I first caught sight of the Mimizuka (耳塚) in the fading light of dusk. What can best be described as a mound of earth topped with a gorinto – a five-tiered pagoda often used as gravestones; the Mimizuka looked mysterious and curiously out of place against the backdrop of the line of low lying roofs silhouetted against the twilight sky. Surrounded by what largely is a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Higashiyama district of of Kyoto, the mound, I was to discover, stands as a relic of a brutal past.
Translated from Japanese as “Mound of Ears”, it is where the remains of tens of thousands of humans are buried. Originally named as the “Mound of Noses” or Hanazuka (鼻塚), the remains it contains are in fact noses – those that were severed from at least 38,000 Koreans killed during the Japanese military expeditions into the peninsula initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 1500s. Preserved in brine and shipped to Japan as trophies, the noses were buried at the location in 1597 during the time of the second invasion of Korea.
It is in an area that is very much associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi that one finds the rather macabre monument, just down the very generously proportioned Shomen-dori (正面通) that runs west from the Toyokuni Jinja (豊国神社), a shrine dedicated to the cruel but much revered daimyo.
The area is also where the grand Hoko-ji (方広寺) temple housing the great Buddha of Kyoto was put up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi – intended to rival the Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Nara, in scale. Much of the temple, construction of which began in 1586, and its Buddha was destroyed in an earthquake in 1596 and only its bell has survived to this day.
More information can on the little known Mimizuka can be found in a New York Times article written for the 400th anniversary of the mound, Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy as well as in a Wikipedia entry. More on the Hoko-ji, the Toyokuni Jinja and the area can also be found at this site.