Asuka / Kashihara Jingu (飛鳥 - 橿原神宮)
Birthplace of the Japanese Empire, several interesting kofun (burial monuments) and shrines
Asuka village and nearby Kashihara Jingu (shrine) are in the heart of the ancient Yamato country, historically the birthplace of the Japanese Empire and its ancient imperial courts. Yamato (大和) was probably the first name used by the Japanese for their country. The earliest emperors ruled from this area and from around Naniwa - the present-day Osaka. Many of the sights here are legendary or archeological, but there are several places of interest.
Today the Asuka area, while conveniently close to Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto, is relatively quiet farming country with no cities to speak of; Asuka village itself is tiny. The sights are dispersed within an area of several square kilometers which can be explored easily and pleasantly by bicycle along country roads and dirt paths.
You can explore Asuka on a day trip from Osaka, Kyoto, or Nara, but it is worth staying over even if you come by car. This is not a big tourist destination but it is not unknown, and the modest tourist facilities and lodgings are easily overrun on holidays and school breaks. But on normal weekdays and slow weekends it remains pleasantly quiet and rural. The scenery is nice but not spectacular and the sights are mostly of historical interest, but it can be a nice place to get away from it all for a day or two.
Legendarily, the first emperor, Jimmu, reigned from 660 BC, but historians now place the onset of the imperial dynasty around the beginning of the Christian era, and some would have it as late as the third or fourth century AD. Burial mounds and archeological artifacts of high culture from this area have so far been dated as early as 350 AD.
: One historical theory (much ignored by Japanese) is that the imperial line began with (or was at least taken over by) the Empress Jingo (sometimes called Jingu), who - far from conquering Korea, as she is credited with - was in fact an exiled Korean Princess whose armies conquered Japan (Yamato) around 372 AD. [A thorough historical analysis of this point of view can be found in Korean Impact on Japanese Culture
, by Dr. Jon Covell and Alan Covell, which is still in print but very unlikely to be found in Japanese bookstores.] I have written up a summary of some of the more interesting aspects of this somewhat controversial theory in an Appendix: Korean Connection to the Japanese Empire?
The first emperor, Jimmu - whenever (or whether) he actually lived - is reported in the ancient chronicles of Japan (the Nihongi, written in the early 700's) to have built his palace in the "Kashiwa-hara" (oak-plain) near Mt. Unebi. This is clearly meant to be the present Kashihara Jingu area, just a couple of kilometers from Asuka village. A large burial mound, or tumulus, just outside of Kashiwara Jingu is reputed to be that of Jimmu. While this fact is in much doubt, it is clear that some of the earliest emperors lived, and were buried, in this area.
Asuka was first mentioned by name in the chronicles as being established as the seat of the new Emperor Kenzo, in 485 AD. The earliest historical period -- that which scholars can identify and associate with some historical evidence -- is called the Asuka Period, and runs from 552 to 645 AD. The chronicles were written soon enough after this period that some of their information can be taken as historically meaningful, if not always entirely accurate.
The name of Asuka was chosen for this period because so much historical and legendary evidence is found here, and certainly there were several imperial courts in and near present-day Asuka during this period. Like many place names that pre-date writing, the characters used for the name Asuka bear no relation to its pronunciation -- they mean "flying bird".
In these earliest times, it was the custom of each new emperor or empress to establish a new palace in a new location, a practice due largely to beliefs that the house was defiled by the death of the emperor. Often the new palace was built within a few miles, so this 'moving of the capital' caused limited disruption to the general populace. Up until the eighth century, the first 43 imperial palaces and their courts were almost entirely within the Yamato area, centered near Asuka; a few were just a bit west, toward Osaka. It should be understood that in these early times, the 'palaces' were just rambling wood and thatch structures, perhaps in fenced compounds -- encompassing also a shrine and perhaps some ceremonial spaces. Little if any evidence remains of these earliest 'palaces'; they were likely burned as they were abandoned.
At the beginning of the 8th century, the capital was moved north to Nara, a new and ambitiously modern imperial city, laid out on Chinese designs and filled with Buddhist temples and official buildings. This modernization reflected the fact that Buddhism, as well as advanced Chinese cultures of architecture, writing, philosophy, learning, and bureaucracy had begun arriving in Japan - via Korean-based scholars and artisans - beginning in the late 5th or early 6th century AD, and accelerating through the 7th century with acceptance and encouragement by the Japanese Imperial court. No longer could the capital be moved by simply constructing a new palace, and here in Nara the court remained through several reigns from 710 to 784.
For reasons not completely understood, the emperor Kwammu (or more accurately, his Fujiwara regents) then had the capital removed to Nagaoka, farther again to the north. Ten arduous years had been spent constructing this new city, when in 793 - amid times of great intrigue and misfortune - it was decided to abandon Nagaoka for a new site less than ten kilometers north and east.
This new site was on the Kamo River, near the previously existing Kamo Shrine and Koryu-ji Temple, and was renamed Heian-Kyo ('the capital of peace and tranquillity'). In 795, the emperor's new palace was occupied. Heian-Kyo later took its more familiar name of Kyoto, and the capital remained there until 1869.
The easiest plan is just to grab a tourist map of the Asuka area (from your lodging or at the station) and start off on your bicycle (or car) exploring. Despite the various hills mentioned, the terrain is mostly flat. From Asuka station you can make a round trip east to Oka-dera
(temple), north to Asuka village and the Asuka Temple
, then west to Kashihara Jingu
and back again. With a few short diversions, you pass most all of the interesting sights in the area. They are all marked with signs; even if you can't read them, you know there's something there, and the tourist maps have photos or drawings of each point of interest.
The truth is, I first visited Asuka many years ago, and all my literature is in Japanese, which I can barely read. I'm sure today you will find some interesting historical and tourist information in English; check at the museum. Now you can visit the Asuka Historical Museum's new web site
, with numerous photos and up-to-date information about the Asuka area!
First I mention three of the more interesting sights. Southeast of Asuka station, on a side trail up the Nakao-yama
hill, is a burial mound which was opened to the public only in the mid-1970's. This is the Takamatsu Tomb
(Takamatsuzuka Kofun, 高松塚古墳) and it contains some beautiful paintings of court ladies, made on the native rock inside in the 6th or 7th century. (Korean influences are clear to some scholars.) The tomb is closed on Mondays and they tend to shut it off part of the year to preserve the paintings, but it is well worth seeing. (See the Asuka Historical Museum's Takamatsu-zuka Tomb page
, with lots of photos).
South of the Oka-dera temple, at the southeast corner of the circuit, is a very unusual collection of huge rocks called the Ishi-butai
(石舞台古墳), or "stone stage". This "phenomenon" is reminiscent of Stonehenge, in that numerous huge natural stones have been arranged and stacked to make an unusual structure that is both esthetically pleasing and mind-boggling. Who would have done this? Who could have done this? I'm not sure if they know, but it's nice to think that it was some tribe even older than the emperors. You have to go off the main route, just a bit south from the Oka-dera, but don't miss it. (Visit the Asuka Historical Museum's Ishi-Butai Kofun Page
for photos and more info!
Within the Asuka-dera
Temple (飛鳥寺), in Asuka village, is a large bronze statue of a sitting Buddha which was cast in 606 AD, making it perhaps the oldest in Japan. It's black, it's been patched up quite a bit, and it is not the most beautiful of Buddhas, but it is quite a piece of very old Japanese history. Despite a replaced hand and numerous scars, I found it very appealing, but maybe that's just because of its historical significance. The temple is small and (when I was there) dilapidating. (Now you can visit the Asuka Historical Museum's Asuka Temple Page
, with lots of photos!). Those are my big three sights.
At the east edge of Asuka village is the Asuka-za Jinja (shrine), which is perched on a wooded hill. In fact, the hill itself is considered part of the sacred shrine, and it's a nice walk up with some fair views. Just west of the village, across the Asuka river, is another hill on the south ("ancient oak hill") which is also a pleasantly short walk for nice views.
All along the route you will see various carved stones such as the Turtle Stone
, Elephant Stone
, Two-Faced Stone
, Devil's Altar
, and the Devil's Toilet
. These are all figures, or unfathomable designs, carved in ancient days. East off the road between Asuka village and Oka-dera is the "Sake Boat Platform", a flat stone with channels carved in it. It is very similar to those found in Korea, used in a game at imperial courts. A cup of liquor would be floated around the channels, and the recipient had to compose a poem before it arrived.
There are also numerous "sites" of ancient temples that no longer stand, as well as the several temples still extant. And finally you will see various burial mounds, most of which just look like hills. Several have been excavated and you may see some work going on; some are certainly those of emperors. There are three mounds behind the Asuka station. As mentioned, there is a burial mound just north of Kashiwara Jingu, fabled to be that of the first Emperor, Jimmu.
The burial mounds (or tumuli) are properly called 'misasagi' in Japanese, but are more commonly called 'kofun' (ko-FOON = 'old-grave'; KO-fun means sexual excitement). If you get excited about burial mounds, the (really) huge key-shaped and moated tumulus of Emperor Nintoku (4th century) is in Sakai city, southeast of Osaka (Mozu station on the JR Haniwa line from Tennoji); but don't expect to get in. Also in Kashiwara Jingu is the moderately interesting Yamato Historical Museum (Yamato Rekishi-kan) where you can catch up on your ancient history (some English summaries).
The Kashiwara Shrine
itself is just behind the station; it is large and stately, in beautiful grounds which include a large lake in the rear; it is a very pleasant place to stroll around, so leave an hour or more to relax here.
Kashihara Jingu is also a very popular destination during the New Year holidays, and it can get quite crowded then...
You can also meet a few of the local people who still farm the land along your route. The slower your mode of conveyance, the more people will greet you. You might even see some hand-made buckwheat noodles out drying on their racks.
First get to Kashihara Jingumae. "Jingu" means a large shrine, and "mae" means 'in front of'; the railway station is literally right in front of the Kashiwara Shrine grounds, and is a crossroads for several rail lines. (It is sometimes called Kashihara.) There is also a large suburb of Osaka called Kashiwara. This is not to be confused with Kashiwara Jingumae, which is out in the country of Nara Prefecture, just east of Osaka; some of the trains even pass through Kashiwara, so be careful.
From Kyoto take the Kintetsu Nara line south and change at Saidai-ji to the Kashiwara line going south to Yagi and Kashiwara-Jingumae.
From Nara go west to Saidai-ji on the Kintetsu Nara line, and change to the Kashiwara line. Alternately, you can take the JR Sakurai line south from Nara and change to the Kintetsu Osaka line at Sakurai (桜井), then west to Yagi (八木) and change to the Kashiwara line going south. (Omiwa Shrine is just north of Sakurai on the Sakurai line.) Kintetsu is a private railway company; the name is short for Kinki Nippon Railway.
From Osaka take the Kintetsu Osaka line from Namba station toward Sakurai and change at Yagi, south on the Kashiwara line, or take the JR line to Unebi, just north of Kashiwara Jingu and change to the Kintetsu line for one stop. There is also the small Kintetsu Minami (south) Osaka line that goes directly from Tenno-ji in southern Osaka to Kashiwara Jingumae. I'm not sure of the times, but you should be able to get there by train from Osaka or Nara in well under an hour; add 45 minutes from Kyoto.
At Kashiwara Jingumae, you usually change to a smaller rural train continuing south. Oka-dera (岡寺) is the first stop and Asuka (飛鳥) is the second. The actual Asuka town, site of Asuka Temple, is a few kilometers east, and is reached as easily from Kashiwara Jingumae as from Asuka station, by car, bicycle, or on foot. (There is also a limited bus service between Kashiwara Jingumae, Asuka village, Oka-dera and the Ishi-Butai.) This rail line continues south to Yoshino-Guchi where you can either change to the Yoshino Line taking you to Yoshino-Yama (Mtn.), or continue on to Gojo, gateway to the Yamato mountains (Kii Peninsula).
Highway 24 goes straight down from Nara to Yagi; from near there it heads west, and you turn onto the 169 to get to Kashiwara Jingu and Asuka.
There is a collection of minshukus near the Asuka rail station (and not much else); this is the base for most people traveling by train, as more of the interesting sites are near this area. Here you can rent bicycles and cover all the sites, including Asuka Temple and Kashiwara Jingu, in a day. Two or more leisurely days would be even better.
Kashiwara Jingu is a larger town, and a few people even commute to Osaka from here, but it is still fairly small and quiet. This could also be a good place to stay. There are several lodgings and lots of tourist information, as well as bicycle rentals. There is an information and lodging referral office in the modern Kashiwara Jingu station; they can help you secure lodgings anywhere in the area.
This text was published on Randy Johnson's Favorite Getaways In Rural Japan, which is probably the most comprehensive guide for serious travelers in Japan. Reproduced with the permission of the author.
Pictures are from Wikipedia (Japanese version) & sanji's collection.