Daily Archives: 14 April 2006

Mound Tombs in Northern Japan

Before spending time in Ashikaga, I had not been aware how widespread in Japan were the mound tombs known as 古墳 kofun lit. ‘ancient grave’. When we walked over to Ashikaga Park to see the cherry blossoms there two weeks ago, we found that the hillside park includes 12 kofun, two of which have small, blocked-off, stone passageways facing east. (You would enter facing west.) I had always associated kofun with western Japan, where the largest imperial tombs were built, but an article on the Kofun Period (A.D. 300–700) by Sophia University archaeology professor Charles T. Keally set me straight.

  • The first excavation of a mound tomb in Japan was conducted my Mito (Tokugawa) Mitsukuni in 1692, the 5th year of the Genroku era. Mitsukuni (1628-1701) was the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The tomb he excavated is called the Samuraizuka Kofun, located in Ohtawara City, Tochigi Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. This excavation is considered the first academic, or scientific, excavation conducted in Japan.

The origins of the Kofun Period mound tombs is clearly in the Yayoi Period, although ultimately continental influence might well be a factor, too. The most common Yayoi burials were in the ground in a square area delimited by a ditch or moat. The burial in the middle had a low mound over it. Toward the end of Yayoi, some of these ditches or moats became round. With higher mounds, these were the most common kofun tomb in the Kofun Period, but the burial was on top of the mound instead of under it. The square mounds, too, continued from Yayoi into Kofun, but these later ones also had the burial in the top of the mound instead of under it.

The most distinctive mounds of the Kofun Period are the keyhole-shaped mounds, thought to be associated with the Imperial Family. This shape is uniquely Japanese and its origins are unknown. But Korean archaeologists recently have identified a few contemporary mound tombs in southeastern Korea that they say are also keyhole-shaped. Some people try to use these recent Korean finds to argue for a Korean origin of the keyhole-shaped mound tombs. But this fails to explain why this shape is rare in Korea and only recently recognized there through excavation, whereas this shape is common in Japan, obvious without excavation, and has been known for centuries….

Mound tombs, especially the larger ones, tend to be located in clearly defined regions. Mound tombs are common in Kyushu only in the northwest, especially in the Chikugo River plain in Saga and southern Fukuoka prefectures. There is another such concentration of tombs in the eastern part of the Inland Sea in Okayama Prefecture on Honshu island and just across the water in Kagawa and Tokushima prefectures on Shikoku island. Similar concentrations are found in eastern Shimane Prefecture from Izumo to Matsue City on the Sea of Japan, in Nara and Kyoto prefectures, along the shores of Ise Bay from Nagoya to Ise, in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, on the Kanto Plain in eastern Japan (especially in North Kanto), and on the Sendai Plain in northern Japan. There are smaller concentrations of tombs in Shizuoka Prefecture, and in the intermontane basins around Nagano, Yamagata and Kofu cities.

Archaeologists identify these concentrations with regional power centers, and they identify small clusters of tombs within these concentrations with the various clans known from later documents. In the north, keyhole-shaped mounds appeared in the Sendai Plain as early as the 5th century; the northern-most such tomb is in southern Iwate Prefecture. But most tombs in the northern regions are later. This northern region was the frontier with the Emishi barbarians who lived in northern Tohoku. Keyhole-shaped mound tombs are extremely rare in southern Kyushu, the home of the Hayato barbarians.

Ashikaga has always struck me as a city of Old Money, but I never thought it went back quite that far.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Udo no Taiboku

うどの大木 udo no taiboku ‘all hat, no cattle’ – We tried out a new restaurant in Ashikaga the other night, after a long circuit to view the many lovely shidare-zakura ‘weeping cherry trees’ that line a long, curving, landscaped ditch that borders the city’s huge civic center athletic complex.

The seafood restaurant Yanagi-ya [柳屋 ‘willow shop’] turned out to be a haven for Hanshin Tiger and sumo fans in the area. It caught my eye last month when it advertised the sumo wrestler’s special chanko nabe on the first day of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament. Unfortunately, the chanko nabe season is over now that the weather has started to get warmer, but the various dishes we ordered were all nicely presented, and tasty to boot. Each glass of sake had the name of a sumo wrestler on it.

At one point, the waitress brought over a complimentary dish of tempura vegetables that looked like celery tops, but tasted less bitter than celery, more like asparagus. She identified it as うど, which my electronic dictionary identified only as ‘an udo (a plant of the ginseng family cultivated for its edible shoots)’. The University of Virginia Library’s Japanese Haiku Topical Dictionary page for spring plants is more helpful.

独活 【うど】 udo, udo [a wild asparagus-like plant, Aralia cordata, sometimes cultivated and noted for its edible young shoots] (late spring).
山独活 【やまうど】 yamaudo, mountain udo [a wild variety, noted for its pungency]
深山独活 【みやまうど】 miyama-udo, high-mountain udo [Aralia glabra, rare]
芽独活 【めうど】 meudo, sprouting udo / udo shoots

The Anime Companion Supplement U offers a different context.

udo うど or 独活 Aralia cordata. The leaves and stalks of this plant are eaten either raw or cooked. The flavor is similar to asparagus. The cultivated type is grown in the dark to blanch it. Wild udo is used in sansai ryôri (mountain vegetable cooking), as the flavor is stronger it must be blanched before it is used in dishes.
Udo salad is one of the foods cherry mentions in the Urusei Yatsura TV series (Episode 36 story 59)
Maho buys udo from Tachikawa in MahoRomatic (ep.3) and pickles it.

Wikipedia includes udo in its surprisingly long list of English words of Japanese origin, defining it as ‘an edible plant found on the slopes of wooded embankments, also known as the Japanese Spikenard’.

Well, “Japanese spikenard” is not likely to be any more intelligible to most English speakers than the term “udo” itself, but here’s a derivative expression that has more familiar English parallels: うどの大木 udo no taiboku lit. ‘huge tree of udo’. (I had expected the pronunciation for 大木 to be daimoku but it seems to be taiboku in all contexts.) The Hoita Kokoro Center in Canada explains its meaning:

Just big man with nothing (lit. A huge udo tree) All bark and no bite or All hat and no cattle in English

Wikipedia explains further.

Despite its size, it is not a woody plant, as demonstrated in the popular saying Udo no taiboku (独活の大木), literally “great wood of udo”, meaning roughly useless as udo has a very soft stem.

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