The following is the first installment of a Daily Yomiuri series on the historic sites, natural beauty and other charms of Asukamura, Nara Prefecture.
By Shinichi Yanagawa
Daily Yomiuri Osaka Editor
ASUKAMURA, Nara–Preserving historic sites and improving the quality of life for residents are equally important in this village, which was part of the ancient capital in the Asuka era between the late 6th century and early 8th century. But the two goals are often at odds, as the Asuka Law concerning the historic preservation of the village imposes restrictions that deprive the area of modern conveniences.
The 2,400-hectare Asukamura village is home to many historic sites, including the Ishibutai, Takamatsuzuka and Kitora ancient tombs, remains of ancient palaces, and stone statues and monuments that bear Shinto characteristics.
The palaces include Toyoura no Miya, the residence Empress-regnant Suiko used between 592 and 603, and Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya, the residence of Emperor Tenmu and Empress-regnant Jito from 672 to 694.
“Handing down these historic sites to future generations is important because the Asuka region is the birthplace of the Japanese government and the Imperial system. It’s where Buddhism [was imported] and Shinto was syncretized with Buddhism,” Asukamura Mayor Yoshikiyo Seki said, adding that these facts are especially important because they are supported in “Kojiki,” the nation’s oldest extant chronicle, and “Nihonshoki,” the oldest official history of Japan.
The village contains the ruins of Asukadera, the nation’s oldest Buddhist temple, founded in 596 by Soga no Umako, an influential clan head who contributed to the rise of Buddhism in the nation. It is also known for its more than 40 small shrines to Shinto deities.
The Asuka region, which straddles the village and the cities of Kashihara and Sakurai, was once an important city that had interactions with the Korean Peninsula. A number of official delegates, engineers, Buddhist priests, sculptors, medical experts, builders and others came over to the capital. Some were naturalized here.
“The region was also the end of the Silk Road, and camels could sometimes be seen walking there in the era,” Seki said.
Prince Shotoku (574-622) also lived in the period. Noted as the nation’s founder, he drew up the nation’s first constitution and set up a bureaucratic ranking system that supported the imperial system.
Even in recent years, the village has remained relatively untouched by development, leaving its beautiful countryside scenery undisturbed.
“The village is fine for elderly people and those who’ve reached retirement age and who want to enjoy the quiet life, but it’s lost vitality as the number of young people has decreased,” Seki said.
The population has dropped from 8,000 to 7,000 since the law’s enactment in 1980, and the village’s two representative industries, agriculture and forestry, have declined over the years in part owing to the law, Seki said.
In addition to a ban on development projects, logging and construction for agricultural improvement are regulated.
Villagers and businesses are required to build or reconstruct houses, stores or workplaces as traditional wooden structures with Japanese black roof tiles and white or gray walls, which is more expensive than the construction of typical Japanese wooden houses and other structures.
“Visitors to the village often praise the houses, but living in them isn’t so comfortable. It’s cold and the maintenance is expensive,” Seki said.
Although the area once had three sawmills, there is now only one, as the heavy wood tiles used for building cannot be made in the sawmills.
The flight of young people to the cities has left about 70 vacant wooden houses in the village. Those who inherit their parents’ homes or newly move in have to pay at least 10 million yen for repairs to get the houses up to modern standards, Seki said.
Seki explained that if they are affluent enough, they can cultivate rice and other crops. But life here is inconvenient as there is no supermarket in the village.
There are also strict regulations on signboards.
While the village has had difficulty attracting businesses due to the strict regulations, the historic sites and beautiful scenery are unquestionably a tourism resource, particularly for archaeology enthusiasts and those who enjoy rural settings.
Visitors can rent bicycles in front of Kintetsu Asuka Station to tour the historical sites and monuments.
As part of tourism promotion and exchange activities, villagers offer those living in urban areas a chance to cultivate rice and other crops and collect edible wild plants in mountainous areas.
“We should maintain the romantic atmosphere of the ancient capital, but we also have to offer villagers the opportunity to live a spiritually rich life,” Seki said. “But if they’re not satisfied economically with village life, then they aren’t likely to feel spiritually rich here either. So we should promote tourism and exchange activities.”
Based on this idea, the village mapped out in 2004 a tourism promotion plan called Whole Village Museum, in which visitors tour the historic sites.
“We have many historic sites and ancient tombs, including those of emperors. We have a number of stone statues and monuments and legends concerning such important historical figures as Nakatomi no Kamatari (614-669), as well as beautiful scenery. I’d like to put them into a network. It’s nice to tour the village to see them,” Seki said.
The village has state-run parks in the areas of Ishibutai, Takamatsuzuka, Kitora, and two more in the hilly areas of Amakashinooka that offer views of Asuka basin and remote mountains, and Iwaido with views of terrace paddy fields.
Various stone statues and monuments, some of apes and turtles, can be found in the village. Some are believed to have been fountain ornaments.
Sakafuneishi, a 5.5-meter-long boulder with drainage gutters and round hollows on the top, remains something of a mystery in terms of how it was used. One hypothesis says it was used as part of a system for running water, while another says it was used to brew sake.
A turtle-shaped stone excavated in 2000 at the Sakafuneishi ruins is believed to be part of a structure for pouring and storing water.
“Its location is thought to have been the site of a palace, so I believe it was used for purifying the hands and mouth with water before entering the palace,” Seki said.
Seki, who was raised in the village, says that Ishibutai tomb was his playground when he was a child. But it was upgraded as an important historical site after studies revealed that it was possibly the tomb of Soga no Umako (?-626). The value of particular sites can increase as hypotheses are made about their historical backgrounds.
“If historical significance is discovered, people will find the sites more interesting. So I’ve instructed village officials to study them further,” Seki said.
To boost the Whole Village Museum plan, the village aims to get 28 historic sites in and around the village listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of these, 20 are located in the village, and the other eight include the site of Fujiwara no Miya palace in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture.
Plans are also under way to set up a computer graphics system in the Amakashinooka area that will project images of the ancient capital on its fields.
It is said that many other historic sites, monuments and valuables remain unearthed. The village has four archaeological engineers, and there are about 30 excavation workers. The village is a place where archaeology can be regarded as an industry, Seki said.
In the early 1960s, there were calls nationwide for the preservation of the village’s historic sites, as it was regarded as the birthplace of the nation. In response to requests from herb doctor Keizo Mii, who had led the preservation campaign, the decision was made at a cabinet meeting in 1970 to protect historic sites and cultural heritage in the village.
Two years later, Takamatsuzuka tomb, which dates back to the early 8th century, was excavated. The discovery of murals of four women wearing jackets and pleated skirts, similar to those found on the Korean Peninsula, created a major stir in archaeological circles. The Asuka Law was finally enacted in 1980.
Unfortunately, the murals from the tomb as well as others in Kitora tomb were damaged by high humidity and mold. But Seki hopes these national treasures will be restored through the efforts of the Cultural Agency.
Villagers have sacrificed convenience to protect the beautiful scenery and historic heritage that cannot been seen in other parts of the country. They have also preserved Asuka Kemari, the nation’s oldest form of soccer, Yagumo Goto, a two-stringed harp, and other folk traditions.
“Other parts of the country also have folk heritage, but their historic background is not as deep as ours,” Seki said. “The difference can be attributed to the fact that this region was the ancient capital where the imperial family lived.”
(Jan. 8, 2009) The Daily Yomiuri