When I arrived in Japan in 1994, I wasted little time in traveling across the country as much as I could, assuming, as most of us do, that I'd only be here a year or two. I saw a good deal that initial year — despite my limited Japanese and only a basic understanding of whatever it was I was looking at.

Now with over two decades of experience as my guide, I've recently begun to revisit some of those places.

I believe I visited Asuka sometime in 1995. I remember little of that trip to this corner of Nara Prefecture, but its pull for travelers interested in Japan’s deep history is undeniable. During the Yamato Period (300-710), this village was one of the earliest capitals of the nascent Yamato state, even meriting its own aptly named Asuka Period (552-645) — a time of cultural blooming and political consolidation (indeed, it was during this era that the country of Japan began to refer to itself by the modern name of “Nihon” instead of the archaic “Wa”).

Asuka's sites of interest are close enough each other that cycling between them makes for a pleasant day's journey.
Asuka's sites of interest are close enough each other that cycling between them makes for a pleasant day's journey. | EDWARD J. TAYLOR

On that first visit (which at times feels as far in the past as the Asuka Period itself), I spied quite a few bicycle-friendly maps. It was this way of seeing the village’s relatively nearby points of interest that tempted me back for another dive into Japan’s distant past.

Cycling through time

I start my tour at one of Asuka's highlights: the pine-covered Takamatsuzuka Kofun tombs. The sides have been cleared and turned into a pleasant park, which is crisscrossed with paths for cyclists or pedestrians. I ride up and around the pines as beneath me a royal personage lost to history lies surrounded by an array of elaborate wall murals designated as national treasures: The mythological Chinese deities of the Azure Dragon, Black Tortoise, White Tiger and Vermilion Bird are depicted as traveling in an entourage of traders. These, as well as the adjacent “Asuka Bijin” mural, preclude any attempt to remove them due to the fragility of the stone

Shrines and temples dot Asuka's landscape, a reminder of its former status as Japan's epicenter of political and religious life.
Shrines and temples dot Asuka's landscape, a reminder of its former status as Japan's epicenter of political and religious life. | EDWARD J. TAYLOR

A bicycle underpass brings me to a small museum whose highlight is a large diorama of the entire plain on which the village of Asuka sits. Behind the museum is a small pond completely covered with lotus plants, whose summer bloom will be a brilliant purple.

Riding through a bamboo grove, I come to the paired stones known as “Oni no Manaita” (Demon's Cutting Board) and “Oni no Secchin” (Demon's Toilet). Japanese legends are rife with monstrous oni (ogres/demons). While in all likelihood components of a now-ruined kofun (ancient tombs), legend has it that this pair of boulders is supposedly where the victims of oni were carved up for dinner and then subsequently disposed of after digestion.

These fantastical tales are said to have occurred during the time of Tenmu, the seventh-century emperor who commissioned both the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki,” ancient chronicles of a semi-mythological Japan in which divine beings walked the Earth. The gods seem occupied with myself as well — a sudden rain begins to fall, forcing me to ride down the road and into shelter under the roof of a small gate to Tenmu's tomb. As I wait for the squall to pass, I marvel at the kame ishi, a stone carved to look like a turtle. Beside it sits a corrugated iron shelter with benches and shelves displaying local produce bagged and tagged at ¥100 but with no merchant in sight. I suppose the honor system is pretty effective, what with all the gods about.

After the storm passes, I pedal away through rice fields to Tachibana Temple, the supposed birthplace of sixth-century imperial regent Prince Shotoku. Shotoku was an early Japanese propagator of Buddhism, which had not long before been introduced from China as a way to civilize the wild tribes of the Japanese archipelago. Tachibana Temple is named for a type of mandarin orange that comes from a tree transplanted from China and is also well-known for its Janus-like two-faced Nimenseki stone carved to represent good and evil.

Asuka is the home to several megalithic sites, including the largest such formation in Japan.
Asuka is the home to several megalithic sites, including the largest such formation in Japan. | EDWARD J. TAYLOR

From here, it is a gentle rise to Ishibutai Kofun, a massive pile of boulders in the center of a patch of grass. This is the largest megalithic site in Japan, though the grassy tumulus has long disappeared. There is little to see inside, so it is better to step back and ponder how anyone could have moved slabs of such size (the ceiling boulder alone weighs 77 tons). I also take the time to wonder why, be it ancient Japan or ancient Britain, similar Stonehenge-like megalithic sites can be found the world over.

Living history

As I'm about to enter the village of Asuka proper, I notice a small lane that has maintained the look of the feudal period that came a century after the height of the Asuka Period, a look that is unspeakably Japanese. Simple buildings of dark wood stand shoulder to shoulder, most converted into galleries or cafes. Nearby sits the Inukai Manyo Memorial Hall, which is named for Takashi Inukai (1907-98), a scholar of Japanese literature who walked throughout the country to sites related to the 1,400-year-old collection of poems known as the “Manyoshu.” Inukai felt that seeing the locations that inspired the poems (with 250 visits over five decades) would bring him and his students a deeper understanding of their meaning, and his exertions contributed to the continued popularity of the “Manyoshu” today.

Inukai also illustrated a number of the poems in the “Manyoshu” in the form of karuta (playing cards). His daughter carries on this work of illustration, and I read through a series that she has translated into English. She joins me as I eat a plate of hayashi rice in the museum's cafe, the enthusiasm about her father's work as colorful as the prints on the walls around us.

Stone carvings can be found almost everywhere in Asuka.
Stone carvings can be found almost everywhere in Asuka. | EDWARD J. TAYLOR

From here, it is a short ride to Asuka Temple, which dates back to 588 and was built under the guidance of craftsmen from Korea (which influenced much of the early Japanese culture, an effect still visible in the bizarre pronunciation of the kanji for many villages in the area). I step inside and find myself before the temple's daibutsu (great Buddha) statue, the oldest in Japan. There is a steadfast dignity in the old Buddha's gaze, unwavering since the year 606, but the scarring in the copper strongly reflects the impermanence of form. This is further exemplified in a small pagoda that sits out back beside rice paddies and commemorates the death of seventh-century noble statesman Soga no Iruka. Accused of plotting to murder a son of Prince Shotoku, his execution and his father's subsequent suicide marked the demise of the powerful Soga clan, the founders of Asuka Temple and the Asuka Period’s leading family.

While the pagoda still stands, most other temples from the period remain only as foundations. Most impressive are Daikandai Temple’s multilevel stone stele and the Yamada Temple site, portions of which have been converted into the impressive Asuka Historical Museum that today houses many ancient Buddhist art pieces and relics.

Similarly, Asuka Temple’s original structure was long ago disassembled, transported 30 kilometers to the north and rebuilt in Nara as Gangoji temple. Buddhism itself is based on the idea of change, and change to the area came quickly. From 710, the imperial court had disentangled itself from the area in favor of Nara, which itself succumbed several decades later to the new capital of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto).

As such, it’s these whispers of past decadence and prominence that dot the landscape of Asuka, eternal reminders of a bygone epicenter of ancient Japan.