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.

Asuka mapTombs, 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 figures

Demonic sanitation
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

Tomb raider
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.

Getting there:

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.

Tourist Information:
Asuka Village Office: 0744-54-2001;
Asuka Village Tourist Development Corp: 0744-54-4577

389: God speed
The mother of all Shinto temples, Ise Grand Shrine
385: Hattoji
Highland hamlet
380: Nagasaki
Remembrance of things past
378: Kawagoe
From modern Tokyo to "Little Edo"
376: Tottori
Tottori's stunning landscapes
375: Kyushu
Bed and bath under the volcano
373: Ryogoku
Land of the giants
372: Osaka
Universal Studios Japan
371: Osaka
Amerika-mura: Osaka's funky town
369: Mie
Mikimoto Pearl Island
368: Takarazuka
Hyogo-ken's all women theater group
365: Kawasaki
Kawasaki's annual fertility festival
364: Aomori
A day on Fear Mountain
362: Nagano
Chill out snowboarding
361: Asuka
One foot in the grave
356: Yamanashi
Hakushu's hidden treasures
355: Waseda Tram Trip
A streetcar named...
352/3: Aomori
Jesus in Japan
351: Kumamoto
Under the volcano in Kyushu
350: Sado Island
Explore the forgotten charms of Shukunegi