|I was a tourist again
What Nara is to Kyoto, Asuka is to
Nara. Each is older, smaller, more doable, and more evocative than
My first experience in Asuka was on a
bicycle in sweltering heat; the second time, I hit a few highpoints by
bus. I was surprised, then, to discover today how walkable the
place is. Starting from Asukadera (after taking a bus there from
Kasiharajingumae Station), I walked to Asuka Station easily in 5 hours,
taking in all the sights along the way except for Okadera and a few
The standard adjective in tourism
literature for Asuka is "mysterious." Well, it is
mysterious, evoking sensations and raising questions more than most
other places I've been in either America or Japan. It feels more like
the great Pueblo ruins of the Southwest than it does like Japan.
The center of the "mystery" is a number of carved stones whose
uses--and even provenance--are unclear. I saw several of them
First, Asukadera. The pamphlet says,
"This is the oldest temple in Japan, believed to have been built by
Soga-no-Umako in 588." It then goes on to explain that when
the capital was moved to Nara, so was the temple, "and the temple
The buildings we see today are fairly
modern. The real attraction is the statue of the Buddha, often
called "The Asuka Daibutsu," or big Buddha.
It's not so big. And most of it
is not so old. The pamphlet honestly states, "Only the
image's face and hands are original." Lonely Planet
calls it "decidedly tatty."
I don't care. It's awesome.
See more on this Words and Pictures
I prayed in front of it, which was
quite a feat. Given its status as the oldest blah blah blah, as
you would expect it is overrun with school kids. And unlike some
temples, this place doesn't require them to enter quietly and sit
reverently through a lecture. They're allowed to enter as they
will, react naturally ("IT'S BIG!"), and be themselves.
Once I got used to it, I found this quite pleasing. They had
worksheets to fill out, and the docents got in a few shots here and
there, but mostly they just seemed to be free to relate to the Big Guy
any way they chose.
Walking on from Asukadera, I saw some
of the mysterious stones--and had an adventure.
Following the well-marked trail (Asuka
has great signage), I easily found the Sakafuneishi. This stone
sits in a bamboo grove and some have speculated that it was used in making sake.
Its true purpose--and even its makers--remain a mystery.
In February of
2000, a little light was shed on this mystery when another stone was
discovered: a stone basin in the shape of a turtle, situated in a large
cobbled plaza, and part of a waterworks system. It's only about 75
meters from the Sakafuneishi, and is believed to be part of the
Both stones are near the "Futatsuki
Palace," and are thought to have been used in water-related
ceremonies by the Empress Saimei (594-661). Turtles were held
sacred at that time, and the basin appears to take water in through its
mouth and pass it on--uh--naturally.
I had to solve a little mystery of my
own. While wandering through the grounds of the museum near the turtle,
I took a wrong turn and ended up in a restricted area. I took this
shot--having no idea what it was--and then found my way out, hopping a
hedge and whistling nonchalantly as I strolled into a parking area.
Had I been in normal clothes, I might have felt more comfortable,
but anyone could see I didn't belong there!
Meanwhile: anyone know what this place
The sign leading off to the Asuka Itabuki
Palace site is a little more honest than we usually expect from tourist
authorities! Anyway, this undeveloped and largely unexcavated
palace site is typical of Asuka: since it's never been a modern city, it
has dozens of remains and open spaces just waiting to be explored.
As the Pagoda at Toji is the emblem of
Kyoto, so the Ishibutai symbolizes Asuka. Although the name
means "stone stage," this was a misunderstanding on the part
of the local people. Actually, it was the inner walls of a kofun,
or burial chamber. This one probably had a square base, capped by
a round knob containing the actual burial. In time, the earth over the
chamber was eroded, leaving the top of the upper stone exposed in a rice
field (looking like a "stone stage"). In 1933, this was excavated.
There is a chamber below the
stones--now empty. At what stage were the contents removed? I
can't find any information on what might have been there at the time of
excavation. It is believed--but not certain--that this was the
tomb of Soga-no-Umako, the man who had Asukadera built--and committed
several murders to put his niece, Empress Suiko, on the throne.
This helped consolidate the pro-Buddhism party's hold on the government.
It's ironic, then, that Buddhism led to the end of the kofun-building
phase, as cremation replaced burial.
Down the road a piece are the ruins of
the Kawaharadera. It was converted from a palace in the reign of
Emperor Tenji (662-671), but I can find no information on when and how
it was destroyed.
Shown here are the 12 post bases for
the Niomon, or two kings gate. The entrance would be
through the center, with front and back bays on either side. The temple
in the background is a "modern" one located entirely within
the old temple's precincts.
Across the road is Tachibanadera.
Along with Horyuji (which we saw briefly yesterday), this is one of
seven temples built by Buddhism's most ardent promoter, Prince Shotoku
Taishi. He is said to have been born here, and later to have
preached a sermon here to Empress Suiko--with miraculous results.
"[B]ig lotus flowers fell from the sky and lay one meter deep in
the garden and one thousand Buddhas appeared with their heads enveloped
by haloes...Moreover, light emanated from the headgear he was
Formerly much larger, it is now a
pleasant mid-sized temple, with some wonderful statuary.
Primarily, though, it boasts a spectacular location--right next to the
mountain whereon those Buddhas appeared.
Also on the grounds of Tachibanadera is
the Nimen-seki, or "Two-Faced Stone." It was
formerly located nearby, but moved into the precincts in the Edo Period.
Dating to the 7th century, it is now
interpreted as being a depiction of "good" (on the right, of
course) and "evil" (on the left, sinister side).
Frankly, I find the left face hard to
make out. But the right is clear--and clearly related to the
"monkey stones" below.
As I walked from Tachibanadera toward
the famous "turtle stone," a group of school kids ran up and
started a conversation. Here they are.
This sleepy-eyed guy is downright cute.
Some think the Kameishi or "Turtle Stone" was a
boundary marker, but no one's sure. I noticed on this trip that
his nose is pointing toward a kofun. Could these stones around
Asuka have been placed to point out important burials? We'll never
know, as few of them are now in their original positions. Another
clue to their uses may lie in the area of archaeoastronomy, discussed
These stones are commonly called "The
Devil's Toilet" and "The Devil's Chopping Board,"
respectively. There is nothing mysterious about them, however.
The "toilet" used to sit hollow-side down on the
"chopping board," constituting a burial chamber. At some
point the kofun in which they were located was destroyed, and the top
portion was dislodged and rolled downhill. A local legend
connected with their folk-names maintains their association, however; it
is said that demons would capture travelers, chop them up on the board,
eat them, then pass them into the toilet. But it's just a
More mysterious stones: The famous
"Monkey Stones" (Saruishi) of Asuka have attracted a
lot of spectulation. Read more about them--and see them--on this Words
and Pictures page.
Approaching the Takamatsuzuka kofun from
the rear., you know something's up: this shape just ain't natural.
The entry we see is modern; it allows
access for scholars to an amazing find. When excavated in 1972, it
was discovered that the interior was painted with frescoes.
Although the general public can't see them, we can see reproductions in
a museum next door. They are magnificent. There is an
extensive, illustrated article available here.
The article mainly discusses the idea
that the murals depict the heavens, both
literally in terms of constellations, the sun, and the moon; and
figuratively in terms of celestial guardians.
This sanctifying of science brings up
the issue: were there any connections between the "mystery
stones" of Asuka, and the idea of archaeoastronomy, the
understanding of the skies by the ancients? Could there have been
alignments or positions reflecting the heavens, lost to us now because
the key figures have been moved? We'll never know.
Leaving ancient and mysterious Asuka, I
jumped on a train back to Nara--and snored like crazy.
When I awoke at Saidaiji, where I
changed trains, a gentleman was smiling at me. We left the train
in different directions, then met again downstairs. "Ahhh,"
he asked, "Are you a pilgrim?" Yes, I said, I walked
from Tokyo to Kyoto, and day-after-tomorrow I'll be on Shikoku.
"Shikoku, huh? Walking?" Mostly.
"Well," he said, digging out his wallet and handing me a
thousand yen, "please remember me."
Tomorrow I move to another youth
hostel--on sacred Mount Koya. I don't know how the reception will
be up there for my phone connection, so you may not hear from me for a
couple of days. Not to worry. Next stop after that: Shikoku.
Much of the information for today's page
was gleaned from a great site posted by a museum in Asuka. Check
it out for more information.