I have always been interested in outdoor spaces, with a special interest in memorials and burial sites as some of the most beautiful places on the planet. The more remote and difficult to get to, the better. Although it took a day of travel and the building has become decrepit, visiting Tadao Ando’s Forest of Tombs was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan.
I’ve had the pleasure to make it to 3 very distinct burial places that I have been in awe of since learning about them in architecture school. The first one I made it to was the futuristic in parts, Jerusalem-like in parts Igualada Cemetery outside of Barcelona, Spain.
This was fairly simple to get to although we hardly spoke Spanish. The train stops in the town, and I knew it was a short way from the train station so we took a cab, and then we were able to save money by walking back to the train station. It’s always good to do it this way if it seems confusing. The only other two people there that day were two ladies from Portugal, one an architect, and the other a psychologist. We had a great time with them. A similar thing happened at another Enriq Miralles site too, where we just met two American architecture students who were surveying to see who would visit such a place – which is a little sad, given the fact that the other place was right in Barcelona.
The second cemetery I went to was one of the first places I studied in college and built a small model. It was the polar opposite of Igualada Cemetery: Carlo Scarpa’s Brion-Vega Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, Italy.
We were the only ones at this place for a long time, and so it was a lot of fun. Looking at the photos now, there are so many others I wish I took, and wish the water lilies were in bloom. I couldn’t get into all the buildings. Still I was pretty out of control taking pictures, but Japan was 10 times worse. One other guy showed up at Brion-Vega after we’d been there a few hours, and it felt like the place wasn’t big enough for the three of us.
But we did have trouble finding it, and really didn’t speak Italian. It really is pretty far out. We had to leave from Venice, take a bus to the airport, and rent a car from there. I made the biggest mistake I’ve ever made on one of these trips – and looked up directions to the wrong cemetery in the town. We got out to the middle of nowhere to the wrong place with no Internet. Luckily we found a cafe with some people. Usually only very local people know the sites that foreigners want to see. Although we didn’t speak the language, they were happy to draw a map for us. We completely lucked out that day.
One other strange place I went before i became an architect was the Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal. It was a church built out of the bones of 5,000 dead monks and parishioners in the 16th century. The warning at the entrance says; “We bones that here are, for yours await.” At the end they say: “The day that I die is better than the day that I was born.” This was pretty easy to find, but I just thought I’d include it. Just follow all the German tourists. The rest of the city was amazing too.
So the last place I went to was Tadao Ando’s Forest of Tombs in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan. This was an experience.
I’ve learned many lessons getting to these places. Now with internet maps, Google earth and travel and architecture websites, it is now possible to get to places that would have been impossible before. I’m hoping it will be even easier soon.
The best place to start is be doing a lot of research, beginning with learning all the names the place is called and trying to locate it with an aerial view using google earth. Of course it’s best to verify the location by a few different methods. Getting the exact coordinates makes it very easy to transfer to other maps, including transportation maps. Other architects and travelers often post about getting to sites on world architecture, arch inform, Trip Advisor, etc. These have been invaluable to me, but always need to be verified, especially where transportation like buses is concerned.
So, I knew not to make these same mistake in Japan that I made in Italy, especially since we would need to get everywhere without a car. The first red flag was when nothing came up in an online search for the address. In reality, only the architect must call the building the Forest of Tombs. There really isn’t too much of a forest around. There are several ways the name is translated, including the Kumamoto Prefecture Ancient Burial Mound Museum, the Kumamoto Prefecture Museum of Decorated Tombs, or sometimes called
or Decorated Kofun. In any case it was an easy site to verify on Google Earth once I had a general idea of where it was due to the burial mounds.
After I learned these different names, I found their website, (of course not in English, but at least I could write to them). They responded in strange English to me but sent me a map in Japanese of the bus stop – pretty impossible to read but actually still helpful.
Confusing directions from the museum.
The other really big thing we avoided completely by accident was a national holiday, that I didn’t know about. Luckily we got a tip it was a national holiday. Rules for museums in Japan get really weird around national holidays, and I was afraid that both days we’d be in the area, the museum would be closed. It turned out they were open on national holidays, but not the day after. It was cool traveling in the middle of nowhere on a national holiday which turned out to be National Coming of Age Day. We had to take a very roundabout bus and got to see groups of people gathering to burn large fires in the countryside.
And rice fields:
And strange scarecrows:
But actually, the first step was to get to see this brand new train station called Shin-Tamana, which was pretty cool. It must have been built for a hot bath that was there. You can get there from the Kyushu Shinkansen (or Tamana Station from the JR local train from Kumamoto).
From there you take bus 55 (or possibly 58) and get off at Kumamoto Kenritsu Kofukan-Mae stop which is about 45 minutes and 720 yen. The bus is very sporadic and comes once an hour at most.
From there you should see signs and the Forest of Tombs mascot:
It is a 2 km walk or so up a hill. The site itself was amazing. I’ve never been to a place like that before – the mounds were from the 3rd-7th century. I knew that on this trip I had to either go to this museum or Ando’s Chikatsu-Asuka Museum.
Unfortunately the building itself was in bad shape. Dilapidated buildings that were once amazing can be sad and I don’t know if it was worth seeing the building. I can see now why my professor wanted me to build a model of another Ando building rather than this one.
It was sad to see it rundown, just like it was sad to see the Nagakin Capsule Towers, but I’m glad I did. I wanted to spend more time climbing all the mounds. There were some cool parts, and the exhibits inside were cool. People there were mostly local people with children and when they found out we weren’t from there, they were very excited and had us take a survey. We had to admit on that survey that it’s pretty impossible to get any information on that museum and it’s pretty confusing and difficult to get to. Still,it was a cool place, and getting there was a lot of fun.
And the exhibits were interesting too:
One of my favorite things to see was kids playing on the tombs.