Asuka was the first of the Imperial capitals of Japan to be built at the very beginning of the ancient state of Japan during the Asuka period (538 A.D. – 710 A.D.).
The capital city in its heyday, with its burgeoning construction work of palaces, temples and administrative offices, where people gathered to live and work, must have been an exciting time. Imagine Asuka capital city’s state-of-the-art urban spaces centring around the palace and temples. The pagoda tower, rising to the sky at the centre of temple, was the landmark of the urban city…symbol of unity iand sacred authority. Peoples came to be united under the ruler through the Buddhist services held at temples.
The style of city planning, centring on the Buddhism, was also adopted in Naniwa, the capital after the Taika Restoration, as well as Otsu, established at the lakeside of the Biwa-ko Lake. Some of the cities in Kyushu and Tohoku had also introduced the city planning tightly connected with the Buddhism.
Located in the present-day village of Asuka, (Takaichi District of) Nara Prefecture, it is not known exactly how the city got its name. It may have been named after the Common Crossbill bird, or isuka in Japanese, or after the landform, suka, meaning sandbar, sandbank or delta (洲処) or asu+ka(崩地) + (処 ). Or according to another theory, it was named in honour of Asuka Nyorai, the Japanese equivalent of Akshobhya, one of the Five Buddhas of Wisdom, who was worshipped in the Asuka-dera (temple), the Asuka-niimasu-jinja (shrine for his manifestation as a Shinto god).
In the days when the Soga clan’s power and influence peaked, Asuka bustled with temple-building activity and after the Taika coup of 645, the new rulers expanded both the cities of Asuka and Naniwa with major palace building projects. Emperor Tenmu ordered the building of the Kiyomihara Palace complete with satellite temples at Asuka. In the 670s, he launched plans to build expand his headquarters at Asuka as well as at Naniwa, and in 683 for a third capital to serve as the Eastern Capital in the mountainous Shinano region. He died before his plans could be put into reality, but Empress Jito revived his expansion projects for new grand headquarters planned for Asuka. The headquarters at the newly expanded capital realized by Jito are collectively known as Fujiwara-kyo.
Fujiwara-kyō (藤原京 also known as Fujiwara no miyako in Japanese), was the Imperial capital of Japan for sixteen years between 694 and 710. Excavations of 2006 showed that the city was already being prepared from as early as 682 at the end of Emperor Temmu era but construction was continued by Empress Jitō after his death to Nara. Moved from nearby Asuka to where present-day Kashihara, Nara is, the Fujiwara-kyo was actually recorded as Aramashi-kyo (新益京) during the period.
Recent excavations have found that Fujiwara-kyo’s central government compound had been built on a grandiose scale that equaled that of the later capitals Heijo-kyo and Heian-kyo. The first capital city to have a geometrically-arranged grid layout, the city (5 km by 5 km) covered 50 times the area of Emperor Temmu’s Kiyomihara Palace complex. The capital city had great gates and a grand audience hall the Daigokuden (大極殿) built in the continental style and the palace occupied an area measuring about 1 square km. These were the first palace structures in Japan to have a tile roof in the Chinese style. The palace and other government office buildings were encircled by great earthen walls and a moat. Each of the four walls had three gates; Suzakumon (朱雀門, Suzaku-mon), the main gate, stood at the center of the south wall.
Outside the moats, were avenues and cross streets of the surrounding city with aristocratic compounds, temples, market places and residential areas for commoners (labourers, provisioners, craftsmen, servants, etc.). Imperial visitors to the court would arrive via the avenues that converged on a great boulevard going through the center of the capital city via the 2-story gates, past government office buildings and northward to the imperial palace.
More and more of Asuka’s ruins and relics from the period are being discovered by archaeology in recent times. Recent discoveries in the area include:
- the ruins of Emperor Tenmu’s palace, Asuka Kiyomihara no miya;
- Japan’s First Water Clock (Mizuochi ruins). A Chinese invention (said to be from the 6th century) that had reached Japan by way of Korea around 554;
Source: Asuka Historical Museum Left: Mizudokei Right: Part of the ruins of base of the water clock
- the palace ruins of Empress Kougyoku (denitabuki no miya ato);
- the Devil’s Privy and the Devil’s Cutting Board are some stone slab ruins located on the north side of a small hill near Emperor Kinmei’s mausoleum. The Devil’s Cutting Board is a granite slab 1 meter thick, and is thought to have been the base portion of the a destroyed tomb. The Devil’s Privy is so-called because it looks like an upright latrine. A privy is a toilet.
- the ruins of an excavated stone sluiceway at the Sakafuneishi ruins. The Sakafuneishi (literally meaning “liquor ship stone”) is thought to have been an astronomical sunset observing platform for observing winter and summer solstices. To the west, is considered to be another possible astronomical device – the Matsuda Iwafune, is a location from which one can determine the exact dating of the “Spring Doyou Entry”. The day is when the agricultural season begins and the event was celebrated with imperial ceremony.
- Some famous stone sculptures and structures, some of which are thought to be part of an outdoor garden or connected to irrigation projects. Some of the more famous and interesting ones are the kameishi “tortoise stone”, kamegatasekizoubutsu “tortoise shaped stone structure”, sakahuneishi “liquor ship stone”, the saruishi “monkey stone” as well as several other totem-like sculptures.
- the paintings in the Kitora tomb, a circular tomb south of Takamatsuzuka tomb that has fresco images of 3 deities (Genbu, Byakko and Seiryuu) and 12 zodiac images; and
- Fuhonsen coins and Wado coins, believed to be some of the oldest coins in Japan
All in all, Asuka-Fujiwara-kyo was already a grand capital by the end of the era but the time was not ripe yet for a permanent capital. The tradition of constantly renewing capitals remained as ritual ideas of purification from the pollution that takes place with the death of a ruler persisted. After Empress Jito death, despite Empress Gemmei’s reluctance to move due to the imperial coffers being drained by the costs of Fujiwara-kyo’s construction, she had the buildings at Fujiwara-kyo disassembled and the timber and other materials moved for the building of the new capital at Heijyo-kyo in Nara.
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