Bamboo forest
Historic site, Nara

Visiting the Mysterious Stoneworks at Asuka in Nara

I have been to Asuka more than five times to see ancient stoneworks since my childhood. Asuka’s stoneworks are not sophisticated but are still unforgettable. The exact construction period and reasons for building are unknown. Tokyo is sometimes called a treasure trove of design, and Asuka should be thought of as one of the origins of Japanese design. People at those times tried to master arts and architecture and learn politics from China and Korea. IMG_8510Every stonework at Asuka has a unique design. We tried to explain those stoneworks referring to what we know, such as calling them as monkey or turtle. But at those times, people might have called them by different names. My kids and I played mystery riddles on each stone to guess what it had been used as.

Stoneworks are located in residential areas, rice fields and next to schools and they are part of everyday life in Asuka. We rented bicycles at Asuka Station and visited several stoneworks. Here are our top picks for the best stoneworks in Asuka, from Saruishi to Sakafuneishi which was our final destination.Saruishi

Saruishi Monkey like stones

Saruishi stoneworks with faces of monkeys were said to be made in the Asuka period in the 7th century. These were found near a Kibihime-no-Miko (a royal princess) Tomb, but their purpose is unknown. The Saruishi stoneworks area was surrounded by a fence but you can see detailed face and body features. Each of them has different expressions and it is fun to compare them to each other. The technique to carve the big stones is astonishing. I have no idea who made these, but the creator must have high skills and deep beliefs and passion to achieve the task.IMG_8408IMG_8397

Oni-no-Setchin and Oni-no-Manaita

After cycling the field for a while, Oni-no-Setchin (Toilet of Japanese goblin) stonework was suddenly appearing on the edge of a paddy field. It was placed between a school and rice fields. “Oni” means a goblin. People in ancient times believed the Oni goblin used the stone as a toilet and a cutting board. The name was based on the legend that the Oni goblin cooked travelers on the chopping board and used the toilet.Oni-no-SetchinPeople wondered why those stoneworks were put there and they needed some reasons to solve a difficult question. The legend might start from someone’s imagination. It is a legend but when I saw two huge stoneworks among the rice fields, I was certain that people must be convinced of the story. Oni-no-Setchin and Oni-no-Manaita used to be a stone cover and floor of a hollowed out style side-opening stone chamber. It was thought to have been constructed in the mid-7th century.IMG_8424

Kameishi Turtle Like Stone

Kameishi stonework was the hardest to find for us, but we could find it after following a crowd to take a photo of Kameishi. It was kind of a treasure hunting game. We had a map and apps and there were no tall buildings, but it was hard to find it and we were desperate to find. Kameishi stonework was carved tortoise with a gentle smile. This huge stoneworks was astonishing for people at those times, but the purpose is unknown. Kameishi was much like a kappa, water imp, for us.IMG_8435

Ishibutai (Stone Stage) Tumulus

Ishibutai Tumulus, an ancient tomb, has the largest stone huts in Japan. It was constructed in the early 7th century and is located in the gently sloping terraced fields. Ishibutai Tumulus is the most famous and popular stonework in Asuka. It used to be covered with an earthen mound as tumulus. Now the earth has eroded away and you can enter the burial chamber.Ishibutai TumulusThe stonework is also overwhelming and beautifully piled and fits perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. The construction and civil engineering technology was advanced and many people must have worked hard on the construction by carrying huge stones and earth. The embankment of the grave mound was detached at an early stage and this has revealed giant side-hole type stone huts. Their weight would be about 2,300 tons.

Sakafuneishi, Sake Trough Stone

Sakafuneishi, Sake Trough Stone, is my most favorite stonework in Asuka. The shape of the stone with huge drains is unique in itself and the surroundings of the area are calmed by a bamboo grove. The approach to Sakafuneishi is a short mountain path and this atmosphere is different from other stoneworks located in the middle of rice fields. It made me a little bit nervous to walk along the mountain path without a guide-board but suddenly Sakafuneishi appeared in front of us. Bamboo forestThe surface has been smoothed flat, carved round and connected by straight drains. It was said to be used for brewing alcohol or producing medicine, but the actual purpose is unknown. The shape itself is so unique and it makes you imagine various ways that it must have been used. I like the design of the sculpture with some holes and routes connecting to each other. Sakafune StoneworkIt was fun to imagine how people in ancient times squashed fruits in the holes on Sakafuneishi stonework.It was like playing a hunting game to ride in a green field by bicycle and it was the best way for my kids to release their stress of visiting old buildings. It might be hard to visit the Asuka area on a rainy day. In that case, renting a car would be the best solution to see several stoneworks and temples. Each historical site has a parking area and the road is wide enough so you can drive safely.

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