One of the reasons to revisit Nara was the delight of cycling in Asuka. When I visited Nara with my mom at first, I was so bored and tired of seeing old temples and statues. I had felt sick inside the dark wooden buildings and wanted to go outside to get some fresh air. My mom saw my tiredness and brought me to Asuka for cycling, about 25 km south of the Nara city. My stress was released with its spacious scenery after cycling under a blue sky.
When I came back to Asuka with my kids, the scenery hadn’t changed at all. The rental bicycles were renewed with bright colors and the number of convenience stores had increased, but there were still no tall buildings in Asuka. The contrast of rice fields and historical remains created unique scenery that differed from the impression of traveling among rice fields in the Tohoku area, in the north part of Japan.
The Asuka period was the origin of a centralized government created in the 6th and 7th century and the Asuka area was the center of culture in the 7th century. Old temples and shrines were coexisting and tumulus and mysterious stoneworks remained. It was said that the Asuka period and Kofun (tumulus) period would have been overlapping. During the Kofun period (mid-3rd to 7th century) tumulus were constructed as a symbol of power. Now, the Asuka area seems very calm and beautiful with historical temples and remains of the old structures.
How to get there
It takes one hour from Nara Station to Asuka Station by a public train. The Asuka area is perfect for a one day trip and it has good conditions for cycling. We started from Asuka Station to Takamatsuzuka Tumulus. The distance from one historical site to the next is relatively close, taking about 10-15 mins, so it was easy to see around by bicycle.
One of my most favorite scenes at Asuka is always looking back from the top of Takamatsuzuka Tumulus. A Nara local sometimes complains that there is nothing in Nara. For me it is impressive to see the greens of rice fields and bushes and the blue sky. My kids sighed naturally with an exclamation when they saw the scenery from the top of Takamatsuzuka Tumulus.
Takamatsuzuka Tumulus was constructed from the end of the 7th to the beginning of the 8th century. You can see much influence from China and arts and culture of Buddhism introduced through the Korean Peninsula. Four Chinese gods, constellations, men and women groups, called Asuka beauties, were drawn on its stone burial chamber. It was understandable how difficult it is to maintain the tumulus after visiting the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum. Over many years, the tumulus was encroached by grave thieves. The stone huts have been carried away and the wall paintings are being restored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
The Asuka period is when Buddhism began to assume political and cultural power in Japan. You can see the strong influence from China and Korea in the Asuka Great Buddha. Asukadera Temple is thought to be the first temple in Japan and was founded in 596 as an initiative of Soga Umako, the leader of the powerful clan during the Asuka period. Buddhist prosperity had just begun and Umako constructed the first temple in Asuka. Asukadera Temple was rebuilt in the 17th and 19th centuries.
I wanted to see the architecture technique, even though the building was rebuilt several times after the first construction. The Asuka Great Buddha of the temple was said to be constructed in 609 with 15 tons of copper and 30 kg of gold. It was created by Kuratsukuri Tori, who was reported to be an immigrant from the Korean Peninsula. The Buddha is about 3m in height and has a tender and elegant atmosphere. The Asuka Great Buddha survived domestic wars through the huge efforts of locals. The most impressive part was its closeness. The big statue stands in front of us and we could almost touch it.
Asuka’s “So” Cheese
I bought Asuka’s “So” which was originally made by milk in the 7th century. It used to be very precious and only nobility could have it. When I was a child, I heard a news story about how Japanese eating habits had changed from Japanese style to Western style in the 20th century. One of changes was starting to drink milk. So, I misunderstood that Japanese had never drunk milk. However, people in the Asuka period had already used milk as a medicine. I wanted to try to eat “So” made by evaporating milk for more than 7 hours. I bought it at a souvenir shop next to Asukadera Temple. The taste is similar to butter but has a more mellow and smooth texture.
Asuka Historical Museum
In order to take a rest under the air conditioner after long cycling, we went to Asuka Historical Museum exhibiting mainly 6th and 7th century history and cultural fine-art materials and replicas. The size of the museum is not big, but we could understand how to excavate tumulus and fine arts which were found at Tumulus. My favorite replicated stonework was Shumisen-seki stonework spouting out water from several holes on the stones. It was known to be displayed at Asuka’s ancient garden.
What makes Nara a special place for me is its convenience as a city with lots of shops and cafes, while simultaneously providing the natural circumstances of historical sites. We enjoyed being outdoors as we visited historical sites.
We stayed in the Asuka area for over 5 hours, but we could not see all the stoneworks and historical sites in one day. Asuka is one of the places where I want to go back to stay one night.