Japan is an old country, and it’s capital has moved a few times. Of course now it’s currently in Tokyo, but before that was Kyoto, and before that was Nara. The establishment of the Heijō Palace palace in Nara in 538 is what is considered the beginning of the Asuka period (538-710), a time when Buddhism was introduced to Japan, and when the name of the country changed to its present form of Nihon (日本) . Not surprisingly, there is a town called Asuka in Nara prefecture, and it is the centre of many old burial sites (and other interesting locations) in the area.
Even though I live in Kyoto, I haven’t spent much time in Nara, and when I do go there, it’s always to Nara city, which is what most tourists do too. But in fact, the entire prefecture has many interesting places to visit, and the Asuka/Kashihara area is one of those. It is clearly geared for tourism, as both of those train stations have bicycle rentals shops right at the entrance (something that is not always easy to find in Japan), and there are clearly labelled maps in Japanese and English throughout the entire area. I came here directly from Koyasan, and even though (or maybe because) it’s Golden Week, there were a lot of school groups (elementary, junior and senior high school students) out and about. Some of them were on bikes like me, others had to walk from place to place. With the mostly flat, level plain all around, it was a great way to explore the area.
The guy at the bicycle rental shop marked off the best circular route for me to take, so my first stop was Asukadera Temple. About 100m away from the temple is the first grave marker I came across, dedicated to one man’s head. In fact, it is called the “Mound to Soga-no-Iruka’s head.” Soga no Iruka was the son of an important noble, and was assassinated on July 10, 645 as part of the Isshi Incident, which was meant to bring down the Soga clan. He was decapitated after initial attempts to kill him failed, but this happened very close to the Empress at the time, which was considered ill fortune. I don’t know what happened to the others, but his head got his own little monument amongst the rice fields of Japan.
From here I rode down to the Ishibutai Kofun, which is the largest rectangular tomb in Japan. It reminded me somehow of Irish dolmens and other megalithic tombs, which are more common in Europe. The tomb here has multiple massive boulders and the total area runs about 52m to 55m. This was built for another member of the Soga clan, Soga no Umako (d. 626), who was instrumental in promoting Buddhism in Japan. The monument looks like a stage (ishi=stone, butai=stage) and people once thought that perhaps there used to performances on it. Most of the stones weigh 60-70 tonnes each, and likely came from a nearby mountain, about 3km away. Like Stonehenge and other similar sites, no one knows how they could have moved these large stones here without cranes or other machinery.
Of course, like many other tombs around the world, nothing remains of the original contents (grave robbers), and it’s possible to go down into the burial chamber. It’s quite large and can hold at least 20 or more people, as evidenced by the number of school groups I saw visiting. However, once I was alone in the chamber, it was quite peaceful, with the light filtering in through the stones above.
From Ishibutai I made my way to my last stop for the day, which were a couple of tumuli in the Asuka Historical National Government Park. This park is used for fairs, markets, and picnicking, and other regular outdoor activities, but it has some burial mounds here too. The first was I saw was the Nakaoyama Tumulus at the top of the hill, a mis-shapen mound covered in long grass and surrounded by a low-wooden fence. Back down the hill and to the other end of the park is the more famous (and manicured) Takamatsuzuka Tumulus, which is in fact a reconstruction, as they had to remove the interior walls (paintings) in order to preserve them. This tumulus (kofun) was built between the 7th and 8th centuries, but it only became known in the 1960s when a farmer accidentally uncovered it. It’s not certain who the tomb was meant for, but it’s likely to be for a member of the royal family.
The mausoleum of Emperor Monmu is also located in this park, but I somehow missed it on my map of places to see so did not end up visiting it. By this point I was sunburned and ready to get back home, so I made my way back to the bicycle rental shop and called it a day.
If you ever have extra time to spend in Nara, I highly recommend this area. There’s so much more to see and do than what I’ve listed here (and not just burial sites!), and the towns are really beautiful, with traditional Japanese houses and all of the ugly utility lines that plague most of the country buried below ground. If you want to see traditional Japan that few tourists ever get to see, this is definitely a good contender.
Mound of Soga-no-Ikura (by the side of the road, access is 24h)
Ishibutai (08:30-17:00, 200 yen entrance fee)
Asuka Historical Government Park: 24h, not sure how well it is lit at night
Location: Asuka/Kashihara, Nara. The easiest way to get here from Kyoto is to take the Keihan line to Kashiharajingu-mae station, but if on the JR line from other points in Nara, Asuka station is only 2 stops away. Both stations have luggage storage and bicycle rental shops.