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