A visit to Asuka

A visit to Asuka

Nestling in the foothills at the southern end of the Nara basin in Japan is the village of Asuka. This region, full of ancient tombs and temples, is the focus of the Japan chapter of our Nara to Norwich story. It was here that the first planned capitals laid out in the Chinese style are constructed. In AD 588 according to the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), compiled some 140 years later, the first recorded Buddhist temple was constructed in Japan, at the instigation of Soga no Umako (蘇我 馬子, c.551 – 626). A visit to Asukadera today does not really do justice to the impact that the construction of this huge temple, built under the guidance of specialists from the kingdom of Baekje (18 BC–AD 660) on the Korean peninsula, had on the surrounding landscape, as little survives of the original. Across the landscape, however, there are traces of past glory to be encountered, and it was wonderful to return there in September, to continue to realise one of the objectives of our project—to bring ongoing research to the attention of our exhibition visitors. This was my first trip to Japan following the Covid-19 pandemic (‘Corona’ in Japanese), and it was obvious that our colleagues there were busy while so much of the world has been locked down.

The Nara to Norwich team visited Asuka in 2019 as part of a research visit that took us to Korea and Japan. We held a research seminar at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Nabunken), which celebrates its 70th anniversary at the end of November 2022, and visited the Asuka Historical Museum, with its impressive models of the Asuka region when it was the capital of Japan, remains of the Yamada-dera temple, and displays of the finds from the area, including extensive workshops producing metalwork, glass, tiles and much more for the capital. Archaeologists from the Nara Prefectural Kashihara Archaeological Institute were excavating the gardens of the palace associated with Emperor Tenmu (天武天皇, c. 631 – 686), buried beneath an octagonal mound near to that of his wife the Empress Jito (持統天皇, 645 – 703). These excavations are now complete and fully reported.

The Nara to Norwich team in front of Takamatsuzuka in 2019.

One of our project partners, Yoshimura Kazuaki, Head of the Curatorial Division, guided me around the renewed exhibition at the Museum affiliated with the Institute. A visit to this museum decades ago and an early encounter with the archaeological riches of Nara prefecture had been instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my interest in Japanese archaeology. It was therefore a particular pleasure to see the newly re-installed displays, especially as the galleries had been closed for the refurbishment when we visited in 2019. One of the many highlights (others include the best collection of prehistoric Jomon dogu ceramic figures from western Japan, from the neighbouring Kashihara site, and an impressive display of haniwa terracotta tomb figures) are the burial goods recovered from a small circular tomb adjacent to one of the most famous temples in Japan, Hōryūji (法隆寺). This temple is traditionally associated with Shōtoku Taishi (聖徳太子, 574 – 622) the focus of our Faces of Faith intervention at the Sainsbury Centre in 2021. The Fujinoki tomb was investigated in the 1980s. Unusually it had not been looted in antiquity, and the multitude of grave goods, including spectacular gilt bronze shoes, horse trappings, and other paraphernalia, some decorated with motifs similar to those found in China, speak to the continental influences in the Yamato polity that are of great interest to the Nara to Norwich project. We hope to do more with these remarkable objects during our project. As the originals were on display in China when we visited in 2019 we had to make do with the exquisite reproductions commissioned by the Museum, which as compensation do in fact allow the superlative craftsmanship involved in the manufacture of the originals to be fully appreciated. It is a particular pleasure and privilege to be working with the Kashihara Archaeological Institute as it has long been the centre for much research on the Silk Roads in Japan.

The following morning we were up early to visit Hasedera (長谷寺). Historical records indicate that it was established in AD 686 when a large bronze plaque with sections of the Lotus Sutra (‘Hokkekyo’ in Japanese) was forged by the Buddhist priest Domyo (道命, 974–1020) and enshrined to assuage an illness afflicting the Emperor Tenmu (whose gardens were being excavated by the Kashihara Archaeological Institute). Sadly the efforts were unsuccessful as Tenmu succumbed that same year. The temple is now renowned for its seasonal blooms: including over 1000 cherry trees of 10 varieties, 7000 tree peonies of some 150 varieties, over 3000 hydrangeas, a huge gingko designated a Natural Monument in its own right, and a mass of maples thought to match the ‘glamorous layered fashions’ (kasane) of Heian period court ladies. The main temple complex is reached along the famous Ascending Corridors, currently 399 steps along some 135 metres. The bronze plaque, 84 x 75 cm, bears 319 kanji from the Lotus Sutra, surmounted by a three-storied stupa-pagoda, a host of bodhisattvas and two fearsome guardian deities. This plaque, called Hokke sessozu (Buddha preaching the Lotus Sutra), now a National Treasure, is displayed in the spring and autumn. Hasedera marks the start of the pilgrimage route that led from the Yamato region and the palaces and temples of Asuka, to the Grand Shrine of Ise, where the principal Shinto deity Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, was enshrined. We will pick this theme up again in our forthcoming story on pilgrimage. The main Buddhist image is a gilt-wood statue of the Eleven-Faced Kannon (Avalokiteśvara). At over 10m tall it is the largest wooden Buddha in Japan, created by the 16th century master carpenter Unshu. A further important treasure is a 16m long late 15th century scroll of an earlier version of the principal image destroyed by fire in 1495.

A few days earlier I had been greatly impressed by a new conservation initiative. A few miles northwest of Hasedera, in Sakurai city south of Nara, is the new Nara Prefecture Historical and Artistic Culture Complex. Opened just this spring, in the spirit of the michi no eki or road stations movement which combine the facilities of a roadside service area with distinctive local interest, this complex offers the opportunity for visitors to engage with actual ongoing conservation of cultural properties, enjoy virtual heritage experiences, and take in an exhibition all while taking a break from their journey. An initiative involving Nara Prefecture, Tenri University, the Art Research Center at Ritsumeikan University (a long-standing partner of the Sainsbury Institute), Nara Prefectural University and Tokyo University of the Arts, this development brings Nara’s exceptional Buddhist heritage out of the museum and temple firmly into the realm of the ever extraordinary everyday.

One of the ‘Takamatsuzuka beauties’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

We also visited two of the many mounded tombs in the area, Takamatsuzuka and Kitora. When it was first investigated fifty years ago, Takamatsuzuka caused a sensation. Although it had been looted in antiquity, the walls of the stone burial chamber still bore many of the exquisite wall paintings for which the site is among the most famous of all Japanese kofun ancient burial mounds. The paintings included groups of people wearing what resembled Korean court clothing of the day (not dissimilar to the kasane style evoked by the autumn colours at Hasedera) and three of the four directional deities: the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger and the Black Warrior (a combination of snake-tortoise). The fourth, the Red Bird or Vermillion Phoenix, would have been on the southern wall, destroyed by looters in antiquity. On the ceiling the constellations were picked out in gold.

Just up the road, comparable paintings were discovered at the Kitora tomb in 1983, and fully investigated at the end of the 1990s. They are now the focus of an exceptional adjacent Museum of the Four Deities. The half-century since its discovery had not been kind to Takamatsuzuka, however, and the wall paintings had fallen foul of a creeping black mould. The whole chamber was dismantled and removed to a specially constructed facility nearby where the paintings have been painstakingly stabilized and conserved. Tateishi Toru is now Director of the Center for Conservation Science at the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. In his previous role with Nara Prefecture he had been central to the Nara Buddhas exhibition at the British Museum in 2019. We had chatted during the accompanying conference where I had been invited to speak about the Nara to Norwich project – including Takamatsuzuka and Kitora, which the team had visited earlier that year (not realising that we had one of the leaders of the recent conservation work in the audience!). Tateishi-san now very kindly arranged for me to view the newly conserved paintings close-up, an extraordinary privilege. Most visitors only get to peer in through the multiple-glazed windows.

Tateishi-san also took me to visit two other tombs that have been investigated recently. The Kengoshizuka and Koshizuka tombs look as if beamed in from outer space: the former is a stepped octagonal mound, its newly restored white stone gleaming out against low hills looking out south across the western part of Asuka village. The tomb of key figures in the Asuka story, the tomb escaped the attentions of the Meiji government officials who designated some 900 kofun as the final resting places of imperial ancestors, meaning that they were available for a full archaeological survey, prior to an impressive restoration only completed in 2021. Empress Saimei (斉明天皇 594–661) and Princess Hashihime are thought to have been interred in Kengoshizuka, while Princess Ōta (大田皇女, c.644–c.668) lay beneath the smaller, rectangular stepped Koshizuka mound.

Flier for the Kengojizuka and Koshizuka kofun.

The Asuka region rewards multiple visits. The stories embedded in its layered landscapes are complex and nuanced. Renewed efforts to have the area inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage is encouraging greater signage and interpretation in languages other than Japanese, making this fascinating region, so central to ancient Japanese history, increasingly accessible to outside audiences. New phases in our online exhibition will attempt to unravel some of these entangled threads, as one of our ‘landscapes of conversion’.

Simon Kaner


My thanks to all our colleagues in Nara, at the Museum affiliated with the Kashihara Archaeological Institute, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Asuka Village Board of Education, Nara Prefectural Historical and Artistic Cultural Complex and the priests of Hasedera.

Further reading:

Asuka is on Japan’s Tentative List for nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status. Empress Saimei is one of five significant women from ancient Japan featured in a recent Japan Heritage initiative. For more on Takamatsuzuka and Fujinoki, see the articles by J. Edward Kidder. The new book by Hirose and Tateishi about Takamatsuzuka and Kitora kofun summarises a wealth of detail available in the multitude of scientific reports. Asukadera is expertly covered by Donald McCallum. We are preparing further publications on Hasedera. Information about the Nara Rekishi Bunka Mura is currently mainly in Japanese and Nara to Norwich will be covering it in more detail in the future. Further information about the Nara Buddhas exhibition can be found here.


Hirose Satoru and Tateishi Toru 2022. 極彩色壁画の発見 The discovery of wall paintings: Takamatsuzuka and Kitora kofun. Tokyo, Shinsensha. [In Japanese]

Kidder, J. Edward. 1972. The newly discovered Takamatsuzuka tomb. Monumenta Nipponica 27.3: 245-251.

1973. Asuka and the Takamatsuzuka tomb. Monumenta Nipponica 26.1: 24-31.

1987. The Fujinoki tomb and its grave goods. Monumenta Nipponica 42.1: 57-87.

1990. Saddle bows and rump plumes. More on the Fujinoki tomb. Monumenta Nipponica 45.1: 75-85.

McCallum, Donald. 2009. The Four Great Temples: Buddhist archaeology, architecture and icons of seventh century Japan. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press.