standing west of the Minami Naikaku enclosure. This area, known as the Kura-to-ichi (literally “warehouses and market”), may have functioned as the economic centre of the Yoshinogari settlement – a place where both locals and residents of nearby villages could gather to trade.
A pleasant southwards stroll on gently winding paths took me to the Minami-no-mura, or South Village. Due to the relative absence of defensive structures (such as the moats or palisades I saw elsewhere), and its position in the southern end of the settlement (said to have been influenced by the Chinese notion that north ranked higher than south), scholars believe that this was where the common folk of Yoshinogari once lived: the farmers who tilled the rice paddies and the craftsmen who made the objects that sustained life in the privileged compounds north of here. The foundations of simple residences were found clustered into several groups, with each group perhaps housing an extended family that specialised in a certain craft or trade.
One somewhat enigmatic feature of this area is a low, flat-topped mound called the Saidan, or altar, which may have played a role in rituals and festivals. Excavations are planned for the future in order to learn more.
The park has much else to offer, including hands-on projects and (in the west) an expanse of parkland where family-friendly activities are available – the official website is a good place to learn more. As for myself, I had an appointment with a key local landmark in the prefectural capital, so after my roughly three-hour visit it was time to say farewell to this incredible historical park.
But not before getting the usual commemorative ink stamp, of course. (^_^)
I walked back to Yoshinogari-Kōen Station and took a few moments to appreciate the architecture. It’s a fairly minor stop on the Nagasaki Main Line, but given the significance of the nearby park, it’s no wonder that some effort was invested into the design of the building.
And speaking of the design, one can hardly be surprised at how the stout pillars and sloped roof of its northern entrance evoke, in somewhat abstracted fashion, the Yayoi buildings of the attraction after which the station was named.
Now then, I hope you haven’t had your fill of walls and historic buildings just yet, because I’ve got a special treat along those lines in the next post.
Very nice writeup and fantastic photos!
Thanks for sharing your link on Jcastle. Now you’ve got me interested in this next post too!
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