Asuka (part of current-day Nara) was established as the capital about 1,400 years ago, and flourished as the center of politics and culture. Here are recommended spots irresistible to the ancient history lover.
1. Asukadera Temple
One of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, Asukadera Temple was founded in 596 as the family temple of the Soga clan, which was powerful from the 6th century to the latter half of the 7th century. In 718, shortly after the capital moved to Heijokyo in 710, the temple was moved to Nara and named "Gango-ji," but the garan (general term for temple buildings) remained as it was and continued to operate as a temple. At its height, it was a large temple with a corridor surrounding a garan consisting of a central five-story pagoda and three main temple structures, but today, only one reconstructed main temple structures remains. The sitting statue of the Buddha (Asuka Daibutsu), which is the main object of worship at the temple, was created in 609 and is designated as an important cultural property of Japan. Be sure to note the features that distinguish it as an Asuka Era Buddha, such as the oval face and almond-shaped eyes.
2. Asuka Palace Ruins (Asuka Itabuki Palace Ruins)
From the end of the 6th century to the end of the 8th century, Nara was the capital of Japan and the site of the imperial palace. The Asuka Palace Ruins were previously referred to as "Asuka Itabuki Palace Ruins," but excavation revealed Asuka Itabuku Palace was not the only palace that stood there, but four different palaces had been built there one after another. The transition of the palace buildings is very important to understand historical changes in the power structure and the form that the royal authority took. Asuka Itabuki Palace was the site of the Isshi Incident, in which the powerful clansman at the time, Soga-no-Iruka, was assassinated. The Isshi incident was the turning point from which Japan moved from a system of politics run by clans to a more centralized government based on a legal system with the emperor as the supreme power.
3. Former Site of Fujiwarakyo Capital
Fujiwarakyo Capital was the first full-scale Chinese-style capital built on a grid system. It was the palace of three emperors from 694 to 710, when the capital was moved to Heijokyo. It was approximately 5.3km east to west and 4.8 km north to south, making it the largest ancient capital, surpassing Heijokyo and Heiankyo. Fujiwara Castle, which was the main structure of the capital, not only housed key governmental institutions, but was also the home of the emperor and empress. Key developments in Japan's system of centralized government, such as the establishment of Japan's first legal code, the Taiho Code (701), and the minting of Japan's first currency, wado-kaichin, took place at Fujiwarakyo. Today, the vast land that was once Fujiwarakyo Capital is filled with seasonal flowers, such as rape blossoms, lotus, and cosmos. What an experience to stand amidst the breathtakingly beautiful scenery and let your mind wander to ancient Japan!
4. Takamatsuzuka Tumulus
This is a two-story, round burial mound on the grounds of Asuka Historical National Government Park that was built during the period of Fujiwarakyo (690-710). It became instantly famous when excavations in 1972 revealed brightly-colored murals. It has not been determined who was buried here, but based on the murals in the stone room and the burial accessories, it was likely a person of high standing. The murals are currently under repairs due to degradation, but the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum nearby offers a comprehensive reproduction of the tumulus, including the murals as they were at the time of discovery and how they were originally, as well as replicas of the burial accessories, so be sure to visit.
5. Ishibutai Tumulus
This is one of Japan's largest rectangular tumulus thought to have been built at the beginning of the 7th century, and believed to be the tomb of Soga-no-Umako, who built Asukadera Temple. None of the soil covering the stone room remains, revealing the unique form of the yokoanashiki grave with passageways. This type of grave has long been referred to as an "ishibutai" (stone stage) because of its flat ceiling stone that makes it look like a stage. The 30 rocks that create the room have a combined weight of 2,300 tons, indicating that there were advanced engineering and transportation technologies at the time it was built in the 7th century. The tumulus is surrounded by a lawn with plum and cherry blossoms in the spring and red spider lilies in the fall, so you may want to take a picnic with you when visiting.
There are many spots in the land of Asuka that evoke the romance of history. It can be quite fun to stroll around while imagining what happened 1,400 years ago, so why not plan a visit?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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