Think you know Nara? Think again!
Today we will be traveling back in time to a period long before Nara became the capital of Japan in 710. We’ll be examining the Asuka area and the period of time from 538–710 that bears its name. This section of Japan lies within what is today Nara Prefecture and is located just a few kilometers to the south of the extremely popular Nara Park. Here, in the early mists of Japanese history, the powers of the time began to coalesce into a single group known as the Yamato polity. Thereafter, this group polity and its central imperial line went on to dominate all of Japan for the rest of history. Hell, the present day emperor is a direct descendant of this early lineage!
But hold up. What’s all this about Nara being the capital? Wasn’t Kyoto the “old capital” of Japan? Oh boy, are you in for a bit of confusion here! The simplest way of explaining the early system of the Japanese empire is as follows. Essentially, death in Shintoism is viewed as something impure and the passing of an emperor was considered the ultimate impurity due to his divine lineage. Because of this, it was customary to move the site of the capital following the death of the emperor. Eventually, the Japanese realized that this wasn’t exactly practical and settled on Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo) for the next millennium.
Back to Asuka. This area was the center around which the Yamato polity began to form. The Asuka period (538–710) was the first time in Japanese history when the Emperor of Japan ruled relatively uncontested. They controlled areas in the far off reaches of Japan by bestowing hereditary titles on clan chieftain. Taking a hint from the Chinese, the Yamato polity in Asuka developed a central administration infrastructure built around the imperial line (to which all others were subordinate to). With these systems in place, the Yamato rules were able to suppress rivals and acquire the lion’s share of the agricultural assets.
Today, the Asuka region today is naught but a rural area in present-day Nara Prefecture yet the area is littered with numerous clues to its rich past. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and are a fan of history and/or archaeology, I cannot more highly recommend a visit to this relatively unknown section of Nara Prefecture. While Asuka might not favor adorable deer like Nara Park to the north, it makes up for it in its richness of legacy.
How to Get There
The Asuka region is serviced by the Kintetsu Railway. Most of the attractions are scattered about the area between Kashihara Jingu-mae Station and Asuka Station with the former being the bigger hub. The fastest way to get there is to simply hop on an express train from either Kyoto Station or Tennoji Station in Osaka (actually via the adjacent Osaka Abenobashi Station to be precise). Alternatively, if you’re already in Nara you can access Asuka from the Kintetsu Nara Station. Refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best connections for you. Needless to say, if you’re coming from somewhere else in Japan like Tokyo, you’ll need to start by taking a bullet train.
The real journey begins only once you’re in the Asuka area. All of the attractions are located quite a distance from each other and only a few buses run per hour. Therefore, the best option is to skip public transportation and instead rent a bicycle. Luckily, you can snag yourself some wheels from Asuka Rental Cycling. They have a number of shops throughout the area where you can rent a bike. It will run you a mere 1,000 yen and will save a lot of time waiting for the bus or walking. Note that you need not return the bike to the same shop you rented from but doing so will incur a 200 yen charge.
By far, one of the best attractions in the area is the Asuka-dera temple complex. This structure was founded in 596, a mere 60 years after Buddhism entered Japan. Asuka-dera is often hailed as being Japan’s first full-scale temple and boasts what scholars consider to be the very first daibutsu in Japan (pictured above). My research shows that according to the records, this three-meter tall relief predates Asuka-dera by about 20 years. Supposedly, it was made by a master sculptor whose family had migrated to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Baekje.
Today, Asuka-dera is naught but a modest grouping of buildings that house the statue of the Buddha. That said, evidence shows that the original grounds were much larger and included a pagoda, an auditorium hall, and other buildings. While fires over the years have certainly taken their toll, the main reason for the reduction in size is simply that the original structures were moved to the vicinity of Nara Park. There, the complex developed into a huge temple under the name of Gango-ji which you can still visit today.
Those interested in paying their respects to this ancient wonder of Buddhist art should know that Asuka-dera is located here near the Daibutsu-mae Bus Stop. This location can be reached on the Kame Loop Bus from Kashihara Jingu-mae Station in a few minutes and will run you 250 yen. Given the abysmal frequency of departures though, the buses are often more hassle than they’re worth. Instead, simply rent a bike from the previously highlighted Asuka Rental Cycling for a few hundred yen.
The Massive Ishibutai Tomb
Southeast of Asuka-dera, you’ll encounter the monolithic Ishibutai Tomb that is pictured above. Largely considered to be the most impressive of the ancient stone monuments in Asuka, this tomb is said to belong to Soga Umako, a powerful leader in the Yamato polity. The interior of the structure consists of 30 or so massive rocks that were originally covered by a large mound of soil. Contrary to what one might expect, this archaeological marvel is open to visitors so I highly suggest that you catch an inside glimpse.
The Ishibutai Tomb is located here within a small park. It can be reached via the Kame Loop Bus in about 17 minutes from Asuka station but there’s only a single bus per hour. Again, here, it’s best to heed the advice about renting a bicycle and peddling your way there. It’s only about 10 minutes or so from Asuka-dera by bike.
The Lovely Amakashi Hill
Located right in the middle of the Asuka region this 150 meter-tall hill sports one of the best vantage points of the surrounding area (here’s a Google Map). Many of the attractions in Asuka can bee seen from Amakashi Hill. What’s more, it also has a great view of the so-called three Yamato mountains. Mt. Unebi lies to the west, Mt. Miminashi to the north, and Mt. Amanokagu to the east. If you don’t mind the gentle climb, it’s a great way to take in all of Asuka at once.
For the history buffs out there, know Amakashi Hill also sports a legacy of its own. The records hint that the powerful Soga clan established its domicile here. For much of the Asuka period, this family wielded great influence over the budding Yamato polity. Following the assassination of one of the clan’s leaders in 645, the political landscape changed dramatically and a different faction took the reigns of control.
The Asuka Historical Museum
Interested in learning more about the Asuka period (538–710)? Why not head over to the Asuka Historical Museum! You’ll find it located right here, not too far from the Asuka-dera temple complex. While English translations are unfortunately lacking, there’s nevertheless a great number of models and reconstructions at the museum. Simply viewing these displays can better orient you with the lay of the land while providing an image of the terrain at the time.
One of the coolest things at this museum is the so-called sekijinzo engraving. This stone fountain depicts a man and a women embracing and can be found in the lobby. Supposedly, the stone dates back to the 7th century and was unearthed near the Asuka History Museum. You’ll also encounter a stone fountain called the shumisenseki on display which dates to a similar time and was also found near the museum.
As with most similar establishments in Japan, entry to the museum will run you a few hundred yen. While not a must see, a visit can make for a fine addition to your time in Asuka, especially if you follow my advice and rent a bicycle.
Neighboring Kashihara Jingu
Kashihara Jingu was built in 1889 to honor Japan’s very first emperor, the legendary Emperor Jimmu. Though a relatively new shrine itself, the structures sit on the very spot where Emperor Jimmu is said to have first ascended to the imperial throne. You’ll find it located here in a tranquil forest at the base of Mt. Unebi, one of the aforementioned three Yamato mountains. Given its proximity to the station, you should endeavor to make this either the first or last stop on your visit to the Asuka region.
While still comparatively quite new, Kashihara Jingu is actually rather popular. Some of the current buildings comprising the complex were taken from Kyoto’s old imperial palace. These structures were donated to Kashihara Jingu by Emperor Meiji himself and serve as both the shrine’s honden (main hall) as well as the haiden (prayer hall). The former can only be viewed from far away but you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the latter.
Know that Kashihara Jingu is the only attraction in this area that does not require the use of a bicycle or bus to reach. You’ll find it located here, only a few minutes walk away from Kashihara Jingu-mae station. Due to its proximity to the trains, I suggest you save it for last. That way, you can return your bikes then hop on a train to your next destination.
Other Nearby Attractions
There’s a lot of other things to see in the nearby vicinity of Asuka. That said, if you want do some more exploring, it would behoove you to consider overnighting in the area. This way, you can check out Nara Park one day then go on to explore Asuka and any of the following on the next.
Are you visiting during cherry blossom season in spring? If so, you simply cannot afford to miss the absolutely surreal exemplification of mother nature’s beauty that is pictured above. Located just a few more kilometers to the south of Asuka, Mt. Yoshino is a gentle slope that is home to thousands of cherry trees. Even when they are not in bloom, the mountain is home to a number of historic sites making it well worth a visit!
This remarkably large district is located near the Asuka region and is a perfectly preserved Edo period (1603–1868) town. While such historic districts are usually limited to a collection of a mere few buildings, Imaicho allows visitors to meander through its many alleys. The old merchant town is not entirely as it once stood in history due to the trappings of modern living (such as telephone wires and the occasional car) yet it is certainly still worth a visit.
The counterpart in Nara to Kamakura’s Hase-dera, this temple was founded in 686 and serves as the head of one of Buddhism’s many sects. The complex is nestled in a mountainous valley and is host to over thirty separate structures. The main hall has a great view which is especially stunning during spring and fall (spring for cherry blossoms, and fall for autumn leaves). Much like several other major Buddhist temples, the approach to Hase-dera is lined with a number of charming traditional shops that are worth a quick perusal en route.
Until next time travelers…