Nara and Asuka: Japan’s Ancient Capitals

Many visitors to Japan put Kyōto on their list of must-see places. It’s no wonder – the city is rich in history and traditions from its over-1000-year tenure as Japan’s capital. But did you know that there are even older capitals of Japan that are just as magnificent?


Nara is located in Japan's Kansai region in the Kii Peninsula, south of Kyōto and east of Ōsaka, in an area known as the Yamato Plain. Nara is the heartland of Japanese civilization: The Imperial Family of Japan has its roots here, Buddhism found its first foothold here, and art and culture that spread throughout the rest of Japan originated here. While today Nara City is known for the deer that roam freely through Nara Park, Nara and the surrounding areas are also home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, National Treasures, and Tangible Cultural Properties.  


Access to Nara from Ōsaka and Kyōto is easy – multiple train lines connect with Nara, and the journey can be made in as little as 35 minutes. 


The Asuka Period and the emergence of ‘Nippon’


Asuka, located south of Nara, is the first documented centre of imperial power in Japan. The arrival of agriculture and rice cultivation from China and Korea ushered in a time of prosperity where the population grew and society became grouped into powerful clans. These clans would eventually emerge into an imperial court system. Cultural, political, and spiritual influences travelled across the Sea of Japan. 


The Ishibutai Tumulus, a massive burial mound from the Asuka Period

The Ishibutai Tumulus, a massive burial mound from the Asuka Period

One of the Asuka Period’s most significant figures was Prince Shōtoku. As acting regent, Shōtoku rooted out corruption and helped to create Japan’s first constitution – a 17-article code of precepts inspired by Confucianism. In contrast to modern constitutions, which outline the relationship between the government and the people, and the former’s duties to the latter, Shōtoku’s was a code of moral behaviour for the ruling class. 


Arguably even more significantly, Prince Shōtoku actively promoted a new religion that had been introduced from Korea: Buddhism. He commissioned the construction of temples and was a stalwart supporter of making Buddhism the state religion.  Even after his death, the ripples of his influence continued to spread as the Asuka Period gave way to the Nara Period.


One more important thing about the Asuka period: it was during this time that the name of the country known as 和, Wa, was changed to 日本 – the Nippon (or Nihon) we all know today. This too is, in a way, credited to Prince Shōtoku. It is said that the Prince began a letter to Emperor Yang of China with 'The Son of Heaven where the sun rises, to the Son of Heaven where the sun sets, may good health be with you'.  The people eventually adopted this as the country’s name, using kanji symbols that literally mean 'the sun’s origin'. 


The Nara Period in Japan


While in ancient times it was common for the capital to move with each new emperor, by 710 the Japanese court had grown enough that a permanent capital was considered necessary. That capital became Nara, then known as 'Heijō-kyō'.


The Nara Period in Japanese history is significant for solidifying the societal and cultural changes that began in the Asuka period. It was during the Nara Period that the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki – the first records of Japanese history – were written. Melding the chronicles of man with the legends of the gods, these are historians’ windows into the ancient past. We know of Prince Shōtoku’s accomplishments today thanks to the Nihon Shoki.


(Incidentally, it is in legend that we get the answer for why there are so many deer in Nara. It is said that when Kasuga Grand Shrine was built, a god ascended to the mountain on the back of a deer. Since then, deer have been seen as messengers of gods and bringers of fortune in the Nara area, and it is illegal to kill one.)


The Great Buddha of Tōdai-ji TempleBuddhism became a mainstay, joining the indigenous Shintoism as one of the main religions of Japan. Emperor Shōmu, a staunch Buddhist himself (and the first Japanese emperor to become a Buddhist priest after retirement), commissioned Tōdai-ji Temple and its Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue. 


Japan continued to import culture from abroad; China and Korea were the most significant trade partners, but goods from as far as the Middle East and Rome have been found in Nara, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.


Nara is significant in that it has buildings and construction preserved all the way from its time as Japan’s capital – more so than even Kyōto, which has transformed due to modernization and war. Serious efforts have been and continue to be undertaken to protect historical areas for present and future generations.


Exploring the Nara Region Today


The Nara region is a treat for any history lover. Visitors will have the chance to walk along the Yamanobe-no-michi (Japan's oldest road) or the Yagyū Kaidō (notable for its connection to a famous swordsman clan) and take in the same natural beauty no doubt admired by the travellers of the past. 


Embark on our Ancient Capitals tour and you’ll see a collection of monuments both familiar and unfamiliar, all steeped in antiquity. Tachibana-dera Temple, for example, is said to be built on the site of Prince Shōtoku’s birthplace. Kofun burial mounds, for which the region is well-known, serve as the resting places for many of the ancient periods’ most important aristocrats. Kasuga Grand Shrine, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in the country, is considered a must-see place in Nara.


The Yūhi Kannon, one of many Buddhist stone monuments visible on the Yagyū Kaidō trail.

The Yūhi Kannon, one of many Buddhist stone monuments visible on the Yagyū Kaidō trail. 


…And then there are the mysterious ones, such as the Kame-ishi or 'Tortoise Stone'. No one knows what the purpose of this funny-looking stone monument is (though one theory suggests that it was intended as a boundary marker) but an old legend tells us that if the south-facing figure should ever turn west, the Nara Basin will sink into a muddy quagmire.  


While Nara and Asuka were the capitals for just over a combined two centuries, their significance in Japanese history can’t be overstated. Kyōto and Edo – Tōkyō – helped to build Japan into the country it is today, but that structure stands on a foundation created over 1,300 years ago.


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