Japan City Guides: Asuka
Asuka District 飛鳥
History of Asuka
It was in Asuka, during what is known now as the Asuka Period (538-710) of Japanese history that the beginnings of a centralized Yamato state began to emerge, based on Chinese models of administration. Buddhism, also imported from the Asian mainland, began to be adopted as a form of state religion by the ruling class and there was increased interchange between Japan and continental Asia, in particular the Kingdom of Baekje in Korea.
The capital first established in Asuka was to move later to Heijo Kyo (Nara) in 710 and then again to Kyoto in 794, where it would remain until 1868.
Serious archaeological research and excavation since the 1970's and the creation of various modern museums and other facilities for tourists from that time has led to an increase in visitors, both Japanese and foreigners to Asuka. A full day is necessary to see most of the sites and a trip to Asuka can be easily combined with a longer stay in Osaka, Kyoto or Nara, particular if you have one of the Kintetsu Rail Passes for foreign visitors.
Areas of Asuka
Asuka is now a rural area of quaint villages, rice fields, temples, temple ruins, mysterious stones, burial tumuli (kofun) and other archeological sites covering about 60 hectares and is protected from modern development as part of the Asuka Historical National Government Park.
The Asuka Historical National Government Park is divided up into four main areas of interest: the Takamatsuzuka area, the Ishibutai area, the Amakashi-no-Oka area and the Iwaido area. These districts contain Asuka's main attractions.
The Kitora Tumulus area, south of Asuka Station, is now undergoing archeological excavation to make it more accessible to tourists in the future. The stone burial chamber of Kitora Tumulus contains murals of the Chinese guardian gods of the four directions: Genbu, a black snake-tortoise in the north, Suzuku, a red bird in the south, Seiryu, a blue dragon in the east and Byakko, a white tiger in the west. Replicas of these paintings can be seen in the Asuka Historical Museum and the Asuka Village Gallery of Buried Cultural Properties.
The Takamatsuzuka area, close to Asuka Station, has the free Asuka Historical National Government Park, which gives an overview of the attractions in Asuka by the medium of an historical animation and touch panel screens. Also in this area is a Grass Plaza, an observatory for views over Asuka and the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum, which contains replicas of the murals excavated from the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus. The Nakaoyama Tumulus is also situated nearby along with the Mausoleum of Emperor Monmu.
The Ishibutai area is dominated by the Ishibutai Tumulus, the exposed rocks of an ancient burial mound and the largest known megalithic structure in Japan. The nearby Asukakazebutai (Asuka Wind Stage) is a multi-purpose rest area and venue for various events. Also here are the ruins of the Soga-no-Umako Residence and Shima-no-Miya Place.
Just across the small Asuka River, the Iwaido area has the small, wooded hills of Mt. Fuguri and Mt. Miwa, from where an observatory gives fantastic views over the Asuka plains below. This area is known for its natural beauty including terraced fields dotted with the red flowers of the cluster amaryllis (higanbana) in season.
North of this area is the hillside Okadera Temple and the pretty streets of wooden houses that make up Asuka Village. The Inukai Man'yo Memorial Hall, dedicated to the study of the Man'yoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry is worth a visit here. The building has a pleasant teahouse with an outdoor terrace and cafe.
Just to the west of Asuka Village is the historic Tachibanadera Temple, believed to be the birthplace of Prince Shotoku Taishi in 572. Across the road are the ruins of Kawaharadera Temple (Gufukuji Temple). Further west on this road is the large Tortoise Stone (kameishi), a cute and mysterious creature, somewhat resembling a tortoise, carved into a large granite boulder.
The Amakashi-no-Oka area of Asuka is home to the modern Nara Prefecture Complex of Man'yo Culture, which is free to foreign visitors bearing their passports. This large museum and event space is again dedicated to the poetry of the Man'yoshu, which was mostly written during the Asuka Period. There are numerous tombs in the area and fantastic 360° views from an observatory. The historic Asukadera Temple, said to be the oldest full-scale temple in Japan containing Japan's oldest Buddhist statue is in this area. The ancient stones of the Sakafuneishi (Sake Trough) and the Turtle Shaped Stonework can be found here.
The Asuka Historical Museum is a little farther to the north of this area with exhibitions on the history of Asuka recreated using scale models and an ancient stone fountain dating from the 7th century is also on display.
Access - how to get to Asuka
Asuka Station and Kashiharajingu-mae Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line, are the main points of access for visitors arriving to enjoy the temples and tombs of Asuka.
Trains to Abenobashi in Osaka take about 40 minutes by Limited Express from Asuka Station. To Kintetsu Nara Station, change at Kashihara Jingu-mae and Yamato-Saidaiji stations. Journey time is about 45 minutes.
From Kyoto Station the journey time to Kashiharajingu-mae is 55 minutes. To Kintetsu Nagoya Station change at Kashihara Jingu-mae and Yamato-yagi stations. Journey time is about 2 hours, 20 minutes. From Asuka to the terminus at Yoshino is 36 minutes by Limited Express. Kintetsu also has connections to the Ise Shima area in Mie Prefecture and foreign visitors should benefit when exploring this area from purchasing a Kintetsu Rail Pass or Kansai Thru Pass.
It is possible to walk between the main sites but many people hire a bicycle to get around. Another alternative is the Kame Bus, which shuttles between Asuka Station and Kashiharajingu-mae stopping at the main tourist sites once per hour. At weekends during the main tourist seasons there are two buses an hour. A day pass for the Kame (Tortoise) Bus is presently 650 yen.
There are bicycle rental outlets at Kashiharajingu-mae, Okadera and Asuka stations all on the Kintetsu Line from Yamato-Saidaiji Station and Kintetsu Nara Station. These stations can also be reached from Abenobashi Station in Osaka.