Jomon Prehistoric Sites
The Jômon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan represent the culture of a sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherer society.
The Jomon people continuously occupied the Japanese archipelago for over 10,000 years. They did not transition to an agricultural society but continued to live off the land (nuts, berries) and the sea (shellfish) and rivers (fish). Their archeological heritage includes settlements, burial areas, ritual and ceremonial sites and artifacts such as the famous goggle-eyed dogu figurines.
Community Perspective: despite their age and obscurity, these are well-managed sites from a visitor's perspective. Els and Caspar both visited Sannai-Maruyama in Tohoku. We are still awaiting reviews from the sites on Hokkaido …
Map of Jomon Prehistoric SitesLoad map
In our July 2023 Japan quest we visited 6 of the Jomon Prehistoric Sites, 5 of them on Hokkaido. All sites visited by rental car.
As our first goal in Hokkaido was Shiretoko National Park, we “elegantly” missed the first possible Jomon Site, the Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles. We could have visited it on the way back west, but as our route was along the southern shore of Hokkaido, we headed for Kitakogane Site as our first site.
The first thing we noticed was the huge, but totally empty parking lot. Either somebody though this site would attract a lot of people - or we arrived “out of season”. Entering the site (free of charge), we found a lush green area with some small replica buildings and several shell mounds. These mounds believed to be garbage at first, but really was burial mounds. Due to type of shells, they found out that the climate was warmer at the time and that they mostly caught fish in nets. There was also a holy place at the settlement. In addition, we found a small museum on site. As this was our first Jomon Site Museum and we found it rather informative and attractive. On display it was mostly everyday items like tools, pottery, hairpins, and combs but also pearls and figurines.
Next in line was the double site, the Irie Site, and the Takasago Burial Site. The Irie site had a slightly different approach by not showing a full replica building, but only the pits for the building and the base structure on top. In addition, there were constructions showing a cross section of a shell mound showing all the layers of a mound. Very neat!
The “twin site”, the Takasago Burial Site was less interesting as it was a few barely visible burial mounds and some shell mounds. A museum is also located between these sites, but it was very much like the first museum.
After circling the bay of Uchiura, two more sites came up. The first is the Offune Site. This site had the approach of both first sites by showing residential pits with basic structures on top but also full replicas. There was a small museum, but little on display.
Then, our last Jomon visit on Hokkaido was the Kakinoshima site which is part of the Hakodate Jomon Culture Centre and a café. There were a bunch of schoolkids there, but somehow it seemed that without the kids it would be kind of empty. Just outside the museum there was a large tv-screen showing an informative story about the Jomon Prehistoric Site history in English. The archaeological site itself was big but had very little to show! There were information panels to give you an idea of what had been there, but nothing really to see except for a few pit holes. But the museum was the best so far, with plenty of nice pieces such as clay tablets imprinted with children’s footprints that were used as burial goods (unique for this site).
All the sites at Hokkaido had free entrance, WHS plaque, information panels/leaflets in English, and a museum on site.
After entering Honshu by Shinkansen from Hakodate we had to do one more Jomon Prehistoric Site visit to compare it with the Hokkaido sites, so we went for the Sannai-Maruyama Site near Aomori. This site we could read was one of the greatest. As we now were travelling by public transport, we took the bus from the train station to Jomon Jiyukan. This site consists of a large museum and here we had to pay an entrance fee. This museum had a lot more to show than the previous ones and there was even a room where we could watch archaeologists work through a window - although it wasn’t much happening at the moment. Outside the site was bigger, there were a lot more and varying replicas and this iconic structure – a large three level platform – that dominated.
We took the bus back to the railway station and the train to out next goal – Hirosaki which was our base for visiting Shirakami-Sanchi.
### Randi & Svein Elias
I played in May 2014 a concert in the big modern concert hall of Hachinohe. During my stay in that city for rehearsals I had plenty of spare time and there seemed very little to see in this modern town. Public transport was only marked with Japanese letters, hardly anybody spoke any English, I felt rather trapped. Unfortunately I did not know about the Korekawa Jomon Site and missed out on that. I am not sure if it existed at that time or not. But after the concert I travelled west with my hosts to Aomori city to the same site that Els has visited, Sannai-Maruyama.
This is a big modern museum complex: The outside area is impressive with several "reconstructed" buildings. At the few places where you can see original digs you see not much more the holes for pillars. Therefore there must be a lot of experienced guessing work involved in those reconstructions.
The finds inside the museum are much more 'real'. In my memory the biggest part consisted of pottery. Their pottery seems to be one of the earliest in the world and their artifacts are often very creative. This raises the questions if a people can or should be inscribed for their pottery, meaning for moveable objects. If that were true then the Mexican Olmec culture, which is a bit younger but has even more impressive artifacts including the giant head sculptures should certainly be included as well. Very close to this Museum is a big museum with modern art worth a look in my opinion.
The Jomon are still a rather mysterious people but important in many aspects beyond their art of pottery: They were the first known people to populate Japan and this happened surprisingly late around 13,000, long after humans had spread over Australia and even after the Americas. They are supposedly not related to the current Japanese Yamato people who arrived much later from mainland Asia and possibly repressed the previous, older population, consisting possibly of the descendants of the Jomon. Hardly anything is known about that.
On the other hand in the north of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and on the northern island of Hokkaido you find still the one of the two old remaining minorities of Japan, the Ainu. Genetical studies show that they have much stronger ties to the Jomon people. This research is rather recent and still ongoing partly because the Ainus were long repressed as as dominating Yamato people spread the myth that Japan was a homogenous people. The same myth of national unity is spread by the Chinese Han and many other nations to strengthen their legitimacy and to suppress minorities.
After the Jomon period followed several shorter periods including the Kofun period with its respective WHS. During the Asuka period in the 7th century Prince Shotoku introduced, as legend tells, Buddhism into Japan. This period is BTW represented on the tentativ list and a very interesting visit, easily linked with the impressive Horyu ji temple. All periods before the introduction of Buddhism had no writing that we know of. Even the famous Prince is semi legendary and while there is a long line of Japanese Emperors going back thousands of years and to the sun goddess all emperors before Asuka are semi or even completely legendary. Many Kofuns are also linked to Emperors and Empresses but there is very little archeological evidence to any of those links. I think this is really rather striking how much of their history is legendary or semilegendary and how sharp a cut appears around the 7th century with the use of writing.
This means that we know almost nothing about language, rites, social structure of the Jomon but there are theories the many Japanese customs today are still going back to Jomon rites: Among them the animistic Shinto cult that is today still as omnipresent in Japan as Buddhism. Often both cults are also mixed though theoretically they are separate but most Japanese make sure they get help from both pantheons. A lot of those Jomon influences will always remain a theory but who knows how much new knowledge genetics and other new fields of research will reveal.
While the Jomon are incredibly important for south east asian history and an interesting and enigmatic people this remains a problematic WHS because there are very scant remains in situ and their most interesting heritage are their artifacts. So it is certainly worth visiting one or two of the best sites but it may be hardly worth visiting all sites. Maybe this WHS would be almost better served had they just chosen the few couple of sites but it seems to be the tendency nowadays that not the best example of a culture gets inscribed pars pro toto but as many sites as possible get included.
I don't know what the rank of the 'Jomon sites' is among the current Japanese tentative sites. There's not really one site that jumps out from their current Tentative List, maybe one or two of the early industrial sites could be a good angle for Japan to choose. According to this report, the Tomioka Silk Mill indeed will be next (in 2014).
But you never know, so while travelling between the WHS of Hiraizumi and Shirakami-Sanchi I stopped by at one of the Jomon sites. These are a cluster of 15 prehistoric archeological sites at the northern tip of Tohoku province and the south of Hokkaido. I choose Sannai-Maruyama in Aomori city, both for its accessibility and because it seems to be the most developed location.
Directions by public transport were a bit sketchy, so I took a taxi from Aomori station to bring me some 7km to the outskirts of the city. In a true example of Japanese ways, the taxi driver with whom I had no language in common decided that I should make the best of my visit to Sannai-Maruyama and called ahead with his mobile to announce that an English speaking visitor was to arrive. He then went inside the main building with me to secure that I was given a volunteer guide that spoke English. The girls behind the desk were all very excited having a guest from 'Oranda' anyway.
So I went on to visit the site with the (at first hesistantly) English speaking guide. These remains of the Jomon period (5,500 - 4,000 years old) were only discovered in 1992 when they were to build a baseball stadium in this location. Many pit-dwellings, pillar-supported buildings, burial pits and jars, and lots of pottery were found. Sannai-Maruyama nowadays consists of an outdoor location with reconstructed buildings and archeological digs, and an indoor complex with a museum and shop/restaurant/experience-things.
Sites this age are always difficult to portray, and I must say that they've put a lot of effort in making the most of it. Some reconstructions to get a feel of what the dwellings people lived in must have looked like, but also open pits (covered by small buildings though to protect them) to show how the archeologists found it. The museum finally exhibits the major objects found here: jade rings, lots of spearpoints of course, decorated pottery and funny little clay figures probably used in rituals.
They are already enthousiastically looking forward to a possible WH status, which is mentioned in the English brochure and displayed prominently at the reception. I fear that its chances of getting in are low - it seems to lack the detailed study of sites like Catalhoyuk for example. I enjoyed my visit of about an hour anyway, and extended my stay in the area by going to the Aomori Museum of Art which lies a short walk away. It holds 3 large pieces by Marc Chagall, the statue of the Aomori-ken dog (8.5 meters high but cute anyway), the Hula-Hula room and more that will appeal to fans of modern art.
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