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Exploring Asuka Japan: Cycle Tour Around the Ancient Japanese Capital

Exploring Asuka Japan: Cycle Tour Around the Ancient Japanese Capital

Date published: 18 February 2020
Last updated: 6 October 2020

The Asuka Period took place about 1400 years ago today, in which the center of Japan was located in the current Asuka Village of Nara Prefecture.

Asuka, Japan has much to explore, such as ancient tombs and burial mounds, and many other sites that tell the story of the prosperity of that time.

For that, a bicycle is our top recommendation! You can rent a bicycle at the rental shop right in front of Kintetsu Asuka Station and see all of these ancient spots brimming with history and romance, along with the scenic views surrounding the area.

Table of Contents
  1. Arriving at Asuka Station: Getting Our Cheap and Convenient Sightseeing Ride
  2. First Stop: Takamatsuzuka Tombs and the Beauties of Asuka
  3. Kameishi: The Cute Figure With A Frightening Legend
  4. Ishibutai Kofun: Enter Japan’s Largest Burial Mound!
  5. Traditional Local Food Yumeichi Chaya: Delicious Ancient Wild Rice Near Ishibutai
  6. Asuka Temple: A Short Walk Away to the Oldest Temple and Buddha Statue in Japan

Arriving at Asuka Station: Getting Our Cheap and Convenient Sightseeing Ride

It takes about 1 hour to Asuka Village via the Kintetsu Train from Kintetsu Nara Station located in central Nara, and about 40 minutes via the limited express train from Osaka Abenobashi Station.

When you get out at the station square, you can stop by the Asukabito-no-Yakata for tourist information of Asuka Village.

▲Rear left: Asuka Station; Right: Asukabito-no-Yakata
▲Tourist information as well as information on events are available in the hall. You can also buy souvenirs and other goods.

Our main reason to head here first is to get our Asuka Kingdom Passport (100 yen, tax included)! This includes a booklet of route information and landmarks for easy and convenient travel around the sightseeing spots of the village, as well as discount tickets for tourist facilities, temples, and shrines.

This is the number one recommended book you will want to bring along in order to make the most of your trip!

▲The Asuka Kingdom Passport is convenient and easy to carry
▲Commemorative stamps are placed in your passport at various locations throughout the tourist spots of Asuka Village. We got our first one right away!
  • Asukabito-no-Yakata
    • Address 6-3 Koshi, Asuka, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0744-54-3240
    • Hours of Operation: 8:30AM~6:00PM (may vary according to season)
      Regular Holidays: New Years

The area where Asuka Village is located is also designated as Asuka Historical National Government Park. This is divided into five main points of interest: the Takamatsuzuka area, the Ishibutai area, the Amakashi-no-Oka area, the Iwaido area, and the Kitora Tumulus area, which is being expanded as for future tourism.

Because of the expansiveness of the area, it is recommended to get around by bike rather than walking. You can easily rent one at Asuka Rent-a-Cycle (Asuka Station-Front Branch), located in the same station at the square. Because there are many hilly areas and slopes, the electric bike is highly recommended.

▲Left: Electric bicycle; Right: Regular bicycle. There are 5 sizes available for both children and adults.

The rental fees for normal bicycles are 900 yen on weekdays, and 1,000 yen on weekends and holidays. Electric bicycles are all priced at 1,500 yen. (All prices include tax). Business hours are from 9:00AM to 5:00PM, so make sure to note the return time!

▲Use your Asuka Kingdom Passport right away for a discount of 100 yen per bicycle!
▲Map provided by Asuka Rent-a-Cycle. From Asuka Station, seen in the lower left, head towards Ishibutai Kofun on the East Side. After confirming our route, we are on our way! (Image courtesy of Asuka Rent-a-Cycle)
  • Asuka Rent-a-Cycle (Asuka Station-front Branch)
    • Address 13-1 Koshi, Asuka Village, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0744-54-3919
    • Hours of Operation: 9:00AM~5:00PM
      Regular Holidays: None

First Stop: Takamatsuzuka Tombs and the Beauties of Asuka

The first stops on the list are the Takamatsuzuka Tombs, and the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum, located abut 10 minutes away from the Station Square by bicycle. Pedal along as you take in the passing landscape of trees, fields, and rice paddies, and enjoy the refreshing breeze!

▲This area is the Takamatsuzuka Area of the Asuka National History Park. Enjoy your bike ride as you enjoy the green landscape on both sides!

The Takamatsuzuka Tombs were discovered in 1962, when villagers were digging in the soil to preserve ginger. It is a round, two-tiered burial mound built between year 694 and 710.

The bodies buried here have not been identified, however there are three theories that it is the tomb of either Emperor Tenbu, Isonokami no Maro, who served as Minister of the Yamato Court, or the Royal Family from the Korean Peninsula.

▲Bottom diameter: 23m; top diameter: 18m; height: 5m. As seen in comparison to our writer standing in front of it, burial mounds are quite large!

There is a room in the inner part of the burial mound, and according to a 1972 archaeological survey, this is where the colorful mural in the hall was discovered. The original mural has been transferred to a different facility for preservation, however the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum next to the tombs has an elaborate replica of this mural on display. Which is our next destination!

▲The Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum Entrance

On each of the North, South, East, and West walls are murals depicting the four mythical gods of China: Genbu, Seiryu, Byakko, and Suzaku.

Unfortunately, the painting of Suzaku that decorated the south wall is said to have been stolen. The Mural Museum displays replicas of not only this four-sided mural, but other items found at the mounds such as funeral materials. While we received special permission to take the photos seen here, photography is generally prohibited at the halls.

▲Inside the museum: the mural displayed on the right is a replica, faithful to the original, and the one on the left has been partially restored to make the images more visible復原「復原摹寫」(照片左方)作品。
▲In addition to the four gods, there is also the painting of the “group of men and women,” and “seishuku-zu,” a constellation chart, painted on the ceiling. There are 28 constellations, including what is now known as the “Milk Dipper.”

The most famous painting of the Takamatsuzuka burial grounds is the painting of the “group of men and women.” Out of the entire painting, the four women stand out the most with their vivid coloring and elegant atmosphere, and are called the “Beauties of Asuka

▲The Four Beauties of Asuka, in their vividly painted clothing. This is another restoration.

A painting so vivid you can practically hear the breath and laughter of the women. Suddenly 1400 years ago doesn’t seem so far away.

  • Takamatsuzuka Mural Musem
    • Address 439 Hirata, Asuka Village, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0744-54-3340
    • Hours of Operation: 9:00AM~5:00PM (last entry 4:30PM)
      Regular Holidays: Dec 29~Jan 3
      Entry Fee: Adults: 300 yen; Students (College/High School): 130 yen; Students (Middle/Elementary): 70 yen (all prices include tax)
      *Discounts available with Asuka Kingdom Passport

Kameishi: The Cute Figure With A Frightening Legend

Along with the burial grounds, Asuka Village is also home to several mysterious megalithic stones and their legends, such as Sakafuneishi (“Saka Boat Stone”) and Oni no Manaita (“the devil’s cutting board”). Kameishi, or the “tortoise stone,” is one of them, and is a 15-minute bike ride from the Takamatsuzuka Tomb.

▲Kameishi, the tortoise stone, suddenly reveals itself in the middle of the footpath. It is said to resemble a tortoise, hence the name.

Kameishi is a huge granite stone with a sculpting said to resemble a face carved into the front. The stone is believed to have originally been facing the north, yet for reasons unknown, now faces south-west. Legend says that should the stone ever turn to face the west, the entire Yamato Country (currently the Nara basin) would sink into a sea of mud.

▲The size of the stone, as compared to our writer! It is 165cm tall, 4m in length, 2m in width, and 2m in height.

It’s almost impossible to imagine such a terrifying legend coming true from the serene image of the stone sitting quietly in the sun. Let’s hope that the tortoise will keep its peace, and not turn to face any other direction!

  • Kameishi
    • Address Kawahara, Asuka, Takaichi District, Nara
    • Free to visit
      Phone: 0744-54-3240 (Asuka Tourism Association)

Ishibutai Kofun: Enter Japan’s Largest Burial Mound!

About 15 minutes by bicycle from Kameishi is the Ishibutai Kofun, Japan’s largest burial mound. There are records showing that Soga no Umako, a powerful politician of the Asuka Period who lived during the same time as Prince Shotoku, used to live in this area. It is believed to be his grave.

▲For a paid tour of the Ishibutai Kofun, general entry is 300 yen for adults, and 100 yen for elementary and high school students (all prices include tax).

Though most burial mounds are filled with earth, Ishibutai has a unique shape exposing a huge tunnel-style stone burial chamber (a stone tomb attached to the passage that leads to the chamber where the corpses are stored). Ishibutai (literally “stone stage”) was given its name long ago, as the surface of the ceiling stone is wide and flat, resembling a stage.

▲Ishibutai Kofun is much bigger up close!

The two large stones on the top have an estimated weight of 64t (the left stone, north side), and 77t (right stone, south side). The total weight of all 30 stones that form the burial mound is said to be about 2300 tons!

It is estimated to have been built around the beginning of the 7th century, when naturally, there were no cranes or any other sort of transportation vehicles. Yet these huge stones were somehow carried by human strength, showing the height of civil engineering and transportation technology available at the time.

▲Approaching to take a look through the crevice of the stone and... huh? What is this deep huge space at the bottom!?

You can actually enter the Ishibutai burial mound. I’m so curious, I must go inside right away!

▲On the south side is a Zen path leading to the inside of Ishibutai
▲The height of the entrance is about 2m

The inside room is called Genshitsu, and is believed to have stored firewood long ago. The room is about 4.8m high, 7.6m long, and 3.5m wide. The stone all the way at the top is the largest megalith of Ishibutai Kofun. A faint light slips through the cracks.

▲It was scary to think about what would happen if that huge rock were to fall, yet at the same time, being surrounded by the stones was calming. Such a mysterious space.

While no stone coffins have been found by excavation, only fragments of stone coffins have.

▲In the spring, Ishibutai is surrounded with pink colored cherry blossoms (Photo: Asuka Village Board of Education)

Ishibutai is a famous burial ground, yet is is overwhelmed with the power of the megaliths. After entering the strong, solemn atmosphere of the Genshitsu Burial Chamber myself, I also feel to have been given some of that mysterious power.

  • Ishibutai Kofun
    • Address 133 Shimasho, Asuka, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture
    • Hours of Operation: 8:30AM~5:00PM (reception ends 4:45PM)
      Regular Holiday: None
      Admission Fee: General 300 yen; Student (Elementary~High School) 100 yen; pre-school children free (all prices include tax)
      *Discounts available with Asuka Kingdom Passport
      Phone: 0744-54-4577 (Asuka Regional Development Corporation)

Traditional Local Food Yumeichi Chaya: Delicious Ancient Wild Rice Near Ishibutai

I decided to try out some local kodaimai, or “ancient wild rice,” for lunch at a place very reminiscent of these historical ruins. Kodaimai is a type of rice that has inherited the characteristics of wild rice, which is the original ancestor seed of the rice we eat today.

About 5 minutes on foot from the Ishibutai burial mounds, you can try the same ancient wild rice that Prince Shotoku himself enjoyed at Traditional Local Food Restaraunt Yumeichi Chaya.

▲The restaurant is located on the second floor of the tourist spot, Asuka no Yume Ichi
▲You can get to the second floor from within the facility, or from the slope on the open space on the side of Ishibutai.
▲There are a total of 45 tables of various sizes in the large interior space. There are 8 outdoor seats on the deck. Pets are even allowed on the deck.

The homemade dishes prepared by the local housewife of the shop are known to be delicious, and amongst these, the recommended one to try is the Kodaimai Gozen, or “Ancient Wild Rice Emperor’s Meal” (1,080 yen, tax included).

▲After ordering and paying from the counter seat, the meal was soon brought out. Here is Kodaimai Gozen, the Ancient Wild Rice Meal!

This meal set brings 7 dishes in small plates and bowls with a focus on the ancient wild rice, including fried chicken, and cooked and boiled seasonal, locally grown vegetables. There is also a homemade, soy sauce simmered ginger dish, and a dessert of local strawberry blends called “Asuka Ruby.”

▲Ancient wild rice comes in red, black, and green varieties. The dish seen here is a cooked blend of white, red, and black rice.

The moment I took my first bite, I tasted the light and fluffy texture of the rice and its delicious sweetness. Accompanying the rice was the shop’s handmade “godofu,” a tofu dish that is also well-liked by customers.

▲Asuka godofu is made with soy milk and Yoshino kudzu (Japanese arrowroot). It is surprisingly elastic, as seen when trying to cut it with the chopsticks.

It has a sticky texture and a rich taste, which you will want to eat to your heart’s content. It is not offered as a separate menu item, nor can it be bought as a souvenir, so it is a very special kind of tofu that can only be enjoyed with this dish.

There are other homemade menu items available, such as Kodaimai Curry (860 yen, tax included), and Kodaimai Onigiri (Rice Balls) (360 yen for two, tax included). Please give them a try as well!

▲You can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as handmade local processed foods and other goods on the 1st floor. Please be sure to check out this floor as well. (Photo courtesy of Asuka Yumeichi, Yumeichi Chaya)
  • Traditional Local Food Restaurant Yumeichi Chaya
    農村レストラン 夢市茶屋
    • Address 154-3 Shimasho, Asuka, Takaichi, Nara
    • Phone Number 0744-54-9450
    • Hours of Operation: 11:00AM~4:00PM (Sat, Sun until 5:00PM)
      Regular Holidays: New Year

▲The green landscape and breezy weather around Ishibutai was refreshing

Asuka Temple: A Short Walk Away to the Oldest Temple and Buddha Statue in Japan

If you have time to spare, head to Asuka Temple next, which is about a 15 minute bike ride away from Ishibutai Kofun. This temple was built at the request of Soga no Bako, who wanted to preserve Buddhism, and is the first full-fledged Buddhist temple in Japan, built around year 596 over the course of about 8 years.

▲It may be a small temple, yet it boasts many “first in Japan” places

When it was first built, it was a large scale temple with three main halls around a central tower, and a corridor extending around the outside. Construction involved many engineers from the state of Baekje on the Korean Peninsula.

With them came the spread of Buddhism, including other related skills, arts, and other such parts of the new Asian culture at the time, leading to the construction of more temples around the world. The Asuka Temple is also the first building in Japan to use tiles to construct the roof.

▲The beautiful atmosphere of the main hall. As many temples were destroyed during the Kamakura Period, the current man hall was rebuilt during the Edo Period.

The oldest Buddha in Japan is known as the Asuka Daibutsu (Great Buddha), and is located inside the main hall. This Great Buddha statue was made under the orders of Empress Suiko, the first female to become Empress in Japan, Prince Shotoku, and Soga Umako. It was constructed by a famous sculptor of the time, Kuratsukuri no Tori.

▲Japan’s oldest Buddha statue, Asuka Daibutsu, stands at 3 m tall and said to have used 15 tons of copper. There was also about 30 kg of gold used when it was first constructed.

Compared to other Japanese Buddha statues, this one appears to have a slightly higher nose and is rather slender, due to the influences of the Korean Peninsula and China. An interesting thing to note is its changing expression, which appears stern when viewed from the right, and gentle when viewed from the left.

Asuka Daibutsu has remained sitting in the same spot for 1400 years. Perhaps Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku also came to worship back then in the same way we do today.

▲The chief priest tells the story of the construction of Asuka Temple. After his story is finished, you can take photos.

There are also various artifacts such as tiles displayed in the Temple. After taking a look at these, go about 70m from the west gate of the temple grounds to see the Gorinto, or five-ringed pagoda. Another name for it is Iruka no Kubidzuka, or the “Mound of Soga no Iruka’s Head.”

▲Iruka no Kubidzuka. You can get a view overlooking Asuka Village from Amakashi no Oka Observatory located on the other side.

Iruka refers to Soga no Iruka, a grandson of Soga no Bako, who is said to be buried in the Ishibutai burial grounds. The legend says that when “The Isshi Incident” suddenly occurred at the Imperial Palace Asuka Itabuki-no-Miya, which was about 500 m south of Asuka Temple, Soga no Iruka was attacked by Prince Naka-no-Ooe and Nakatomi-no-Katamari, his head was sliced off and flew all the way to this spot.

Since then, the political movement carried out by Prince Naka-no-Ooe, The Taika Reform, became a well-known event.

▲I got a seal from Asuka Temple (300 yen)

There were many other visitors during the time of our trip, including school trips, tourist groups, and individual travelers. The more I learned, the more the way I looked at things also changed. Along with the magnificent temples of Kyoto and Nara, this is another Temple you will want to visit no matter what!

  • Asuka Temple
    • Address 682 Asuka, Asuka Village, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0744-45-2126
    • Hours: 9:00AM~5:30PM (closes at 5PM from Oct~Mar)
      *Reception ends 15 minutes before closing time
      Admission: Adults: 350 yen; Students: Junior High/High: 250 yen; Elementary: 200 yen
      *Discounts available with Asuka Kingdom Passport

It took only 20 minutes by bicycle from Asuka Temple back to our Asuka Station starting point.

Asuka Village, now a place of expansive, tranquil scenery, despite being the center of Japan, the home of the Emperor, and a place for politics 1400 years ago. The imperial era in the middle of the Asuka Era was named “Taika,” and by the end of that period, came to be called “Japan.” And in the present 248th era, now called “Reiwa,” it is the perfect time to take a trip to Asuka Village and experience this dynamic history.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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