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The Mystery of Tonkararin's Tunnels ト ン カ ラ リ ン

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Tunnel di Tonkararin 2

articolo in inglese




Japan is a fascinating country, scattered with places that say ancient stories tinged with mystery, among these we find an enigmatic and fascinating site in northern Kyushu, located near Nagomi (和 水 町, Nagomi-machi), a city in the prefecture of Kumamoto ( 熊 本 県, Kumamoto-ken).

Externally it look like as part of the local landscape but inside it hides a complex of tunnels, called "Tonkararin" (ト ン カ ラ リ ン). Not far from there we can visit another fascinating place, an important historical site, the burial mound of Eta Funayama (江 田 船山 古墳).
Both sites are still the subject of research today, especially the tunnel complex with many mysteries still to be revealed, there is still a lot to understand and today there are still many unanswered questions.

The tunnel complex was discovered by archaeologists in the eighteenth century, a structure that according to the first analyzes it would be traced back to the fifth or sixth century, although unfortunately the dating is still uncertain and in the process of confirmation. Subsequently, in the 1970s, the research of this particular complex resumed, giving us somewhat more precise information. What we know is that the “structure” measures 445 meters in length, but varies in width and height, reaching the highest point at 4 meters high, but at the lowest point it forces one to explore on all fours.

This "irregularity" has given rise to various theories and hypotheses on its nature by first thinking of a natural formation dug by water, but this hypothesis was later refuted by studying the composition from inside the galleries better. It was found that they have a smooth appearance, a rectangular entrance and clearly hand-carved stairs, so the theory of natural formation was discarded.


Tunnel di Tonkararin A


In this same area, a little more than 5-10 minutes on foot, can reach another important site: the burial mound of Eta Funayama (江 田 船山 古墳). The structure is particular and takes the form of a "keyhole" and dates back to the Kofun period (古墳 時代, Kofun jidai), however the tunnel system seems to be older, it is thought to have been built in the Yayoi period (弥 生 時代, Yayoi jidai), therefore prior to Kofun.

We first mentioned two important historical eras for Japan, then we will go into a little more detail in order to better understand the historical and social context in which the sites found are located.

The Yayoi Period (弥 生 時代), between 300 BC and 300 AD, was a period of great changes for the Rising Sun which saw the beginning of cultural and economic relations and interactions with Korea. Some of the results of this "contamination" can be found, for example, in learning rice cultivation techniques and the funeral practice of mounds (previously in Japan it was customary to bury the dead in graves).

Before arriving at the use of real mounds in Japan there was the tradition of erecting dolmens, stone tablets that formed tombs, and funerary objects such as vases, jars and tubular pearls were placed around them. tTousseau of the treasure of the mound, dating back to the following period.

It has been thought that the tunnel system could date back to this period because, with the creation of rice fields, the inhabitants of the area probably tried to create a system for agricultural use to irrigate, although there is no archaeological evidence to support this theory. The lack of hard evidence has led to a shift in perspective by focusing research on the Kofun period.

The Kofun Period (古墳 時代), between 250/300 AD and 538 AD, owes its name to the appearance throughout the national territory of these mounds, which contained the tomb chambers of the members of the ruling class.

The main and recognizable feature of these tombs is that of having a shape that resembles, when viewed from above, a keyhole. The burial sites, those dating back to the third century, generally appear unadorned and simple unlike those of the fourth and fifth centuries which are more complex, more numerous and richer.

The maximum splendor is reached towards the end of this era, the dated burial mounds belonging to the sixth century, such as that of Eta Funayama, recall in size and splendor the great tombs of the New Kingdom of Egypt, with painted walls, large sarcophagi , grave goods. Not only were bronze mirrors, swords, horse harnesses, decorated sculptures, beautiful clay vases, haniwa (埴 輪 or terracotta sculptures) and finally the sueki pottery (須 恵 器) strangely similar to today's porcelain that contained pigments were found gray-blue.

A further change within the Japan system, but given the importance we could call it a revolution, which appeared in this period was the introduction of Shintoism (神道 "Way of the Gods") as the state religion. This unification of the cults in addition to connecting several villages that previously had no mutual relations, saw the birth of a Goddess and a topos that was common to all: the solar goddess Amaterasu (天 照 大 御 神 lit. "Great goddess who shines in the skies ").
This very important deity was associated with the imperial family, considering it the ancestral ancestor of those who were at the top of the political and administrative power of Japan.




Following the myth of the goddess hiding inside a cave to escape her unruly brother, the storm god Susanoo (ス サ ノ オ), she raised the belief in Nagomi's inhabitants that the divinity's refuge was in the mysterious tunnels. This led to the place being defined as sacred, leading archaeologists to speculate that the complex was used as a Shinto shrine.

So is it a sanctuary? for answer this question, it is necessary to take into account the history of religious practices in the Japanese region of Kyushu and the knowledge of a certain "sacred geography" strictly connected to the religious vision of Shintoism. Based on this knowledge it seems consistent that the tunnel system may have been used as a sanctuary in the past. Among the elements that contribute to this hypothesis is the place where, in the vicinity of a community and on the slope of a mountain, there is a place full of sacredness in the Shinto vision. Secondly, it is located a short distance from an important burial mound of the royal social class, so it was thought that the two places could have a direct connection as well as a "soul connection".
This link would make perfect sense if we consider the Shinto thought which among its elements includes the geomantic knowledge of the so-called "places of power" (such as a burial mound where glorious characters are buried).

However, being the structure is very ancient, the tunnel system can be considered at most as a "prototype" of a sanctuary and the supporters of this hypothesis believe that the complex was used in certain shamanic and Shinto rituals in connection with the other sacred and mysterious place. , the mound of Eta Funayama 江 田 船山 古墳.


Tunnel di Tonkararin B


The mound was excavated for the first time by archaeologists in 1873, at the time the undertaking was not easy considering that it is 62 meters long. Inside, archaeologists find themselves faced with something incredible, a dolmen, or stone-sarcophagus.

Buried under this large stone slab a rich treasure was found which included some finely crafted bronze mirrors, and as archaeologists dug deeper and deeper they found other models, each decorated with images of gods and animals of unknown origin. .

It's likely that these mirrors had royal value, one of these bronze mirrors decorated with 4 beasts, one of the most beautiful of the finds, to date we find it exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum.

In addition to the mirrors, a tribute to the Goddess Amaterasu, tubular-shaped pearls of different colors and sizes were found, reminiscent of the Yayoi culture and the Korean and magatama mounds (勾 玉 in the shape of a "comma") in jadeite, surprisingly similar to art post-modern.


Tunnel di Tonkararin D


Weapons such as iron swords and even armor were also found, an unequivocal sign that warriors were buried here, or people who were linked to the military thanks to their aristocratic status.

Paradoxically, the most famous discovery of the mound was not the work of archaeologists, but rather of the residents. The story of how this happened is lost in the past, but the findings are significant and important, for example a crown and a sword were found, both in gold, with an inscription, and other real objects, including gilded bronze headdresses. , suitable for a queen, golden earrings, rings and plates.

The list of recovered artifacts is long and provides a clearer picture of life during the Kofun period. The artifacts show us great technical mastery in metalworking, while the military equipment offers us the element of a society ready for war. To confirm this is added the discovery of iron arrowheads found together with the swords, to underline the military importance of those who occupied the "tomb" and the close association between them and the royals.

Still regarding the equipment, the ruff (an object similar to armor but which covered the neck and therefore provided protection for the face) found inside this treasure suggests that the royals themselves fought in battle.

Among the most important discoveries, and certainly more difficult to understand the dying one, is the finding of a triple bell. This unique object probably has a religious value, especially important in rituals, but which, buried here, appears unusual because the bells were also used in the breeding of animals during the Yayoi period. In fact, bells of various sizes were buried on the side of the nearby hills, to promote the fertility of the earth and a fruitful harvest.

So why was this bell buried in the mound? how do you explain the presence of a 3-ring bell, usually associated with peasant culture? Perhaps the answer still lies within the mountain itself, waiting for someone to complete the treacherous tunnel exploration.

The Tonkararin tunnel complex remains a sacred and mysterious ruin and to consolidate this hypothesis there was a symposium in October 2001 in Nagomi to discuss precisely the function of the tunnels and it was declared that they are actually connected to religious acts.


Tunnel Fantasy Dream Legend of Tonkararin


For those who love cinema, in 1998 a film was produced that narrates in an imaginative way the historical events of the region (隧 穴 幻想 ト ン カ ラ リ ン 夢 伝 説 Zuiketsu Genso: Tonkararin Yume Densetsu "Tunnel Fantasy: Dream Legend of Tonkararin") directed by Takashi Miike .


Kofun.ing (Jp)

Samantha Sisto

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