Sign up for my Newsletter & Podcast!

Asuka (Thu., Oct. 11th, 2001)

 Thursday, October 11, 2001 (click to see all posts from this day)
 The Yamato Area


I was a tourist again today.

What Nara is to Kyoto, Asuka is to Nara. Each is older, smaller, more doable, and more evocative than the next.

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 redundant kofuns.

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 today.

Asukadera (MAP)

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 became dilapidated."

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 page.

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.

Mysterious Stones and Other Remains

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 (MAP). 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... (MAP)

...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 same complex.

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 is?

The sign leading off to the Asuka Itabuki Palace site (MAP) 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 (MAP) 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.

Ancient Temples (and more stones)

Down the road a piece are the ruins of the Kawaharadera (MAP). 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 (MAP). 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 wearing."

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.

Still More Stones, and an Intact Kofun

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" (MAP) 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 briefly below.

These stones are commonly called "The Devil's Toilet" (MAP) and...

..."The Devil's Chopping Board," (MAP) 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 legend... isn't it?!

More mysterious stones: The famous "Monkey Stones" (Saruishi) (MAP) of Asuka have attracted a lot of speculation. Read more about them--and see them--on this Words and Pictures page.

Approaching the Takamatsuzuka kofun from the rear (MAP), 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.

Wrapping Up

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."

Wow again.

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.

    ← Previous Day Back to Yamato Area Guide Next Day →    

Posted October 6, 2019

No comments:

Post a Comment