which used to flutter the sleeves
of lovely ladies
aimlessly blow on in vain
now that the court moved away.
- Manyoshu, book 1, poem 51
Asuka is a sleepy farming village of just over 6,000 inhabitants located in southern Nara prefecture in central Japan. However, for almost two hundred years, from AD 550 to 710, Asuka was the capital of the mighty Yamato Empire that ruled over the central Japanese plains, and thus, even to this day, Asuka remains a treasure trove of archeological and historical wonders, including several spectacular hill tombs, and the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan.
To reach Asuka, take the Kintetsu line south from Nara or Osaka and get off at Asuka station. The sights are spread out over several square miles of the Asuka valley, so the best way to see them is to rent a bicycle from any of the numerous rental shops surrounding the station. All of the major sites can easily be seen in a single day by bicycle.
Some of the many highlights include:
Takamatsuzuka Kofun: This small kofun (Japanese hill tomb), is only 20 meters in diameter, but when it was excavated in 1972, yielded a burial chamber with spectacularly preserved fresco wall paintings of courtiers in Korean-style garb. Unfortunately, the actual paintings can not be seen because the burial chamber has been closed to preserve them (and besides, it is tiny - only a bit larger than a coffin), but faithful replicas of the paintings can be viewed in a small museum about their discovery located a short ways from the mound.
Ishibutai Kofun: This is the only kofun in Japan where visitors can actually walk into the burial chamber. The chamber was once buried under a massive mound, but the top of the tomb was removed over the centuries by natural erosion, exposing the inner chamber constructed of massive stone blocks.
Asukadera: This small unassuming temple and its five-meter daibutsu are rather unremarkable, but for the fact that it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, believed to have been constructed by Soga no Umako in AD 588.
Itabukinomiya: The Itabukinomiya was one of the ancient Imperial palaces in Asuka, and it was there that Soga no Iruka was assassinated in the Taika coup of 645 that restored direct imperial rule. Foundation stones believed to belong to this palace have been excavated and can been seen in central Asuka.
Temmu-Jito Tenno Ryo: A large hill tomb purported to belong to Emperor Temmu and Emperess Jito can be seen, but because it is the tomb of an emperor, you can't walk on it.
Maruyama Kofun: Maruyama Kofun is the sixth-largest tomb in all of Japan, a massive 318 meters in length. Maruyama Kofun is one of the famous zenpokoenfun or "keyhole-shaped tombs," and is quite impressive to view. The amount of labor that must have been required to move all that earth around truly boggles the mind.
Kameishi: The Kameishi, or "turtle rock" is a massive boulder carved to look like a gargantuan turtle. Nobody knows who made it, or why, but it far predates Asuka's years as the imperial capital.
Other than the sites of historical interest, Asuka is an extremely beautiful place, with it's rolling hills and open spaces, and even moreso in the spring, when the hills are green and the mustard flowers are bright yellow. If you need to get away from Japan's massive megalopolises and breathe in some fresh air and sunshine, a pleasant day bicycling around Asuka is highly recommended.
Translation of Manyoshu tanka poem by yours truly.