Obsidian arrowheads and other Jomon archaeology

Jomon is the name given to Japan’s prehistoric “stone age” period, thought to be from 30,000 to 2,500 years ago.  The name means “rope marks” and derives from the markings on the pottery of the period.  During this period the people of the archipelago went from simple hunter-gatherers to being users of tools, the beginnings of agricultural and settled society.

Although the majority of Jomon period settlements appear to have been in coastal regions (visit one as part of this Tokyo walk), plentiful forests also supported settlements in mountainous inland regions.  In one such area of modern Nagano Prefecture, on the flanks of Mt. Kirigamine, the Jomon people discovered obsidian, that glass-like stone sometimes produced by volcanic eruptions, and also discovered that, if chipped the right way, obsidian made very good arrowheads, knife blades, and other sharp tools.

Visitors can learn more and even experience making obsidian blades and other Jomon crafts at the Kokuyo-seki Taiken Museum in the town of Nagawa, near a Jomon mining site discovered in 1920.

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The museum is comprised of two sections:  displays and workrooms.

The museum displays help visitors understand the history of Jomon obsidian mining and how the Jomon people came to use this distinctive mineral.  Researchers believe that obsidian stone was first found by Jomon people in creek beds of this area.  As the stone in the waterways was “mined out”, people realized that the stone had likely washed down from the surrounding hillsides and began to dig for it as well. 

The hillside above the museum was the site of several such open mines, the remnants of which can be seen by taking a short hike in the area.  Apparently the mining only occurred during the summer months, as the area was too cold to inhabit during winter.  Thus, no permanent settlements have been found in the area.

Obsidian fashioned into arrowheads would have been particularly useful to the people living in these mountains, who hunted deer and wild boar.  Knife blades would also have facilitated dressing, cooking and eating the game, as well as other tasks.

Interestingly, these obsidian tools also became the objects of trade with the coastal peoples, who also needed arrowheads and knives…and fishing hooks. Wall maps in the museum show how items for trade moved in that period.

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The displays also teach visitors how obsidian was worked and show samples of the tools from items recovered in archaeological digs.  There is even a display on how the pre-historic tools compare to those in modern use. 

The museum also houses two large workrooms where visitors can experience making Jomon objects, for a small fee.  Especially popular are the objects made of obsidian, including arrowheads and jewelry. 

Other Jomon crafts to be experienced include basic weaving, making fish hooks, and doing other basic beadwork to produce other types of jewelry.  Archaeology has shown that even prehistoric humans liked to accessorize and decorate themselves. 

The museum is somewhat remotely located and is most easily accessed by car.  It is 24 km. from the Okaya IC of the Nagano Expressway, 30 km. from the Suwa IC of the Chuo Expressway, and 44 km. from the Saku IC of the Joshinetsu Expressway.

It would be easy to combine a visit here with travels around Ueda or Lake Suwa.  If you visit in winter, there is a ski field just across the road.  This area is definitely recommended for the curious and the intrepid!

  • Address: 3670-3 Daimon, Nagawa-cho, Chiisagata-gun, Nagano 386-0601
  • Phone: 0268-41-8050
  • Hours: 9:00 am – 4:30 pm
  • Admission: JPY300 (adults); JPY100 (children)

Handicraft experiences begin at JPY600 and take 30 to 60 minutes depending on the experience selected.  Museum staff speak rudimentary English, but have illustrated instruction sheets that may help.

© 2019 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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