There is no doubt to believe that the south-eastern part of Nara Basin (Yamato) was the center of Japan in its infant stage. From the end of 3rd century to the end of 6th century "zenpo-koen-fun" (front-square and rear-round shape tumuli) were the symbol of the regime and great kings (1) constructed huge tumuli one after another in several areas of Nara Basin and Osaka Plain. They also built their palaces mostly in Nara Basin and some in Osaka Plain and elsewhere.
|(1)||At the time "Tenno" (Emperor) title did not exist, though now it is usual to call them "Tenno" as well. "Tenno" title was invented in the Asuka Period.|
The disappearance of huge tumuli coincided with the introduction of Buddhism into Japan (538 or 552 AD). It is presumed that monumental temples replaced large burial mounds in expressing the power of their patrons. In the dispute whether to introduce the foreign religion Buddhism, Soga-Clan became dominant political power by the end of 6th century. Maybe that was the reason why imperial palaces were constructed in Asuka, the stronghold of Soga-Clan, from the end of 6th century up to the beginning of 8th century.
Aska is the cradle of Japan. Asuka Period (592-710) was the starting point of what we believe is Japan. In Asuka, the basic structure of this country was formed. Different from the people who lived earlier, people from the Asuka Period can be recognized as individuals with their personal character and emotion even now, maybe because the first history books of Japan, Kojiki (716) and Nihon-Shoki (720), were compiled with the first-hand memories of the people who lived in the Asuka Period.
Shotoku-Taishi (Prince Shotoku), for example, is remembered as a legendary regent and still worshiped by people. He played a decisive role in introducing Buddhism and Chinese governmental system into Japan and insisted vis-a-vis the world power Sui (581-618) the equal treatment of "Nippon".
During the Asuka Period, the political situation in the Far East was experiencing major changes as a result of integration of China under powerful dynasty Sui and its successor Tang (618-907). Japan's ally Baekje was destroyed by the ally of Tang and Silla (660). Japan had no alternative to strengthening the country by political centralization in order to defend it from the possible invasion of the mighty Tang. Emperor Tenji undertook a military putsch against the mighty Soga-Clan (645) while he was a prince and advanced his reform plan. When Emperor Tenji died, his son was overthrown by his younger brother, Emperor Temmu in 672, who succeeded in modernizing Japan under the absolute authority of Emperor.
This was also the period when first Empresses regnant reigned over Japan. All three Empresses, Empress Suiko, Empress Kogyoku (Saimei) and Empress Jito, had strong personalities and contributed to the formation of a new style of regime. Among them Empress Saimei (2) was notorious to have built numerous strange stone constructions.
|(2)||Empress Saimei ascent the throne twice, first as Empress Kogyoku then as Empress Saimei.|
Standing on top of Amakashi Hill we can see with a glimpse Asuka in the east. The ancient Asuka stretches only one kilometer north-south and 500 meters east-west. It seems amazing to me that in such a tiny place many historically important events happened.
The village just down the Amakashi Hill, Asuka Village, was the northern-most area of the ancient Asuka. Asuka-dera is, though now a small temple, the successor of the oldest full-scale temple Houkouji. When the capital moved to Nara, main buildings of Houkouji were also moved there (3), though the Buddha statue of the original temple still sits there where it was originally placed.
|(3)||It is not difficult to take wooden buildings apart into parts and reconstruct them in a different place. In case of Houkouji the oldest parts of the building, for example roof tiles, are still used in Gangouji, the successor temple in Nara.|
In the ancient time there was a public space in the west of Asuka-dera, where Emperor Tenji played "kemari" with Fujiwara-no-Kamatari and planned their complot to assassinate the clan leader Iruka of Soga. When the young leader Iruka was assassinated in the Palace, his father, Iruka, fought against the battalion of Tenji from his clan's headquarters in the eastern skirt of Amakashi-no-oka in vain.
The southern terrain of Asuka-dera was once the palace of several Emperors: Jomei (629-641), Kogyoku (642-645) = Saimei (655-661), Temmu (673-686) and Jitou (690-697). Asuka was the place where two or more Emperors used the same palace (4) for the first time in the history. Despite of its historical significance, the area is now simply covered by paddy field and no reminiscence of the ancient time is visible, except for the excavation sites. Modernization of the country was strongly pushed forward. In the west of the Palace there stand two once huge temples. The southern one, Tachibana-dera, is said to be the birthplace of the famous Prince Shotoku.
|(4)||Before Asuka Period it was a rule that an Emperor or a king maintains his own palace only for the period of his reign.|
A well excavated from the ruin of Asuka Palace.
A reconstruction of Asuka Palace. Behind is Houkouji Temple and Amakashi Hill is on the left. It is visible that Palace was constructed in a very narrow land and there was no space for a city to develop around it.
Temmu and his wife Jitou planned a permanent palace with surrounding city in light of the Chinese model. After Temmu's death, Jitou became Empress regnant and moved to Fujiwara Palace=Capital City. Fujiwara City was the first trial in Japan to build a capital city with the palace in its center. The venue of Fujiwara City is just next to the heartland of Asuka and includes the latter in its City area.
When I was there, a part of the Fujiwara Palace was being excavated. From the excavation site three mountains of Yamato (Miminashi in the north, Unebi in the south-west and Kaguyama in the south-east) can be seen just within arm's length. The landscape with three Yamato mountains still remains in the heat of the Japanese people as our place of origin. Therefore, at the end of my short essay, I want to cite a poem by Emperor Jomei.
Yamato niwa Murayama aredo toriyorou
Amano-Kaguyama nobori-tachi, kunimi wo sureba,
Kunihara wa keburi tachi-tatsu, unahara wa kamame tachi-tatsu
umashi kuni zo Akizushima, Yamato no kuni wa!
Among many hills and mountains in Yamato,
I climb up the most endowed Amano-Kaguyama and view my land.
I then see smoke rising up from the plain and gulls flying over lakes (5).
Akizushima is splendid. This land of Yamato.
|(5)||It is understood that "smoke" is rising up from chimneys of houses as meals are being prepared. This poem is not understood to describe the objective scenery but it is an expression of his prays to the god so that his land will remain a beautiful land. Therefore, it is not strange that gulls are mentioned here, though they hardly come to the inland of Yamato.|