Before I came to Japan, most of my knowledge of Japanese history revolved around ninja, samurai and a whole lot of Tokugawas. I was fairly familiar with the years surrounding World War II, and I had vague recollections of some prehistoric period called the Jomon Era mentioned in my Japanese language texts in college, but the centuries in between were a bit of a blank.
Admittedly, it’s taken me a few years here to get my shoguns straight, but living in Japan has also introduced me to some periods of history that never seem to make the foreign language texts. Lately, I’ve been learning about the pre-pre-medieval Yayoi Period, when my own island of Kyushu was a Pretty Big Deal on the political stage. One of my favorite new discoveries this past summer was the historical village of Yoshinogari, located on the plains of Saga Prefecture.
The Yayoi Period stretched from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD, and saw some huge developments in Japan. People began giving up their nomadic lifestyle as the cultivation of red-grained rice took hold. A group of villages soon grew into a city-state that researchers believe to be “Yamatai”, the first ever Japanese state to be referenced in Chinese texts. (The area is still known as Saga-Yamato, and Yamato is an ancient name for Japan.) Moat-encircled villages and large burial sites for important leaders were prevalent in the region by the end of the Yayoi Period.
Yoshinogari is not just an archaeological dig, but a full-scale replica of what the village once looked like (and how it changed) in those 600 years of the Yayoi Period. Individual living quarters have been rebuilt and showcase different tools and cooking methods popular to the era. The village moats and stockades have been re-dug and reinforced. The old meeting hall, shrines and priest’s quarters and watchtowers stand as historians believe they once did a few millenia ago. It’s a fascinating walk through days long-ago as you explore the site and its museums. There are volunteers and paid staff on hand to Japanese speakers with additional questions – English speakers have a very detailed brochure to guide them.
You’re free to wander around the grounds on your own, though be warned that the site is expansive and to see it all requires a lot of walking. A shuttle bus runs at least once an hour to link the various areas of the park in a loop. If you grow tired of popping into dirt huts and scaling watchtower stairs, there are daily workshops that teach skills and crafts like earthen-flute making, stone pendant making, and Yayoi-era fire making. You don’t need to reserve in advance – just show up and see what time things kick off.
If you get hungry, there is an on-site restaurant where you can try some of the red-grained rice that made the settlement of Yoshinogari possible. I can’t remember exactly what I ate here this past summer, but I remember thinking it was shockingly good for a museum cafeteria.
Yoshinogari has a great English website with tons of information both on visiting and on the area’s history. This is one of those tourist sites that is so under the radar I didn’t really have any expectations whatsoever – what I did see impressed me enough to want to return. If you’re in Kyushu and you have the time, it’s definitely worth adding to your sightseeing list.
I visited the site myself recently, really impressed ( I’m interested in archaeology anyway) and I too wanted to catch up on the earlier periods of Japanese history. I don’t understand why it doesn’t make the guide books, but then they often seem to be written by and for people who like shopping and clubbing. I’m based in Saga for five weeks, so Yashinogari was a great find. I was though slightly surprised when I popped into one hut and found a drinks vending machine!
Thanks so much for your comment. It’s a bit tough to reach, but if you have access to a car, there are some really interesting keyhole tombs from the Kofun period (right after Yayoi, if I remember correctly) down in the Yame area of Fukuoka prefecture (not too far from the canal city of Yanagawa).There is also a museum or two nearby – the English info is limited but the exhibits are rather fascinating. Enjoy your time in Saga!