It’s not every day you get the chance to visit Yamatai or take a leisurely stroll around Himiko’s tomb. But one hot (and thankfully not too humid) day in September, my husband and I got the chance to do just that when we took some time off from our regular sightseeing and boarded a train bound for Nara, a former capital city not far from Osaka that’s renowned for its ancient temples, giant Buddha statue, and free-roaming deer.
Once there, we transferred onto a smaller regional train bound for Makimuku, a small and fairly nondescript station on the Sakurai Line. To most, it would seem like we had arrived in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by little more than a few residential buildings, garages, and paddy fields. But as we stepped out onto the platform and gazed southwards towards a tree-covered mound in the distance, we knew we had arrived at our destination: the Hashihaka kofun tomb.
Or, as some archaeologists prefer to think of it, the final resting place of Queen Himiko.
Looking for Yamatai in All the Right Places?
While the historicity and exact location of Himiko’s tomb and her kingdom Yamatai-koku are still matters of serious debate amongst Japanese archaeologists, the city of Sakurai has nonetheless leapt at the opportunity to promote itself as the home of Himiko and birthplace of Japanese civilization. Cartoon representations of the shaman queen (playfully nicknamed “Himiko-chan”) can be found on information boards in and around Sakurai, as well as on the city’s website. Furthermore, visitors to this neck of the woods can follow a number of heritage trails (or rekishi kaido, 歴史街道) that lead to Shintō shrines and archaeological sites dating back to the Yayoi (c. 300 BC- 250 AD) and Kofun periods (c. 250-538 AD).
The short walk from Makimuku station to the Hashihaka tomb led us southwards along some verdant paddy fields, under a flyover, and past a number of two-storey houses. Our only companions on that scorching afternoon were fluttering blue dragonflies and cicadas, whose shrill cries only seemed to accentuate the heat.
Unsurprisingly, there were no Storm Guards or Solarii cultists to block our path but I kept my eyes and ears peeled for a formidable creature I had read about the night before our visit: the suzume-bachi, the aggressive and occasionally deadly Japanese giant hornet that is known to plague wooded areas in the late summer and autumn. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. But sometimes it just leaves you feeling a tad paranoid…
None Shall Pass…
As we approached the far end of the mound, a small beaten path guided us towards the site warden’s office (an assumption on my part) and a wooden sign erected by the Imperial Household Agency (宮内庁), the government agency charged with administering the daily affairs of Japan’s imperial family and, by extension, responsible for the maintenance of the nation’s imperial tombs.
The Hashihaka tomb is not just an archaeological site but it’s also considered an ancestral tomb, so entry to the burial mound proper is strictly prohibited. A handful of archaeologists were granted access to the mound in February 2013 on the condition that they were not to conduct any excavations on site or collect any soil samples for further analysis. That brief visit, while largely fruitless from an archaeological perspective, was no doubt a rare honour for those fortunate few; most of the Kofun era tombs throughout Kansai remain off-limits to researchers.
The reasons behind the Agency’s reluctance to allow excavations to be carried out on suspected imperial burial sites aren’t entirely clear. Some claim that the Agency is concerned that the findings will reveal that the imperial family are descended from Korean royalty rather than the legendary Japanese emperor Jimmu while others feel that the Agency is simply trying to protect the honour, peace, and dignity of the family’s long-deceased ancestors. Whatever the reason, it may be some time before archaeologists can study the site in any great depth or confirm the identity of the person buried at Hashihaka.
And while there was no warden on site to stop trespassers from vaulting over the small gates and low-lying hedges that guard the entrance to the burial mound, the thought of sneaking through the mound’s meagre defences never really crossed my mind. Perhaps I have a greater regard for archaeological ethics than Ms Croft. Perhaps I was worried of incurring the Sun Queen’s wrath. Or perhaps I knew that trespassing on an imperial grave site would likely result in a hefty fine, deportation, or even a prison sentence, none of which seemed like an ideal way to end one’s stay in Japan.
So without further ado, we took some final photos of the site, paused to admire the frogs and eye-catching Lycoris radiata (or red spider lily) that dotted the edges of the rice fields, and spent a few moments soaking up our surroundings before bidding adieu to the ancient queen.
All of the photos on this page were taken by me and my partner during our trip to Japan in September 2015. You’re free to republish these on your site or social media pages as long as you provide a link back to this article and leave the watermarks intact.