Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Sannai Maruyama (Aomori, Tohoku)

Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan

The Exceptional Archaeological Heritage

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The remains of the Jomon Era in Northern Japan are scattered into 17 different sites throughout the northernmost area of the Tohoku and the south of Hokkaido Island. Featuring museums, ruins and life-sized replicas, they display the daily lives of the hunter-gatherers who lived in the archipelago during prehistoric times. The oldest ceramic works in the world were made by Jomon people 15,000 years ago. These archaeological sites are enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage since July 27, 2021.

The historical Jomon period, 縄文時代 Jomon jidai in Japanese, is at the roots of the Japanese civilization, and starts at the end of the Paleolithic about 15,000 years ago to end about 2,400 years ago.

Jomon: a society evolving over more than 12 centuries

The word Jomon means "rope pattern" and is a reference to the times’ decoration methods of the ceramics that were unearthed by archaeologists. This primary artistic technique consisted in imprinting specific patterns on freshly modeled earthenware with ropes, and was a very distinctive feature of this era. Naturally, the objects' styles have evolved throughout the centuries to become increasingly intricate, and have a few variations depending on the areas.

The Jomon Period lasted a whole 12,600 years and has known several major developments that historians divided into 6 sub-periods:

In Japanese Period Characteristics Remarkable Sites

Incipient

Jomon

草創期 (Sosoki) 13,000 to 9,500 BCE

Beginning of the use of pottery, bows and arrows

First permanent settlements

Odai Yamamoto
Initial Jomon 早期 (Soki) 9,500 to 5,000 BCE

Climate warming causes the rise of sea level

Graves located next to the dwellings

Kakinoshima
Early Jomon 前期 (Zenki) 5,000 to 3,500 BCE

Increased use of lacquer-ware

The number of permanent settlements increase and some of them become important regional centers

Apparition of dumping grounds and storage for food

Kitakogane, Tagoyano and Futatsumori
Middle Jomon 中期 (Chuki) 3,500 to 2,500 BCE

Development of foreign trade

Consolidation of the importance of some settlements

Places dedicated to rituals are at the center of the village

Sannai Maruyama, Goshono and Ofune
Late Jomon 後期 (Kōki) 2,500 to 1,300 BCE

Decline of the former large-scale regional centers to the benefit of new smaller centers

Emergence of large stone circles for rituals and cemeteries are placed outside the settlement

Isedotai, Oyu and Komakino
Final Jomon 晩期 (Banki) 1,300 to 400 BCE

Development of the Kamegaoka culture

Creation of various cult objects

Cemeteries located right next to the ritual circles

Omori Katsuyama, Kiusu and Kamegaoka

The beginning of sedentism in Japan

The people of Jomon are at the origins of settlements throughout the Japanese territory as they gradually changed their lifestyle. The nomadic life indeed became less interesting as they had reached a reasonable daily comfort level, allowed by:

  • The development of earthenware, used to store the harvests;
  • The creation of increasingly sophisticated tools for hunting;
  • The construction of permanent dwellings; and,
  • The creation of villages ruled by social regulations and important rituals.

Trade also thrived and overcame the natural borders of the mountains or the sea, as can attest the many objects made in materials that cannot be found naturally in the area.

The Yayoi Period, marking the beginning of agriculture, follows the Jomon Period.

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Sannai Maruyama Museum (Aomori, Tohoku) 3

17 prehistoric sites inscribed by the Unesco in 2021

To immerse in the fascinating Jomon civilization, go to the north of Japan home to 17 preserved landmarks designated World Heritage Sites in 2021 by the UNESCO. Displaying rich and varied contents, these remarkable places offer:

  • Museums, exhibiting various ancient objects excavated on site: mainly earthenware, tools, accessories, bones, figurines and weapons;
  • Ruins of the past found in archaeological digs and staged in real-life sized reconstitution, from stone circles for rituals, to cemeteries and settlements.

These archaeological treasures are shared between 4 prefectures lying astride the north of the Tohoku area and the south of Hokkaido Island:

  • Aomori with 8 sites (+ 1 not inscribed);
  • Iwate with 1 site;
  • Akita with 2 sites; and,
  • Hokkaido with 6 sites (+ 1 not inscribed).

Some can be easy to access when located near a station or benefiting from a good shuttle connection, but most of the Jomon sites are far from the cities and require to drive a rental car 🚙 or take a taxi to reach them.

On site, explanations are displayed in Japanese, with sometimes a short English translation. We recommend using the Pocket Curator app (available on Google Play and Apple App Store) as it allows to have a virtual guided tour in English during your visit. Foreign visitors also have the possibility to walk the site with a touch-screen pad, including several languages settings, available at some of the sites.

You will find below an insight on the Jomon sites we have visited in the Tohoku area:

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Sannai Maruyama (Aomori, Tohoku) 3

Sannai Maruyama

  • Time period: between 3,900 and 2,200 BCE
  • Location: Aomori City, not far form the Shin-Aomori Shinkansen station

Sannai Maruyama is an immense archaeological site displaying the ruins of an ancient Middle Jomon settlement. The ground still bear the traces of the dumping mounds left by the inhabitants, as well as the foundations of their pit-houses. Various types of dwellings were also reconstituted in life-size, to better comprehend the impressive size of some buildings and the architectural know-how of the times.

The neighboring museum is well made, with a focus on the prehistoric people’s daily life. In addition, the site’s restaurant serves contemporary dishes based on ingredients used during the Jomon period. Sannai Maruyama is definitely a must-see of Northern Japan’s historical remains.

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Goshono Ruins Museum (Iwate, Tohoku)

Goshono Ruins

  • Time Period: between 2,500 and 2,000 years BCE
  • Location: Ichinohe City (Iwate), near Ichinohe little station (Iwate Galaxy Railway Line, not JR) and 50 kilometers in the south of Hachinohe

The visit of Goshono Ruins starts with a wonderful modern museum displaying ancient objects and vestiges viewable behind a glassed floor. A 360 degrees animation is aired in a large circular room offering a thorough visual and audible immersion in the daily life of the Jomon people. Outside, houses and storage buildings were reconstructed around a former cemetery and are nearly covered by the vegetation and the snow in winter.

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Isedotai Stone Circles Museum (Akita, Tohoku)

Isedotai Stone Circles

  • Time period: between 2,000 and 1,700 years BCE
  • Location: Kita-Akita City, at the exit of Jomon Ogata station (Akita Nairiku Line, not JR)

The 4 stone circles in Isedotai have been discovered at the summit of a small hill surrounded by fish-filled rivers. The place was formerly used to perform traditional rituals and bury the deceased of the community. It is a unique site in Japan, with its largest circle measuring 45 meters in diameter.

Note that only the museum next to the historical site is open all year round. The stone circles being in the outdoor, they are only visible from March to October, when they are not covered by snow.

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Oyu Stone Circles (Akita, Tohoku)

Oyu Stone Circles

  • Time period: between 2,000 and 1,500 years BCE
  • Location: Kazuno City (Akita), 5 kilometers from Towada-Minami station (Hanawa JR Line)

Here about 7,000 stones were arranged on the ground to shape 2 circles. Each rock weights on average 30kg and the biggest weights up to 200kg. All the stones were collected from the Akuya River, located about a dozen kilometers from the site.

Around the circles, a few buildings were reconstructed as well as the pillars used to heighten them. The adjacent museum shelters the artifacts unearthed during archaeological digs.

Unesco Jomon Prehistoric Sites, Gassho Dogu clay figure in Korekawa Museum (Aomori, Tohoku)

Korekawa Site

  • Time period: between 4,000 and 400 years BCE
  • Location: Hachinohe City (Aomori), south to the town’s center

The items excavated by the archaeological digs in this ancient city of the Jomon period are gathered in a remarkable museum. Korekawa Site is constituted by 3 adjacent but different zones, where prehistorical people have been living during nearly 3,600 years:

  • Nakai (from 1,000 to 400 years BCE)
  • Hotta (from 3,000 to 2,000 years BCE)
  • Ichioji (from 4,000 to 2,000 years BCE)

The masterpiece of the museum is a clay figurine called Gassho Dogu that pictures a character sitting in prayer. There is no outdoor facility to visit but it certainly is one of the most extensive museums.

The exploration of Jomon prehistoric sites in northern Japan is truly fascinating and is suitable to Japanese children curious of their origins as well as to international grown-up visitors amateurs of archaeological discoveries.

For your first time, you don’t need to tour the 17 archaeological sites: just choose the most accessible ones on your itinerary. Note however that most of the outdoor sites are closed in winter, due to snow covering the vestiges. It is thus recommended to plan visits from spring 🌸 to autumn 🍁 so as to benefit from a more comprehensive immersion in the daily lives of Japan’s first organized societies.

This article was written after a tour sponsored and organized by the Tohoku Region. Kanpai has been invited and guided but keeps a total freedom of editorial content.
⬇️ Further down this page, discover our visit guide in Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan and around.
By Kanpai Updated on October 20, 2022 Sites Jomon dans le nord du Japon