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“Jo”-in me to Jomon: A trip to the Sannai Maruyama Site

“Jo”-in me to Jomon: A trip to the Sannai Maruyama Site

Have you heard of the Sannai Maruyama Site (三内丸山遺跡 Sannai Maruyama-iseki) before? It is an archaeological site located in central Aomori (青森市) in Aomori Prefecture (青森県) that was home to one of the largest settlements from the early and middle Jomon Period (縄文時代 Jōmon-jidai, 3,900–2,200 BC). It is also one of the most significant sites in Japan, as it was revealed to be a treasure trove of artefacts and information for archaeologists and history buffs to learn more about the history and culture of the people from that period.

 

What is even more incredible about the Sannai Maruyama Site is that it was found completely by accident! Before its discovery in 1992, the site was originally surveyed for a proposed baseball stadium. Upon its discovery, archaeologists came to explore the origins of the site, and in 1994, Aomori Prefecture officially took over the site’s preservation and maintenance works.

 

The site was officially opened to the public in 1995, and gained special recognition in the following years, such as Special Historic Site in 2000 and UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021 as part of the Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan.

 

Location of the Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

Location of the Sannai Maruyama Site in the city of Aomori. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

I had the opportunity of visiting the Sannai Maruyama Site for a half-day trip, and for this article, I will share with you my personal experience of my time there. Setting foot into a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not something I get to do often in Japan, and it felt like a privilege to explore a prehistoric site such as that. Join me as I went to a place that dates back thousands of years ago, and see what I learned during my trip!

 

Onward from Aomori Station

Taking the Nebutan-go bus to the Sannai Maruyama Site. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My day began at JR Aomori Station (JR青森駅), where I took a bus to the Sannai Maruyama Site. It was not just any ordinary bus, however; it was Nebutan-go (ねぶたん号), a shuttle bus that brings visitors to various museums and points of attraction around Aomori. I was pleasantly surprised by the cute, bright-red bus when it arrived; its design clearly stood out from the rest of the other buses at the station!

 

Jomon Jiyukan. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a 40-minute ride on the bus, I finally arrived at the Sannai Maruyama Site. Upon arrival, visitors can make their way to Jomon Jiyukan (縄文時遊館 Jōmon Jiyūkan), the site’s archaeological museum. Opened in 2002, the museum is the starting point of my walking tour around the site, and I was pretty excited to see what an ancient civilisation in Aomori looked like.

 

Touring the museum

Inside Jomon Jiyukan. (Image credit: yisris / CC BY 2.0)

 

Jomon Jiyukan is a museum that is housed in a beautifully designed building filled with wooden décor and wall designs inspired by artefacts found at the Sannai Maruyama Site. It features several facilities, such as the Jomon Theater which plays an introductory video about the site and the museum; several exhibition halls, a work studio, a workshop room, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop selling Aomori specialty products.

 

When I arrived at the museum, there were only a few other visitors, so it felt really nice to walk around and enjoy the peaceful ambience. There are also guided tours conducted by volunteers for the entire site, and they are held several times per day, so for those who would like to have a tour guide, be sure to be at the gathering point on time.

 

Diorama of the Sannai Maruyama Site. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the nifty things I found while touring Jomon Jiyukan is a diorama detailing the Sannai Maruyama Site during the Jomon Period. The diorama is based on archaeological findings at the site, and depicts what the Jomon people’s community layout and terrain used to look like with as much accuracy as possible. Personally, I always find dioramas fascinating to see, as I get to witness sprawling layouts in miniature form.

 

Life-sized figures inside Sanmaru Museum. (Image credit: xiquinhosilva / CC BY 2.0)

 

Another part of Jomon Jiyukan that visitors should not miss is the Sanmaru Museum, where they will get to experience the full history of the lives of the Jomon people. Visitors will come up to a full-sized graphic of the period’s timeline upon entry, and inside, they will see life-sized figures of the Jomon people demonstrating their daily activities.

 

My advice for all visitors to the museum? Take your time to appreciate and learn about the numerous exhibits. There are up to 1,700 actual artefacts that are on display in the museum—including tools, ornaments, clothing, weapons, and more—of which about 500 are Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 Jūyō bunkazai). You can listen to the audio guide for each exhibit in the museum, and gain more insight into the world of the Jomon Period.

 

Entrance to the Jomon Big Wall. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Do you know what is the most impressive structure in Jomon Jiyukan? Just a climb down a flight of stairs is the Jomon Big Wall, an imposing wall that is covered with earthenware pieces that were collected from the Sannai Maruyama Site. Measuring 18m in width and 6m in height, the wall is encrusted with up to 5,120 pieces in total, all of which are thousands of years old!

 

Jomon Big Wall. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Words can’t explain how astonished I was when I laid eyes on the Jomon Big Wall. The towering structure felt like a huge tribute to all the people who had painstakingly excavated the artefacts from the site, and I was touched by how the wall was the result of all their hard work. Another tip from me: take note of the differences in the colour of the pieces on the wall. They belong to different times of the Jomon Period, and they can be distinguished by their colour.

 

Also, opposite the wall is the Storage Room, where numerous pottery and other artefacts collected from the site are stored on tall shelves, and near the stairs is the Work Studio, where excavated artefacts are reassembled and restored. You can see the staff meticulously preserving the relics in person too, so don’t miss it.

 

Jomon Jiyukan’s workshop room. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Want to have a more hands-on experience? Visitors can also try their hands at making their own Jomon-influenced artefacts, such as miniature clay figures, replica amber pendants, and pochettes. The materials can be bought from the museum shop nearby, and the sessions can last between 1–2 hours. Making your own artefact sounds like a memorable experience, doesn’t it?

 

Heading out to the site

The Sannai Maruyama Site. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

After touring Jomon Jiyukan, it was finally time to head out and explore the actual site where the artefacts and relics were found. The site can be accessed by the Jiyu Tunnel which is located just behind the diorama, and visitors can simply make their way to the site from there on foot.

 

Jiyu Tunnel. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The site is part of a Jomon Period settlement that is estimated to be up to 40 hectares in size, so visitors can enjoy their fair share of walking around it to see architectural designs that belong to that period. The terrain is fairly flat so all visitors will have an easy time getting around, including those in wheelchairs. However, the walking paths can be slippery and muddy during wet weather, so visitors can borrow boots that are available at the entrance of the Jiyu Tunnel.

 

Summary and layout of the site. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Shortly after its discovery in 1992, excavation began at the Sannai Maruyama Site and many findings were unearthed about the culture and lifestyle of the people from the Jomon Period. Items found included potteries and earthenware, lacquerware, precious stones such as jade and obsidian; clay figurines, and many more. There were up to 2,000 clay figurines found at the site, the largest number recorded from any archaeological site in Japan!

 

Large pit building. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the most groundbreaking discoveries by archaeologists at the site was learning how the people from that period lived and worked together as a community. They found evidence of a large pit building that existed there approximately 4,800 years ago, and a reconstructed model of the building stands today to show what it looked like. Among all the pit buildings discovered in Jomon-related sites in Japan, this is the largest one so far, with an area of around 250 square metres.

 

Inside the pit building. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The large pit building is theorised to be a communal workshop, and when I stepped inside, I was amazed at how the whole structure was meticulously recreated. I felt like I was transported back in time, and I highly encourage everyone to go and have a look for themselves when they visit the site. And don’t worry about access: there is a ramp leading inside, so even wheelchair-bound visitors can come inside too.

 

Pillar-supported buildings. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

A short walk from the large pit building is a group of pillar-supported buildings, also reconstructed based on holes found by archaeologists on-site, which served as evidence that houses built on pillars once stood there. The buildings come with thatched roofs which would help to shelter the dwellers from harsh weather conditions.

 

It felt strangely nostalgic for me to come across the pillar-supported buildings. They looked so reminiscent of Malay kampung houses that are built on stilts. Such houses no longer exist in my home country, and I never expected to see a similar structure in a place like Aomori, and belonging to prehistoric times no less.

 

Pit dwellings. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Apart from pillar-supported buildings, there were also pit dwellings that are thought to be housing structures. These structures are recreated according to excavation results, and they come in uniquely different roofs, such as tree barks, mud, and thatch.

 

Here’s my tip to all visitors when observing these dwellings: step inside one of them, and have a glimpse of what it feels like to live in one of these historical structures. It felt strangely calming when I stepped into and sat inside one of them; in fact, it was even cosy since the weather was a little chilly during my time at the site.

 

Adult burial pits. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

In anthropology, one of the most fundamental topics to discuss is death, and one of the most important discoveries in a settlement by ancestors is learning how burials were carried out. Burial pits were found at the Sannai Maruyama Site, which offered an insight into how people buried the remains of their fellow villagers back then. Interestingly, stoneware, jade pendants, and arrowheads were found in the burial pits as well.

 

Sannai Maruyama Site’s prominent pillar-supported building. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When it comes to the Sannai Maruyama Site, the most iconic structure here would be a three-storey pillar-supported building. With a height of almost 15m, this building is reconstructed according to peculiar findings at the site: six large holes on the ground with a diameter and depth of 2m each, and approximately 4.2m from each other in two rows of three. The building’s height is based on the pressure exerted on the soil in the holes, and was built based on the skills and knowledge available among the people during that period.

 

The structure’s discovery and blueprint. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Do you know what the most amazing thing is about the three-story structure? To this day, it is not confirmed what its purpose was for the Jomon people. Its roof is not reconstructed because of its inconclusiveness, and there are still several theories on what the complete structure should look like.

 

I personally find the mystery fascinating; the structure remains to be an enigma, and enigmas are always remarkable, don’t you think? Nevertheless, I hope that we will get to know the answer soon, and that the archaeologists will eventually solve the mystery.

 

 

The six pillar holes for the three-story structure. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Interested to see what the three-storey structure’s pillar holes look like? There is another set of six holes located just a short walk away from the structure, and you can see up-close how they serve as a starting point to reconstructing the structure you see today. The pillar holes are housed in a shelter to prevent them from being destroyed by weather, and lit by spotlights so you can see how deep they are.

 

Leaving by Nebutan-go bus. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After spending half a day exploring Jomon Jiyukan and treading the grounds of the Sannai Maruyama Site, it was finally time for me to say goodbye and leave the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the next part of my trip. I hopped onboard the Nebutan-go bus once more, and this time, I got off at JR Shin-Aomori Station (JR新青森駅), which was only a 20-minute ride away from the site.

 

Getting around

My walking route at the Sannai Maruyama Site. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

In sum, I made a half-day trip to the Sannai Maruyama Site, which included a visit to Jomon Jiyukan and a leisurely walk around the excavation site. My entire walking route took around 90 minutes, and I personally recommend all visitors to set aside this amount of time for their visit.

 

Visitors can also reach the site easily by bus. From JR Aomori Station, you can take a 40-minute ride on the Nebutan-go bus for a flat fare of ¥300 per ride for each adult, and get off at Sannai Maruyama Iseki-mae (三内丸山遺跡前) bus stop. Jomon Jiyukan is right in front of the bus stop.

 

Visitors can also take the Nebutan-go bus to and from JR Shin-Aomori Station’s East Exit, and the one-way bus journey from here to the site takes around 20 minutes.

 

Sannai Maruyama Site (三内丸山遺跡)
Address: 305 Maruyama, Sannai, Aomori 038-0031
Access: 40-minute bus ride from JR Aomori Station (JR青森駅) or 20-minute ride from JR Shin-Aomori Station (JR新青森駅)
*Operating hours:
   9am–5pm (last entry at 4:30pm)
   9am–6pm (Golden Week, 1 June–30 September)
   *Closed from 30 December–1 January
Admission fees: ¥410 per adult

 

Closing

The Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan are among the newest additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan, selected only in 2021, and the Sannai Maruyama Site is included as one of the sites. The site is brimming with history that goes back thousands of years ago, and people today can experience what life used to be like in this region.

 

I find it incredible how the site was discovered serendipitously, and it felt special for me to step into it. It was a surreal feeling to observe up-close how our ancestors used to live, from their housing to their methods of getting food, and after my visit there, I want more people to come and visit the place themselves. They will get to learn many things there, and I hope they would have a memorable time there, just like I did.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are planning to visit the Sannai Maruyama Site as well as other points of attractions in Aomori, then check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid areas for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it is cheaper than a return trip between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori (~¥35,000).

 

The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains and some limited express trains and Joyful Trains for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

(Note: the rail pass does not cover the Nebutan-go bus fare, which must be paid separately.)

 

Header image credit: Aomori Prefecture, illustAC

 

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