One foot in the grave
|Ishibutai, symbol of Asuka
Photos by Mary King
Mary King uncovers mysterious burial mounds
scattered around the Asuka area that may hold the key to Japan' ancient culture.
Tombs, burial mounds and mysterious
stone sculptures seem to cast a hypnotic spell over the mind, conjuring up images of some
of the world's greatest archeological jewels and enigmas. Here, in Japan, where the
archeological record is one of the most intensely studied, theories on the roots and
belief systems of the land's ancient inhabitants are constantly being advanced and
explored. Large tombs of banked earth known as kofun were built mainly for the
ruling elite between the fourth and early eighth centuries AD, and are considered by many
Japanese archeologists to be a vital source of information on the social and political
organization characteristic of the Kofun Period (AD 300-710).
The earliest burial mounds, usually round or keyhole-shaped, were constructed on hilltops
overlooking fertile land in the Kinai (today's Kinki) region. The largest of all is that
of Emperor Nintoku at Sakai, just south of Osaka. Built at the beginning of the fifth
century, this key-hole shaped mound is 486m in length and, together with its three moats
and two expanses of green, occupies some 30 hectares. Many scholars speculate that the
tomb may reveal clear evidence that Nintoku was of Korean origin, thus dealing a fatal
blow to much of the mythology that surrounds the origin of Japan and its people.
Archeologists and other specialists are keen to study its contents, but the Imperial
Household Agency, which protects and preserves the burial mounds, refuses to allow
excavations at this site.
|Mausoleum of Emperor Kinmei
Most of the archeological
sites in the Asuka area are scattered over the countryside, so you might wish to hire a
taxi for the day or hop on a bicycle. Bicycle rental stores can be found near Asuka stn or
Kashihara stn (both on the Kintetsu Kashihara Line). Once you've opted for your mode of
transport, you will find yourself weaving through lanes alongside paddies and meadows as
you make your way from the ruins of old palaces and tombs to the many temples dotted about
the village. Unlike Nara or Kyoto, Asuka was never a city, so many historical facts that
lie buried under this vast plain seem destined to remain shrouded in eternal myth. For
those curious about Japan's early burial culture, the Asuka Plain, an easy day-trip from
Nara or Kyoto, is the perfect starting point.
|One of four monkey-shaped stone
Still, there are more than enough testaments to one of Japan's greatest historical periods
to delight the tourist, among them such wonderful structures as the Demon's Toilet (Oni
no Setchin), the Tortoise Statue (Kameishi), and Monkey Stones (Saruishi).
Ishibutai, an exposed tomb with the largest known crypt of any Asuka burial site, has long
been regarded as the village's symbol. Lying alone in a golden field, the tomb is believed
to be the resting place of Umako, the Soga clan leader who with his father, Iname,
committed several murders in his zeal to see Buddhism embraced. In AD 587, having
vanquished their rivals, the Nakatomi and Monobe clans, Umako placed his niece, who was of
imperial blood, on the throne as Empress Suiko (AD 593-628) and contented himself with
ruling from behind the throne. Not far from the tomb, you can find what is reputed to be
Japan's oldest temple, Gango-ji, or Asukadera, built in AD 588 on the orders of Umako.
Inside sits the image of Shaka Nyorai Buddha, a time-ravaged symbol of the religion whose
arrival in the Asuka Plain would spell the death of the kofun culture, with cremation
thereafter becoming the preferred way of disposing of the dead.
|Exploring the Ishibutai , the crypt
of one of Japan's ancient leaders
The culture of building huge tomb mounds spread from the Kinai area to other parts of the
country, and by the early fourth century kofun took on a greater variety of forms-some
square, some gourd-shaped, were being built in northern Kyushu. But it was in the fifth
century that they underwent their most drastic change, with a corridor leading to the
burial chamber, giving rise to the culture of family tombs. The funerary objects placed
inside were mainly ceremonial-Chinese bronze mirrors, necklaces, bracelets, iron weapons
and armor. Certainly, the most notable were those that decorated the surface of the kofun:
unglazed earthenware cylinders known as haniwa in forms that portrayed the human figure,
warriors and animals, household utensils and even houses. These striking sculptures-some
up to 1.5m high-are thought to have served a ritual function of defining the sacred burial
precincts, as well as protecting the spirit of the deceased.
According to legend, Asuka is where Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, settled and died, and
his body is reputed to lie in a burial mound behind Kashihara Jingu. Surrounded by gently
sloping mountains and golden fields, this area of northern Nara Prefecture is considered
by many academics to be the cradle of Japanese civilization. Last year there were two
dramatic discoveries, casting new light on how the ancient capital of Asuka was
constructed. Excavations at the Sakafuneishi remains, a space reminiscent of the
Colosseum, revealed a turtle-shaped structure and some stone steps in what some
archeologists believe was part of the forecourt of Futatsuki Palace, where Empress Saimei
(AD 655-661) would have greeted guests. Some researchers speculate that the imperial
family may have held purification ceremonies in the forecourt, while others dwell on the
structure's shape, linking it to ancient Chinese ideologies in which the turtle is said to
have represented eternal youth, or to Chinese cosmogony in which an aquatic turtle was
believed to live in the Milky Way and govern the watery world.
|The pagoda of Sogano Iruka lies in
a field of gold
The other great discovery
was at Kitora Tomb, sparking further speculation on just whose body lies within this
1300-year-old kofun. Although a micro-camera probe of the tomb failed to divulge all its
secrets, it did reveal a magnificent mural of a celestial map and the images of
mythological beasts guarding the body in its eternal sleep. One school of thought is that
the tomb holds the remains of royalty from Korea's ancient Paekche kingdom, a father and
child who fled to Japan when the kingdom collapsed in the seventh century. Other
researchers believe it is the tomb of a powerful foreign clan member who came to settle in
Japan, or a group resting-place for descendants of the Paekche royal family. Regardless of
what many Japanese prefer to believe about their roots, by the ninth century, one-third of
Japan's nobility claimed descent from the continent. The Takamatsuzuka Tomb, situated on
the Asuka Plain, contains frescoes similar to those found in Korean tumuli, and experts
have noted various similarities between this tomb and the Kitora Tomb. While the origins
of these great monuments remain a source of debate, one thing is sure, modern visitors are
still captivated by their ancient mystery.
From Osaka by Kinki Nippon Railway Co. it takes about 50min to reach Asuka. From Nagoya to
Asuka takes about 2hr 30min. From Kyoto or Nara, take Kintetsu Express Line to
Kashihara-Jingumae stn, and connect to a local train to Asuka, two stops south. Journey
time is around 50min and 30min, respectively.
Asuka Village Office: 0744-54-2001;
Asuka Village Tourist Development Corp: 0744-54-4577