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2022.03 Explore the History of Ancient Japan in Asuka, Nara [PR]

The Askua Period (552–645)—named after Asuka in northern Nara Prefecture—was an important point in ancient Japanese history, regarded as the time when Japan first established itself as a nation. As the former capital, Asuka was home to palaces where politics were shaped. Today, visitors can explore well-preserved ruins related to important figures of the time.

The name “Asuka" implies a safe place where the people who migrated to Japan at that time found refuge at the end of their wanderings. Experience the origins of Japan as a nation with a visit to Asuka, a tranquil place where people continue to live in peace. 


The legacy of Empress Saimei 


Empresses in ancient Japan played pivotal roles in strengthening the nation as it developed. One important figure of the time was a woman who ruled twice: Empress Kogyoku, also known as Empress Saimei (594–661). She ascended the Imperial throne as Empress Kogyoku, only to renounce her claim during the Taika Reforms (645). These doctrines established national landholding and taxation systems, and strengthened the power of the Imperial Court. She ascended the throne again as Empress Saimei, making her the first person in Imperial history to rule twice. During her rule she began many public works projects intended to strengthen the country. 


Saimei was also known as the “Rain-Making Empress.” According to the Nihon Shoki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), the oldest existing authentic historical record of Japan, Empress Saimei knelt down at the Asuka River in Mebuchi to pray for rain. Her prayer was answered by thunder and was followed by heavy rains. Legend has it that a goddess lives in Mebuchi, a place where visitors can still experience the sacred atmosphere of ancient Japan. 


The tranquil scenery of the 6-meter-high (19.5 ft) falls at Mebuchi.


Visiting the tombs of the Empress and her family 


Asuka is home to two grand tombs: the Kengoshizuka Kofun Tumulus, which is believed to be the burial site of Empress Saimei and her daughter, and the Koshitsuka-gomon Kofun Tumulus, believed to be the resting place of her granddaughter. Both of these sites have undergone 10 years of painstaking excavation and maintenance to open to the public in March 2022. 


The Kengoshizuka Kofun Tumulus is also known as the “Morning Glory Burial Mound,” because of the fields of morning glories that bloom for a limited time in fall and winter, and because of the octagonal shape of the tomb, said to be reminiscent of the flowers. Visit while the morning glories are in full bloom for scenery you can only find in Asuka. 


From autumn to winter, the morning glories around the Kengoshizuka Kofun Tumulus are in full bloom.


The Koshitsuka-gomon Kofun Tumulus is adjacent to the Kengoshizuka Kofun Tumulus.


Other historical sites associated with Empress Saimei 


There are many other ancient sites in Asuka that are related to Empress Saimei and the Imperial Court. The Iwafune Megalith is an enormous, unfinished granite structure  thought to have been built for the burial mound of Empress Saimei. It is 4.7 meters high (approx. 15 ft.), 11 meters east to west (36 ft.), and 8 meters north to south (26 ft.), and resembles the stone chamber of the Kengoshizuka Kofun Tumulus.


Trek to the Iwafune Megalith, located a short walk up a mountain road..


Other sites provide glimpses into the life of the Imperial Court in the ancient capital. The Sakafune-ishi Ruins is a tortoise-shaped granite slab with carvings, believed to be the location where Empress Saimei performed rituals like praying for a good harvest. The Jinto-seki (“Head Stone”) stands in the front garden of Koeiji Temple. This granite stone figure features a large nose, ears, and a protruding chin, and may have been built as decorations for a banquet. The Saru-ishi (“Moneky Stone”) is a remnant of decorations that once adorned the walls of Takatori Castle. The origins of these sites are still uncertain, proving that the ancient world is still full of mysteries. 


The structure of the Sakafune-ishi Ruins is such that water enters through the “head” of the tortoise, flowers through the shell, and exits out the tail.


The Jinto-seki (“Head Stone”) of Koeiji Temple is carved from granite and features a large nose, ears, and a forward protruding chin.


The mysterious Saru-ishi (“Monkey Stone”) of Takatori Castle from ancient times, placed in the vicinity of Asuka.


Experience old world atmosphere, food, and lodging 


In ancient times, Asuka was a cosmopolitan capital that was visited by dignitaries from the outside world. These days, visitors can experience the atmosphere of ancient Japan with a relaxing stay in traditional accommodations, and dine on the creative cuisine for which Asuka and Nara are known. 


Mendoya is a long-established restaurant that serves traditional local cuisine from Asuka Village and Nara Prefecture.


Haru is a restaurant that offers a creative fusion of Japanese and French cuisine using local ingredients.


Kotorian is a traditional guest house that is limited to one group per day.


Pension Asuka is a homey, Western-style guest house with a cafe, where you can stay overnight.


Getting to Asuka


From Kansai International Airport, take the JR Limited Express train to Tennoji Station (Abenobashi), transfer to the Kintetsu Limited Express bound for Yoshino at Kintetsu Abenobashi Station, and get off at Asuka Station. The entire journey takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes. You can also take the limousine bus from Kansai International Airport to Kintetsu Yagi Station, which takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes. From Tokyo, it takes about 4 hours by Shinkansen and limited express train, and from Osaka or Kyoto, it takes about 1 hour by limited express train. Asuka can be conveniently navigated on-foot, by bicycle, or via taxi, among other transportation options.


Related Links


The Dawn of Japan: Women in the Asuka Period



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