Ancient Asuka and the making of Japanese civilisation

The archaic Buddha of Asukadera

The elderly couple study the bus timetable. The bus goes not even once an hour, and the last one departs around 4pm. Clearly, visiting the spread-out sights around Asuka involves some logistics. Most visitors had better advice, I soon discover (that’s Isa), as they have rented electric bicycles. From Japan’s old imperial city of Kyoto, a short train ride has brought me to ancient Asuka and directly into the past – where Japan’s history gets deeper, and muddier.

Nara, a town between Kyoto and Asuka, was the country’s first permanent capital. It was permanent because Buddhism, which had recently been introduced as a state religion, both required and enabled such permanence. Before that, an archaic belief system full of taboos and cleansing rituals had been the prevalent religion. And the state of Yamato (Japan’s name at that time) comprised but a small part of today’s country. Only a small number of noble clans ruled, who appointed a great king or emperor (tenno).

Ishibutai, a megalithic tomb in Asuka

The tennos’ tombs were huge mounds, consisting of a megalithic stone chamber covered with earth. Some of them were in strange keyhole shapes, and surrounded by water.

Keyhole tomb of Kinmei Tenno
The huge keyhole-shaped tomb of Emperor Kinmei can only be viewed from afar

Some of the tombs (such as the Takamatsuzuka tomb) even had fresco paintings as in Chinese or Korean burial mounds. Not all have been properly excavated yet. But in the Ishibutai tomb, the pressed layers of earth surrounding the megalith stones to form a tumulus have meanwhile disappeared. The stone chamber itself is open to the view, a popular backdrop for group photos.

Buddhism is on the rise

After a power struggle in the late 6th century the geographical focus of that state moved to the area around ancient Asuka. From then on for about 100 years this small plain was home to dozens of temples and palaces. With each generation, the government travelled to a new place. Each ruler had his own palace, which his successors burned down or left after his death for religious reasons. During that time, the Soga family became one of the main proponents of introducing Buddhism. Because they were strong believers? No, it was in their interest, as the Soga were a relatively young clan with little clout in the traditional belief system (Shinto).

Quite possibly, the family may even itself have originated in Korea. That was the place from where the first Buddhist texts and images travelled to Japan in the 6th century. In any case, Buddhism came as a package with Chinese-style central administration and a hierarchical system. The latter was quite attractive to the ruling elite, and they quickly endorsed Buddhist temples and brought in specialist Buddhist sculptors.

Asukadera (= Asuka Temple) was the first proper Buddhist temple in Japan. It was the head of the Soga family who founded it in 596, after his traditionalist adversaries had smashed several previous attempts. The large Bronze Buddha still looks much more similar to its continental Chinese models than to later Japanese Buddha statues. No wonder, as the sculptor himself had Chinese ancestry. Other temples followed over the next decades; among them Tachibanadera, founded by the era’s most important ruler, Crown Prince Shôtoku Taishi, who pushed Buddhism further.

Strange fellows in ancient Asuka

And yet, interestingly enough, in between those Buddhist temples and the monumental tombs revering dead emperors as gods – all of which is familiar to Japanese even today – there have remained strange stone sculptures. They are showing freaks and animals whose meaning is lost to us although some may have been guardian figures watching over the dead emperors.

The archaeological sites of the ancient Asuka region are on the UNESCO’s tentative world heritage list since 2007.

For some even more ancient megalithic sites and tomb hills, check out our blog articles on megalithic architecture in Malta or the megalith tombs of Antequera.

NB: We were not sponsored for this travel blog article about a visit to ancient Asuka. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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