Nestled within Tokyo’s bustling contemporary landscape are vestiges of ancient settlements that spanned the Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun periods. This article serves as a guide to these intriguing prehistoric sites, shedding light on the diverse cultures and lifestyles that once thrived in the region.
The Jomon era’s enduring legacy is embodied by the Kogasaka Stone Age Site, offering insights into early human existence. Transitioning into the Yayoi period, the Yayoi 2-chōme Site mark the dawn of agriculture and evolving societal norms.
The Kofun period unveils its mysteries through the Kunugita Site, where burial practices reflect intricate rituals and community dynamics. The Musashi Fuchū Kumano Jinja Kofun and Kamenokoyama Kofun showcase the era’s intricate funerary traditions.
Amid Tokyo’s modernity, these sites beckon us to explore the roots that anchor its history and illuminate the remarkable tapestry of its ancient past. If you want to read more about the historical places to visit in Tokyo, or the best history museums to visit here, we have further articles.
The Jōmon period
The Jōmon period stands as a pivotal era in Japanese history, spanning roughly from 14,000 BC to 300 BC. During this time, Japan was inhabited by a diverse community of hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists who shared a common culture, famously named Jōmon after the distinctive cord-marked pottery that defined it.
Pioneered by Edward S. Morse, this term originates from the pottery’s texture, marked by cords pressed into the wet clay. Notably, these pottery artifacts, decorated with intricate patterns, are considered among the world’s oldest.
Encompassing multiple phases, including Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late, and Final, the Jōmon period saw the development of an evolving culture. Tools and jewelry crafted from bone, stone, shell, and antler, pottery figurines and vessels, and lacquerware showcased the sophistication of this era.
This time is often compared to pre-Columbian cultures in the North American Pacific Northwest and the Valdivia culture in Ecuador due to the emergence of complexity in a predominantly hunting-gathering context.
While regional and temporal diversity marked this period, the common Jōmon culture left an indelible mark on Japan’s history. This culture gradually merged with the rice-agriculturalist Yayoi people, contributing to the formation of the modern Japanese identity.
Genetic studies and archaeological findings continue to illuminate the intricate tapestry of the Jōmon people’s origins and diversity, suggesting a mixture of paleolithic populations and possible influences from various sources, including Northeast Asia and Siberia.
The Kogasaka Stone Age Site
The Kogasaka Stone Age Site, encompassing the Rōba Site, Inariyama Site, and Hachimandaira Site, reveals a glimpse into the middle Jōmon period settlements within Tokyo’s Machida city. Recognized as a National Historic Site since 1926, this archaeological treasure provides a window into ancient Japan.
Located along the Onda River’s low terrace, upstream of the Tsurumi River, these sites each feature the remnants of pit dwellings with distinctive flagstone floors. In 1918, the discovery of these floors marked a significant moment in the Kantō region’s history, prompting their designation as a National Historic Site.
Today, only the Rōba Site remains accessible to the public. Enclosed within a modern structure constructed in 2017, the slightly oblong dwelling, measuring 5 meters by 3.5 meters, can be observed through a glass cover.
Although the Inariyama Site suffered partial destruction due to road construction, its appearance is recreated on an informative placard. The Hachimandaira Site, situated about 800 meters north of the other sites, boasts a circular dwelling plan. While not open to the public, Machida City has aspirations to develop the area into an archaeological park in the future.
The Rōba ruins are conveniently located a short 13-minute walk from Machida Station on the Odakyu Electric Railway Odawara Line, offering an opportunity to engage with Japan’s ancient history.
The Ōmori Shell Mound
The Ōmori Shell Mounds, situated on the Shinagawa-Ōta border in Tokyo’s Kantō region, hold historical significance as an archaeological site from the late Jōmon period. Designated a National Historic Site in 1955, it offers insights into ancient coastal settlements.
During the early to middle Jōmon period (around 4000 to 2500 BC), sea levels were higher, and the region was inhabited by the Jōmon people. Middens in these settlements contain artifacts revealing their lives.
Edward Sylvester Morse, an American scientist, played a pivotal role. Arriving in Yokohama in 1877, he spotted a midden near Ōmori Station and conducted excavations, unearthing pottery, tools, bones, and more. His work laid the foundations for scientific archaeology and anthropology in Japan. However, the site’s exact location became uncertain over the years.
Two rival sites were identified, one in the Ōi neighborhood and the other near Ōmori Station, separated by about 300 meters. Although their connection remains debated, both sites gained National Historic Site status in 1955.
Artifacts excavated were designated as National Important Cultural Properties in 1975. Despite the uncertainty, the Ōmori Shell Mounds remain a valuable window into Japan’s ancient coastal societies.
The Nakazato Shell Mound
The Nakazato Shell Mound in Tokyo’s Kita-ku unveils a middle Jōmon period shell midden, stretching 1.1 kilometers from Kami-Nakazato Station to Tabata Station. Recognized as a National Historic Site of Japan in 2000, it offers a window into an era when sea levels were higher, and the Kantō region was home to the Jōmon people residing in coastal settlements.
These settlements left middens containing bones, botanical material, mollusc shells, sherds, and other artifacts that illuminate the Jōmon society’s habits and diets. Although now inland, Nakazato was once along a sea inlet, with a peat layer rich in driftwood left by receding coastlines.
A 1958 excavation unveiled a shell layer showcasing Hamaguri clams and oysters, but modern construction disrupted the site’s integrity.
Notably, subsequent investigations uncovered a 4700-year-old dugout canoe, the sole Jōmon-period boat found in Tokyo. A 1996 excavation revealed a vast shell layer with dish-shaped pits, suggesting an industrial site specialized in processing shellfish.
These discoveries challenge historical timelines, raising the possibility that Jōmon people practiced oyster cultivation long before ancient Rome. Artifacts from Nakazato Shell Mound now reside in the Asukayama Museum, inviting us to explore Japan’s past.
The Kunugita Site
Nestled in Tokyo’s Hachiōji city within the Kantō region of Japan, the Kunugita Site (Kunugita iseki) is a captivating archaeological marvel spanning the Jōmon to Kofun periods. Designated a National Historic Site in 1978, it offers a vivid glimpse into Japan’s ancient past.
Perched upon a south-extending ridge that overlooks the Hachiōji basin, the site’s layered history was unveiled through a 1975 excavation. Comprising three strata, it revealed a village from the Kofun era atop, a late-middle Jōmon period village in the middle, and a middle Jōmon village at its base.
While the Kofun remnants were modest, the Jōmon settlements stood as substantial testaments to history. Despite excavating just a fraction, 45 pit dwelling foundations were unearthed, hinting at a thriving village possibly housing up to 270 dwellings.
The layout, characterized by a circular arrangement of dwellings around a central plaza, spoke of a sophisticated society. Structures with flagstone floors and numerous burials painted a vivid picture of life during that era.
The site’s treasure trove included a plethora of Jōmon pottery and stone tools, now preserved in the Hachioji City Folk Museum. With a portion displayed permanently, and the site itself transformed into a public park, Kunugita invites modern explorers to tread the paths of ancient lives, just a short walk from the “Kunugita Kita” bus stop near Nishi-Hachioji Station.
The Yayoi Period
The Yayoi period, encompassing the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and transitioning into the Iron Age, holds a pivotal place in Japanese history. Scholars since the 1980s have reclassified a transitional phase from the Jōmon period as the Early Yayoi, dating back to the 10th to 3rd centuries BC.
Named after a Tokyo district where archaeologists uncovered artifacts in the late 19th century, the Yayoi era introduced distinct features like novel pottery styles, advanced carpentry, and intensified rice cultivation.
Characterized by a hierarchical social structure influenced by China, Yayoi culture thrived from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū. The period saw an influx of Korean Peninsula farmers blending with the indigenous hunter-gatherer Jōmon population. Dated roughly from 300 BCE to 300 CE, with debates extending this range, Yayoi marked Japan’s shift to settled agriculture, initially introduced from Korea.
Linguistic evidence suggests the introduction of Japonic languages during the Yayoi period, shaping Japan’s linguistic landscape.
The era’s legacy includes a mingling of Korean and Chinese influences, especially in metallurgy and rice cultivation. This period’s cultural exchange and transformation underscore its significance in shaping Japan’s identity.
The Yayoi period remains a fascinating chapter, revealing a rich tapestry of migration, innovation, and cultural integration that laid the foundation for Japan’s future developments.
The Yayoi 2-chōme Site
The Yayoi 2-chome site, situated in Bunkyō’s Mukogaoka district of Yayoi in Tokyo, is a significant archaeological site revealing traces of a Yayoi period settlement. Designated as a National Historic Site in 1976, this site offers valuable insights into Japan’s ancient history.
The discovery of a unique red-clay jar in 1884 by Tokyo Imperial University’s preparatory school student, Arisaka Shōzō, sparked the identification of a distinct pottery style known as “Yayoi pottery.”
This find eventually led to the conceptualization of the Yayoi period (1000 BC to 300 AD), marking a cultural departure from the preceding Jōmon period. Despite the initial significance of the discovery, the exact site’s location remained elusive for decades, hindered by urban expansion.
In 1974, local school students stumbling upon pottery fragments exposed by fallen trees led to the excavation of the Asano area on the University of Tokyo’s campus. This excavation revealed remnants of a settlement with a double moat adjacent to a shell midden, featuring Yayoi pottery akin to that excavated in 1884.
This unproven but potentially linked location was designated as the “Yayoi 2-chome Site,” although it is believed to be the elusive Mukogaoka Shell Mound.
The site’s accessibility is convenient, only a short walk from Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line. Notably, the Yayoi pottery found in 1884 is preserved at the Museum of the University of Tokyo, designated as a National Important Cultural Property. Its stylistic similarity to pottery from the Tokai region hints at potential trade connections during the late Yayoi period.
The Kofun Period
The Kofun period (300 to 538 AD), succeeding the Yayoi era, holds a crucial place in Japan’s history. Often combined with the Asuka period as the “Yamato period,” this epoch marks Japan’s earliest documented history, though archaeological findings are key due to distorted historical sources.
Characterized by China and Korean Peninsula influences, the Kofun era brought forth a shared culture spanning southern Korea, Kyūshū, and Honshū. This is evident from unearthed wall decorations and armor in Korean burial sites, reflecting cultural exchanges.
Buddhism and Chinese script entered from Baekje, sparking Japan’s earliest political centralization. The Yamato clan’s ascendancy in southwestern Japan and trade route control exemplify this era’s significance.
The Kofun mounds, burial sites for the ruling class, are central to this era. They exhibit four shapes—round, square, scallop-shell, and unique ‘keyhole.’ These mounds housed stone burial chambers and sometimes featured moats.
This period also enriched modern Japanese genetics. Research identifies three ancestral groups: indigenous Jomon, Yayoi migrants, and Kofun influx. Kofun migrants, resembling Han Chinese, brought innovation and leadership.
The Kofun era thus stands as a pivotal time of cultural exchange, political transformation, and genetic diversity shaping Japan’s identity.
The Musashi Fuchū Kumano Jinja Kofun
The Musashi Fuchū Kumano Jinja Kofun, situated in Fuchū, Tokyo, is a Kofun period burial mound that was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1970. Positioned on the northern side of a Kumano shrine, this burial mound was initially thought to be a natural hill, though local lore mentioned the possibility of a hidden cave within.
The discovery of an archaeological journal from 1884 later revealed that a burial chamber containing human skeletons and artifacts had been found in the mound. Subsequent investigations, including ground-penetrating radar and complete excavation in 2003, confirmed that the hill was a three-tier jōenkahōfun.
This distinctive style of tumulus is rare in Japan, making this find particularly significant. The tumulus dates back to the 7th century AD and contained artifacts such as swords, beads, and metal fittings.
Designated as a National Historic Site in 2005, the Musashi Fuchū Kumano Jinja Kofun has been restored and made accessible to visitors, with an adjacent museum highlighting its historical significance. The site can be reached within an 8-minute walk from Nishifu Station on the JR East Nambu Line.
The Kamenokoyama Kofun
The Kamenokoyama Kofun, located in Ōta, Tokyo, in the Den-en-chōfu area, is a Kofun period burial mound recognized as a National Historic Site in 1928. It forms part of the Ebaradai kofun cluster along the Tama River, consisting of 54 kofun. Easily accessible, it’s just a 5-minute stroll from Tamagawa Station on the Tōkyū Tōyoko Line.
Shaped like a keyhole when seen from above, the Kamenokoyama Kofun belongs to the zenpō-kōen-fun category, comprising a circular end and a square end. Found within Tamagawadai Park, it stands on the left bank of the Tama River’s lower reaches.
Although the construction of a water purification plant has flattened a portion of its circular mound, the overall preservation remains noteworthy. Despite this, no in-depth archaeological excavation has taken place.
With an orientation towards the northwest, this tumulus boasts an impressive total length of 107.25 meters, making it the largest within the Tama River basin. Constructed in two tiers, the mound lacks fukiishi and haniwa. Experts estimate that the Kamenokoyama Kofun dates back to the middle Kofun period, spanning from the late 4th century to the early 5th century AD.