Field trip to investigate the birth of the ancient capital city: Asuka Village

Although many books and academics describe the Heijo-kyo or the Heian-kyo first, when examining the Japanese ancient capital, research and study ought to begin with the ancient capital cities of Asuka and Naniwa the palaces in the Asuka Period.

“Ancient capital studies” is a newly established academic field. The dawn of the research in ancient capital sites came with the first excavation of the Fujiwara Palace in 1934. Archaeological investigation has advanced and revealed much about the unknown structures of ancient palaces, capitals, government offices and temples since the excavation of the Naniwa Palace 50 years ago. Many significant artefacts have been excavated from major palaces and temples, ancient documents, books, sutras and Buddhist figurines, including 2 National Treasures and 12 Important Cultural Properties.

The capital, where people gathered to live, was the urban space centring around the palace and temples. The tower, rising to the sky at the centre of temple, was the landmark of the urban city, and 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 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.

A field trip to the historical Asuka Village which is currently under proposal for UNESCO world heritage status is highly recommended.   

The Asuka-Fujiwara site under proposal to UNESCO is comprised of a cluster of archaeological sites of ancient capitals in the Asuka region, where the imperial capital was located from the time of Empress Suiko’s enthronement in 592 A.D. to its relocation to Heijōkyo (Nara) in 710, as well as the scenic areas and surrounding cultural landscape deeply associated with these archaeological sites of ancient capitals.

The component features of the site are principally the archaeological remains of palaces and residences of the emperor and imperial court and their related facilities (such as gardens, etc.); the site of Japan’s first genuine capital city; and the remains of temples and burial mounds (the Takamatsuzuka Tomb with its famous wall paintings, the Kitora Tomb, and others) constructed in and around it for members of the imperial house, nobility, and other important personages during the century this area functioned as the capital. These remains have been preserved beneath the earth in good condition down to the present, and the structures and objects that have been excavated and surveyed to date convey vital insights into politics, society, culture, and religion during the period of the formation of the ancient Japanese state. Moreover, what these ruins tell us about the design philosophy, site planning, and construction technology of the era, coupled with the wall paintings and other artifacts found in specific archaeological remains are seen as displaying strong influence from  mainland China and the Korean peninsula, clear evidence of the significance of cultural and technological contacts between Japan and the other countries of East Asia.

Yamato Sanzan, a place of famous scenic beauty intimately associated with these archaeological sites, is also referenced frequently in the poems of the Man’yōshu, Japan’s first poetry anthology, and is thus closely linked not only to the representative work of ancient Japanese literature, but also to the influence it exerted upon successive generations of artistic activity.

Taken as a whole, the aforementioned archaeological and scenic sites, along with the surrounding natural environment, comprise a historical and cultural landscape of outstanding importance.

Thus, this site, comprised of a cluster of archaeological sites and historic features that originate  from close exchange with mainland China and the Korea peninsula, offers physical evidence for the process of the formation of the ancient Japanese state and also constitutes an extraordinarily valuable cultural landscape.

Asuka’s universal value as a world and national heritage

The proposed heritage site is the only one in which archaeological sites are concentrated, and preserved underground in good condition, that can provide concrete information concerning life in Japan during the period of the founding of the ancient Japanese state. Nor is there another example in which the surrounding historical landscape has been preserved as an integral part of a complex of archaeological sites.

Portions of the buried complex of sites have been excavated and studied, providing physical evidence of what Japan was like during the period in which the ancient Japanese state was formed. The environment surrounding the sites is a cultural landscape that amply conveys more than 1,300 years of Japanese history. The cluster of sites-remains of palaces, city walls, temples, and burial tumuli-and scenic areas that comprise the core of the entire proposed heritage site have already been officially designated as special historic sites, historic sites, and places of scenic beauty under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, while whole area of Asuka village and areas immediately surrounding component features of the site in the cities of Kashiwara and Sakurai are protected by the Law concerning Special Measures for the Preservation of Historic Natural Features in Ancient Cities, the Nara Prefecture Scenic Zone Ordinance, or other legislation, so ample provisions have been made for maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the heritage site.

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