Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: During the Asuka period, great building structures and sculptures in the “Asuka style” were erected. A census in 624 records 46 temples, ancient texts mention “24 temples of the capital” in 680, and “the Seven Temples” in 690. What we must make of ancient Asuka’s culture is to be gleaned from the architectural remains of Asuka’s many temples including the Asukadera temple, Horyuji temple in Ikaruga, and that of Yamadadera Kairou. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“In early temple-building, the pagoda was of symbolic importance and usually was placed in a central position. In Asuka, multiple golden halls usually surrounded a central pagoda in the late 6th century at Asukadera, but later the pagoda lost its imprtance and became more ornamental so that in later 7th century designs, two or more pagodas would frame a centrally positioned golden hall instead.

“Some of the elements that clearly indicate the Asuka style of architecture found in the four oldest Horyuji structures are: 1) the cloud-pattern bracket arms that support the eaves of pagodas; 2) a slight convex line on the pagoda columns (called entasis); 3) the stylized swastika pattern in the ornamental railings; 4) the inverted V-shaped struts beneath them.”

Temples found at Asuka include Asukadera, the first true Buddhist Temple built in Japan. Asuka Itabuki no Miya ruins are believed to be to be the ruins of the palace of Emperor Kogyoku. The palace is believed to be where Soga no Iruka, was assassinated, marking the start in A.D. 645 of the Taika Reforms.

Shinichi Yanagawa wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The construction methods for Buddhist architecture and statues were first introduced by two skilled workers from the Paekche kingdom in the Korean Peninsula in 577. A project to construct Asukadera, the nation’s first temple in the Asuka region–present-day Asukamura, Nara Prefecture–was mapped out 10 years later as Japanese workers mastered new skills, Katsuaki Ohashi, a professor specializing in East Asian arts at Waseda University, said. The number of experienced workers and sculptors gradually increased as several major temple projects were launched. In the late seventh century, four temples of Asukadera, Kawaradera, Yakushiji and Daikandaiji became state-run entities, and their construction and maintenance were financed by the government. To carry out these projects, teams of skilled construction workers and sculptors were formed. The elite workers learned the latest methods retrieved by delegates who traveled aboard Kentoshi ships to Tang-dynasty China. [Source: Shinichi Yanagawa, Daily Yomiuri, January 7, 2010]

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China . References: 1) The Chronicles of Wa, Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd; 2) Wa (Japan), Wikipedia; 3) Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei, Columbia University’s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators. Asuka Wikipedia article on Asuka Wikipedia ; Asuka Park ; Asuka Historical Museum ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Asuka Buddhist Architecture

Buddha in Asukadera

In the seventh century, a time when pit dwellings and surface-level buildings were prevalent, the first full-scaled Buddhist cloister at Asukadera temple was a colorful Chinese-style compound laid out as a single pagoda and three main halls, the buildings standing on base stones atop podiums and having vermillion-painted columns, white walls with green windows filled with vertical rails, and tile roofs. In excavations conducted at Asukadera, the direct influence of the Paekche kingdom and elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula can be found at every turn. [Source: Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties ]

In the excavation at Yamadadera temple, the complete form of the cloister's collapsed eastern sector was uncovered. As the discovery of wooden architecture older than Horyuji, which had been the sole example from which the structure of Asuka period buildings could be learned, this was a find of tremendous historic value. These temples enshrined various types of Buddhist images, and were decorated with murals and Buddha-image tiles. Without doubt, Buddhist cloisters played the lead role in giving Asuka a new look.

Discoveries made in the environs of the Asuka temples Include the ishigami site, a facility for banquets and entertaining important guests; the Mizuochi site, thought to have housed a water clock; the site presumed to be the Oharida palace; the site traditionally regarded as the Asuka Itabuki palace but thought to be the Kiyomihara palace; the Shima palace along with other palaces and gardens; the turtle-shaped stone basin of the Sakafune-ishi site; and so forth. The area stretching from the Mizuochi to the Ishigami sites links up with the Tsukinoki plaza to the west of Asukadera temple, together comprising a single area for banquets. Also, from the ponds discovered at Ishigami and Asukakyo enchi sites, it has become clear that many of the carved stone figures of Asuka, which have long been regarded as puzzling, were used as water fountains. A concrete image of Asuka has thus emerged as place in which palaces and temples stood crowded one after another, crisscrossed with roads and water channels running between them.

Asuka Period Roof Tiles

Roofs of temples and palace buildings were covered with "round roof tiles" (marugawara, curved downward) and "curved roof tiles" (hiragawara wider with a slight upward curve), arranged in alternate rows. Row ends were ornamented with "round roof-edge tiles" (noki marugawara) and "curved roof-edge tiles" (noki hiragawara), both of which bore designs on their outward-facing surfaces. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Parts of the roof

Round roof-edge tiles primarily made use of lotus flower designs (rengemon). The majority of such tiles from the end of the 6th century and the first half of the 7th century have simple "individual petal" (tanben) designs of Paekche (southwest Korean) inspiration. However, there are also some tiles of Koguryo (north Korean) inspiration, having vertical ridges (see illustration "d", page 86), as well as tiles running down the middle of each petal which have Silla (southeast Korean) affinities, ShoWing animal or demon faces.

After around the middle of the 7th century, a new type of tile made its appearance. As in the case of the round roof-end tiles from the Yamadadera, there came into popularity a "layered individual petal" (juben) pattern characterized by smaller petals decoratively superimposed on the larger ones. On some tiles from this period, additional geometric designs concentrically arranged around the circumference of the lotus pattern had begun to appear. Then, during the latter part of the 7th century, from the time of the building of the Kawaradera onward, the most commonly used basic pattern, influenced by Tang Chinese tiles, came to be the "composite-petal" (fukuben) pattern, with the larger petals arranged in pairs, and two smaller petals superimposed on each pair. Round roofedge tiles developed elaborate design modifications such as sawtooth patterns around the outer rims.

Curved roof-edge tiles (noki hiragawara) first appeared during the first half of the 7th century. The curved roof-edge tiles of the Sakatadera have arabesque patterns (karakusamon) incised by hand. Around the middle of the 7th century, "layered arc patterns" (Jukomon) were in vogue. but by the. latter part of the century, arabesque patterns again comprised the mainstream of noki hiragawara decorative art. Temples vied with one another in devising original designs for their round and curved roof-edge tiles, seen as forming a set.

Roof of the Asukadera: The tiles which ornamented the roof of the Asukadera date from the end of the 6th century and are the oldest roof tiles known in Japan. They were made under the direction of tile craftsmen dispatched from the southwestern Korean kingdom of Paekche (Kudara). The round roof-edge tiles (noki maru-gawara) , as well as the "rafter-end tiles" (tarukisaki-gawara) added later in the 7th century,are identical to similar roof tiles used during the same period in Korea. Curved roof-edge tiles (noki hiragawara) had not yet been developed,so ordinary curved tiles (hiragawara) were employed,faute de mieux.

Roof of the Fujiwara Palace: Most modern-day researchers believe that roof tiles were used on palace buildings only after the end of the 7th century, beginning with the Fujiwara-no-miya. In order to cover the roofs of palace buildings, enormous quantities of tiles were needed. Production of such large quantities of tiles became possible only' after the appearance of the government-operated workshops (kobo) administered as a part of the ritsuryo governmental system which was becoming established toward the end of the 7th century. It is thought that in the case of the Fujiwara-no-miya and later palaces, only a part of the palace buildings were covered with ti]e. the majority being thatched with Japanese cypress bark (hihada).

Buddhist Temples in Asuka

Rebuilt Asuka-dera

Construction of Japan’s first full-scale temple, the Asukadera, was begun in 588 (first year of Emperor Sushun’s reign), a half-century after Buddhism’s first arrival. Construction of the Asukadera was sponsored by the Soga clan, which had one year previously (in 587) defeated the Mononobe clan in an armed encounter and thus established its own political power more firmly Already in the years immediately following the initial introduction of Buddhism around the middle of the 6th century, Buddhist images had come to be revered within certain wealthy and Influential households. Following the example of the Asukadera other full-scale religious institutions were in due course to be built by these same families and by the imperial house. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Kawagoe wrote: “Other great temples at Shitennoji and Ikaruga, were built on a plan that had a rectangular garan inner precinct that was enclosed by a roofed corridor and to be entered from the south through the middle gate (chumon). Within the precinct was a pagoda, a main hall (kondo), a lecture hall (kodo). Ikarugadera was destroyed by fire. Renamed Horyuji when it was rebuilt, the renewed temple had a new innovative design element that moved the pagoda from its traditionally central position to the west side of the compound and opposite to the main hall on the east side. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Begun construction in A.D. 587 by Emperor Yomei but completed in 607 by Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku, Horyuji is today Japan’s oldest existing temple complex. Horyuji’s structures — the Five-story Pagoda (Goju no To), the Golden Hall (Kondo), the Inner Gate (Chumon) and most of the surrounding Corridor (Kairo) are also the world’s oldest surviving buildings. Yakushi Temple was ordered to be built in 680 by Emperor Temmu when Empress Jito fell ill. The temple was designed with a rectangular inner precinct with the main hall positioned at its center and its two pagodas, one to the east and one to the west.

Asuka-Itabuki ruins

Toyuradera (Asuka-mura, Toyura) is said that this temple had its beginning after Empress Suiko moved in 603 (the 11th year of her reign)from the Toyura-no-miya to the Oharida-no-miya, following which move Soga-no-Umako, having been granted possession of the former palace at Toyura, made it Into a temple. Originally it was a nunnery. Tradition has it that the Mukuharadera, built by Umako’s father Name, was located in one corner of its grounds. It also seems likely that the "north pagoda" referred to in historical accounts as having been built by Umako in 585 (the 14th year of Emperor Bidatsu’s reign) on a hill known as ano-no-oka, was in the same vicinity. Archaeological remains of temple buildings and a pagoda have been confirmed in the neighborhood which still today is known by the name Toyura. These include the central foundation stone (toshinso) of the pagoda belonging to the Toyuradera proper, which was erected in 634 (the 6th year of Emperor Jomei’s reign). At a banquet in the private apartment of a nun of Toyuradera, Tajihi-no-Kunihito wrote: “Autumn hagi on the hills rounded by Asukagawa’s passing/ In today’s falling rain will it be all scattered and gone? — Man'yoshu 1557.

Tachibanadera (Bodaiji, Asuka-mura, Tachibana) was originally a nunnery. It said to have been built on the site of Shotoku Taishi’s birth. Most large temples of the time faced southward, but the Tachibanadera was unusual in that it faced east, with central gate, pagoda, golden hall and lecture hall aligned in a straight line from east to west. The central foundation stone for the pagoda is designed so as to accommodate three additional shafts serving as supports for the center shaft. This design is similar to that of the central foundation stone of the pagoda at the site of the Wakakusadera excavated on the grounds of the Horyuji. Man'yoshu 3822 reads: “The young girl Hanari whom I once took to sleep/ In one of the long narrow shelters at Tachibanadera/ I wonder if she'll by now have tied her hair?”


Asukadera is known to be Japan’s first official temple. Built by Soga no Umako in 588, it was built to house the bronze Buddha statue of the Asuka Daibutsu. A very large temple, covering 200 meters on one side, it is known that Korean workmen from Paekche (Kudara in Japanese) were engaged for its construction. Asukadera (Hokoji, Gangoji) is representative of the large temples of the first half of the 7th century and provides a good indication of the Buddhist culture of the time. Its central portion three "golden halls" (kondo, sometimes translated "main hall" or "image hall") clustered around a pagoda (to). It is known that workmen from Paekche (Kudara) were engaged In its construction, and the Influence of contemporary Korean Buddhist culture is evidenced in the layout of the buildings and connecting passageways, and even in the designs on the roof tiles. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Soga-no-Umako in 593 had several Buddhist relics (busshari) placed within the central foundation stone (toshinso). upon which stood the pagoda’s center shaft. It is noteworthy that various objects not specifically connected with Buddhism were buried there at the same time, and that these other artifacts are nearly identical to those buried in tumulus graves (kofun) of the same period. This finding provides a good perspective on the state of transition whereby, during a time of continued kofun-building, Buddhism was beginning to spread among the various gozoku.

Asuka Daibutsu was the main object of worship (honzon) in the Asukadera’s original chu-kondo (central main hall). It was cast in 609 (the 17th year of Empress Suiko’s reign) by the master of Buddhist sculpture (busshi) Kuratsukuri-no-Tori, son of a Korean immigrant. It is the oldest extant Buddhist Image in Japan whose date of construction is definitely known. Repairs and alterations from later times are clearly in evidence, but in such features as the elongated face and the shape of the eyes may be seen the original characteristics of the Tori-shiki (Tori style) Buddhist imagery shared also by the Shaka triad at the Horyuji. The granite base is original, as are the socketed stands (hozoana) presently placed on either side and serving to support the flanking attendant figures. Comparing the Asuka Daibutsu with the Horyuji Shaka triad, one is reminded of the power possessed by the Soga family, who were able to commission the building of a joroku-zo, or what was considered to be a full-scale image, one jo and six shaku (or about 4.8 meters) high several times larger than the central figure of the Horyuji triad.

The pagoda of the Asukadera was lost to fire in 1196, and the relics (shari) buried beneath it were excavated the following year. A newly made reliquary was placed in a wooden box and buried about 2 meters above the central foundation stone (itself some 3 meters below the surface) . An inscription running around the sides of this box tells us that the pagoda burned in the year Kenkyu 7 (i.e., 1196, by modern reckoning),and that it had belonged to the "Moto Gangoji." The religious establishment originally attached to the Asukadera was moved in the early 8th century to the Heijo (Nara) capital and newly established as the Gang6ij, and it was in this way that the temple buildings remaining in Asuka had come to be known as the Moto (meaning "former" or "original") Gangoij.

drawing of ancient Asukadera

Yamadadera Temple Ruins

Yamadadera (Jodoji Sakurai-shi.Yamada) was a large temple. Construction began in 641 (the 13th year of Emperor Jomei’s reign) by Soga-no-Kurayamada Ishikawamaro, a cousin of Soga-no-Iruka. It was one of the clan temples (ujidera) the construction of which was then in vogue among the various wealthy families of the time. Although Ishikawamaro participated in the Taika coup d'etat (which involved the murder of his cousin Iruka) and was subsequently appointed Minister of the Right (udaijin), in 649 (Taika 5) he came under suspicion for allegedly plotting rebellion. The same year he committed suicide in the still unfinished clan temple. He was posthumously absolved of the earlier suspicions, and the building of the Yamadadera was continued with help from the imperial house and completed in the latter half of the 7th century. The Yamadadera is thought to have had a ground plan with gate, pagoda, golden hall and lecture hall arranged in a line from south to north, respectively. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Kawagoe wrote: In the early eighties, Yamadadera Temple (in Nara) made the news for the amazing discoveries of the outer wall of the east-side semi-enclosed corridor containing well-preserved and intact vertical mullion windows and other identifiable items. These remains predate Horyuji Temple by 50 years, and so are now considered the oldest existing building in Japan. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“The 1984 excavations brought forth two nearly perfect vertical mullion windows excavated from the 14th and 13th bays. The windows being in good condition and intact gave archaeologists a clear idea of the entire arrangement of the building from granite ground plate up to the head-penetrating tie-beam. The corridors and mullion windows of the temple have been restored and excavated parts can be viewed at Asuka Village Historical Museum. The differences between the style of the corridor of Yamadera and that of Horyuji have been noted: Yamadadera had thicker horizontal poles than those at Horyuji, and its pillars are placed at more frequent intervals than those of Horyuji’s.

“Roof tiles (tanben rengemon) were also recovered from the excavations of Yamadadera, which show the influences of the mid-7th century Paekche kingdom as well as Koguryo kingdom on the Korean peninsula. The tiles were made with a pattern of a stylized lotus with a seed pod in the centre and concentric circles radiating outwards. The roof tile discoveries have aided in the reconstruction project of the eave of the Golden Hall of the temple. Other objects such as wooden tablets and a flag “meika-ban” were also excavated from the temple site.”

Asuka Temples from the Reigns of Tenji and Tenmu

According to the Nihon shoki, in 680 (the 9th year of Emperor Tenmu’s reign) there were within the capital district (i.e., the Asuka and Fujiwara region) 24 temples, the majority of them semi-private "clan temples" (ujidera) built by certain wealthy families. With the advent of Tenmu’s reign (672-686),there came into being a system of designating certain temples as "official temples" (kanji),for purposes of exercising a certain amount of coordination over the activities of priests and nuns and for purposes of coordinating nationwide Buddhist festivities and observances. The most important kanji were the "Four Great Temples" of the day, namely, Daikandaiji, Yakushiji, Asukadera and Kawaradera. Most of the temples of the time were called after local place names, but in addition bore Chinese-style designations (hogo). [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]


Kawaradera (Gufukuji) is considered to have had its beginning during the reign of Emperor Tenji (662-671), when the grounds of the Asuka Kawara-no-miya were converted to a temple. It was from the following reign of Emperor Tenmu, when "official temples" (kanji) were established and given economic support by the country at large, that Buddhism, centering around these "official temples," came to flourish as the national religion. The Kawaradera, designated as one of the "official temples,"was moreover counted among the "Four Great Temples". Excavation studies have determined that the temple had a stately arrangement of buildings (garan) whose architecture drew on influences from early Tang China. There was a pagoda, two golden halls, and priests' quarters surrounding the central grounds on three sides. At present the original ground plan of the halls and pagoda is being restored. Agate-marble foundation stones from the central golden hall remain.

Moto Yakushiji (Kashihara-shi, Kidono-cho) was temple dedicated to the "healing Buddha" Yakushi. It was built by Emperor Tenmu, when he was praying that his wife (later Empress Jito) would recover from illness. The temple, for the most part completed in 698 (the 2nd year of Emperor Monmu’s reign), adopted a novel ground plan for the constituent buildings (garan). with both an east and west pagoda in front of the golden hall. Rivaling in size and prestige the Daikandaiji in the eastern precinct (sakyo) of Fujiwara-kyo, this temple in the western precinct (ukyo) was a further enhancement to the stately elegance of the Fujiwara capital. Even after the temple’s religious establishment was transferred to Heijo-kyo (Nara) in the early 8th century, a part of the original buildings remained in use until the early part of the Heian period (after the capital had been further moved to Kyoto at the end of the 8th century). in this way, the remaining temple came to be called the Moto ("original") Yakushiji, in contradistinction to the new Yakushiji as reestablished in Nara.

Daikandalji (Asuka-mura, Koyama) is also known as the "Takechi Daiji," was the forerunner of the Daianji of Heijo-kyo (Nara). From historical references, it appears already to have taken form to a certain extent in the last years of Tenmu’s reign (around 682),but construction work continued until the beginning years of the 8th century. During the Fujiwara-kyo period, it was designated as chief among the "official temples." It had a 7-story pagoda and was the largest temple in the Asuka region. It was lost to fire in 711,the year following the removal of the capital to Heijo (Nara). Today one may see the remains of foundation platforms from the pagoda and lecture hall (kodo).The dimensions of the lecture hail (53 meters from east to west; 28.5meters from north to south) have become known from excavation studies. Also discovered were such artifacts as hanging metal fittings for wind-bells, and other ornamental metal objects attached to corner rafters.

Horyuji Temple

Horyuji Temple (eight miles southwest of Nara) contains perhaps the oldest wooden temple building in the world. Covering 14.5 hectares and said to be founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, the great protector of Japanese Buddhism, it contains many treasured buildings, sculptures and pictorial art objects. The five story pagoda at Horyuji was originally built in 607. Some have argued it had been unchanged since then. An investigation of timbers used to build the structure indicate the temple was rebuilt after a fire in 670. Examination of tree rings on the timber in the present structure indicate the trees were felled in 663, 631 and 624.


The central pillar of the temple’s pagoda has been dated back to 594. According to Japan Information Network, “Using a combination of X-ray photography and dendrochronology (the dating of wood by examining the sequence of annual growth-ring widths), the recent scientific examination of the shinbashira of the pagoda, the “heart post” that passes through the center of the pagoda, showed that the hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood used for this post was felled in A.D. 594. Assuming this timber was used shortly after it was felled, it means that the construction of the pagoda took place not at the beginning of the eighth century (around 711), as is generally believed, but about a century earlier. This firm date for the felling of the tree used for the shinbashira raised the possibility that the Horyuji–one of Japan’s most important ancient monuments–may have been constructed earlier than previously thought. The generally held theory has it that Horyuji, including the pagoda, was first built around 607 by Prince Shotoku. These structures were burnt down in 670, and the temple was rebuilt some 100 meters away from the original site, being completed by around 711. Some theories raised to explain this gap between the 711 and 584 dates are that the present shinbashira originated from another temple and was reused for the Horyuji pagoda or that the timber was stored unused for an extended period until the building of the pagoda around 607 as is generally supposed. [Japan Information Network, March 29, 2001]

Horyuji Temple was originally called Ikaruga. Kawagoe wrote: Ikaruga was built on a plan that had a rectangular garan inner precinct that was enclosed by a roofed corridor and to be entered from the south through the middle gate (chumon). Within the precinct was a pagoda, a main hall (kondo), a lecture hall (kodo). Ikarugadera was destroyed by fire. Renamed Horyuji when it was rebuilt, the renewed temple had a new innovative design element that moved the pagoda from its traditionally central position to the west side of the compound and opposite to the main hall on the east side. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Begun construction in A.D. 587 by Emperor Yomei but completed in 607 by Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku, Horyuji is today Japan’s oldest existing temple complex. Horyuji’s structures — the Five-story Pagoda (Goju no To), the Golden Hall (Kondo), the Inner Gate (Chumon) and most of the surrounding Corridor (Kairo) are also the world’s oldest surviving buildings.

The Horyuji Temple grounds are divided into east (Saiin Temple) and west (Toin Temple). The pagoda, Chumanar gate and the Temple of Horyu are the oldest wooden buildings. Among the 55 buildings, which have been declared National Treasures, are the famous Hall of Dreams (Yumedono) , the covered gallery of the Saiian Temple, and 130-foot-high, five-tier pagoda.

Gojunoto (Five-Story Pagoda) in the western precinct is regarded earthquake-resistant. The five stories oscillate in opposed phases when there are tremors. There is no evidence of the structure ever collapsing. The same techniques are used in modern buildings. Four stone demons — located at the four corners of the upper part of the structure’s lowest roof “hold up” the pagoda.

Horyuji Temple was the first temple in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in 1993). It also houses one of Japan’s greatest collections of ancient art, including the earliest works of sculpture, created by Korean artisans in the Asuka Period, 38 national treasures and 153 nationally important cultural properties. There is some debate as to whether the temple complex is true to its original layout.

Asuka Palaces

Empress Suiko

If we accept the recorded tradition, it would appear that already as early as the 4th and 5th centuries Emperors Ojin and Ingyo had residences in the Asuka region. In the earlier half of the 6th century, residences of Emperors Kenzo and Senka were built here, but it was not until after the building of Empress Suiko’s Toyura-no-miya at the end of the 6th century that imperial residences came to be built in the Asuka region in fairly regular sequence, While these "palaces" (miya, a word also used to designate buildings or shrines of a ritual significance) were from the first built to serve chiefly as residences for one or another ruler, they also had the function of providing a place for the exercise of certain political, administrative and ceremonial activities. Palaces were moved with each change of emperor, and sometimes were moved two or three times during one and the same reign. As the framework of the nation-state began to assume a more ordered form, palace construction came to include, in imitation of the Chinese practice, a large number of administrative offices in addition to the emperor’s residence itself. Finally, there came to be built up around the palace an urbanized zone (kyo) subdivided by streets,[Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

The stately appearance of Asuka’s imperial residences is celebrated in the phrase miyabashira futoshiki imashi ("Palace columns stoutly set"),found in the Man'yoshu. Most of the structures in a given palace were of a hottate-bashira type construction,with the lower ends of the thick supporting posts set Into the ground. Structures of a Chinese type with supporting posts resting atop foundation stones at approximately ground level were, even in the case of the Fujiwara and Nara palaces, only partially employed. As seen, for example, in the "poem composed by a work-man engaged in the building of the Fujiwara palace"(Man'yoshu No. 50) , most of the timber used for the supporting posts of the imperial palaces was cut from mountains in Omi (present-day Shiga-ken), then tied together on rafts and transported over considerable distances to the capital.

Excavations of the palace site of Emperor Kotoku revealed even more clearly that the palace plans followed the Chinese model. The palace built between 645 and 653 in the capital city of Naniwakyo contained a large compound (chodoin) containing the Eight Ministries and behind it a smaller one, entered through a massive gate, that contained the quarters of the emperor. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Building Asuka Palaces

Asuka breezes
which used to flutter the sleeves
of lovely ladies
aimlessly blow on in vain
now that the court moved away.
– Manyoshu, book 1, poem 51

Kawagoe wrote: This poem from Manyoshi, alludes to the custom during the Asuka era, whereby the imperial family by custom resided out of multiple palaces and conducted state affairs from mobile courts. It was the practice for the ruler to build one or more palaces sometimes including a summer palace, or a new palace would be relocated for reasons of ritual cleansing and purity after the death of the previous sovereign. But the practice was expensive and it prevented the development of a stable political order. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

One of the workmen engaged in the building of the Fujiwara palace wrote:
Our sovereign who rules in peace
Child of a high and shining sun
To govern the land at her command
Conceived in godlike fashion
To bring into lofty being
A palace at Fujiwara. whose name
Reminds us of rough woven fiber.
Besides both earth and heaven
Are drawn together in this intent.
Into Yasoujigawa of warrior fame
We have sent floating like seaweed
Bundles of cypress logs fit for lumber
From sleeve-like Tanakamiyama
In Omi-no-kuni of stone-running streams.
Taking these up. the boisterous folk,
Forgetting their homes and thinking
Not the least bit about themselves
Like wild ducks are buoyed in the water.
To the sun-palace that we build
May the missions of lands unknown
Come over and across by Kose road
And may our own land last forever.
Even those wondrous tortoises
That bear diagrams on their shells
Tell of a new age arising.
And watching how one busily toils
Fixing the bundles of transported timber
Into the numerous rafts
To be brought upstream by Izumi’s rivers
It must seem indeed of godlike motivation.
— Man'yoshu No. 50

Different Asuka Palaces

Oharida-no-Miya (603-628) was occupied by Empress Suiko for a quarter-century. When Ono-no-Imoko, emis-sary to Sui China. returned to Japan bringing with him the Sui envoy Pei Shiqing, it was here that the Chinese envoy presented his letters of accreditation. The site of the Oharida palace Is thought to be in the northern part of the present-day Toyura district (oaza) of Asuka-mura, In the neighborhood (koaza) known as Furumiya. In the Meiji period a gilt bronze pot with four handle-rings was unearthed here from beside a platform of raised earth. Excavation studies have revealed the remains of buildings, drainage ditches and courtyards to the south of this platform, and also such artifacts as sen (a type of brick) with lotus designs. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

assassination of Soga-no-Iruka was in 645

Asuka Itabuki -no-Miya (643-645; also occupied in 655) was where Soga-no-Iruka was assassinated in 645 (the 4th year of Empress Kogyoku’s reign). The roof of the palace was presumably shingled with wooden boards (itabuki) in contra-distinction to former palaces, whose roofs are believed to have been for the most part thatched. The buildings were lost to fire in 655 (first year of Kogyoku’s second reign, in which she is known to history as Saimei). The remains of stone pavements, buildings, and a large well have been excavated in the Oka district of Asuka-mura, in a place which tradition had long held to be an abandoned palace site. Although this site is provisionally designated as that of the Asuka Itabuki-no-miya, some scholars hold the view that it might be rather the site of the Shima-no-miya or the Asuka Kiyomihara-no-miya.

Asuka Kawara -no-Miya (655-656) is where that Empress Saimei transferred her residence in the winter of 655, in the wake of the fire which had destroyed the Asuka Itabuki-no-miya, where she had assumed rulership (for the second time) earlier the same year. When excavation studies were made at the Kawaradera, it was discovered that there were drainage ditches predating the construction of the temple, and among the artifacts unearthed therefrom were a comb, a geta (wooden clog), and clay utensils. These drainage ditches are thought to be part of the construction of the Asuka Kawara-no-miya. Further discovery brought to light the stone receptacles (kara-ishiki) which housed the bottom ends of the pivot-and-hole type shafts that formed part of the structure of the palace doors.

Fujiwara-no-miya was a full-fledged Chinese-style palace constructed by Empress Jito as the capital of Japan’s ritsuryo-administered nation-state. Centered on the present-day Takadono district of Kashihara-shi and surrounded on three sides by the "three Yamato mountains," the palace covered an area of approximately one kilometer per side. In the center was the dairi (sovereign’s residential quarters) and the chodoin,an area with ministerial offices arrayed on either side of a central courtyard used for ceremonial activities. The outer perimeter of the palace was ringed with a tail wooden fence and a moat. On the present site of the former daigokuden (main audience hall, the most important building within the chodoin), vestiges of an elevated platform. in local parlance known as the"omiya dodan" ("earth platform of the great palace"), rise above the surrounding rice fields. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Kiyomihara Shrine

Shima-no-miya is mentioned in historical literature as having originally been a residence of Soga-no-Umako. I was later made into an imperial palace occupied for many years by Prince Kusakabe (son of Emperor Tenmu). At the site believed to be the location of the palace there is handsome pond, with a stone-paved floor. It has been excavated in the district of Asuka-mura which bears the name Shimanosho.

Man'yoshu 189 reads:
At the Shima court
Lit by the morning sun
Dismally no human sound is heard
How sad to the very core.

Man'yoshu 184 reads:
I serve at my post
By the eastern cascade gate
But neither yesterday nor today
Was any word of summons sent.

Kiyomihara Palace

Asuka Kiyomihara-no-Miya (672-694) is where Emperor Tenmu, who as Prince Oama had defeated Prince Otomo (son of his elder brother, Emperor Tenji) in the Jinshin Disturbance of 672, assumed the throne upon moving the capital back to Asuka from Omi (on the shore of Lake Biwa, present-day Shiga-ken). It was also here that his wife and successor, Empress Jito, completed the legal code known as the Asuka Kiyomihara-ryo.[Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Emperor Temmu and Empress Jito resided in Asuka Kiyomihara Palace from 672 to 694. Nihon shoki mentions that the palace complex had a hall of state (daigokuden), great gates, gardens, the imperial residence and ministry buildings and administrative offices — all of which suggest Chinese design. A semi-urban capital district (kyo) grew up around the palace and a Capital Office was established to govern it. Archaeological excavations have unearthed an elaborate drainage or irrigation system as well as unusually shaped stone fountains in the ancient palace gardens.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

As befit an era which saw a strengthening of the foundations of the legally administered ritsuryo nation-state, the Asuka Kiyomihara-no-miya boasted several chodo (administrative head quarters for the various ministries), a daianden, and a daigokuden ( imperial council hall).Around the palace an urban zone (kyo) began to develop, and a government office, the kyoshiki. was established to regulate its affairs. The palace is thought to have been located in the vicinity of the present-day Asuka Primary School,within the grounds of which there are vestiges of ancient stone pavements. To the south of the school, excavations have revealed the remains of buildings and a stone-paved drainage ditch laid in a square approximately 22.5 meters per side.

Believed to have been started during Tenmu’s reign and completed about 40 years later in 720, Kiyomihara Palace is described in detail in the first official history of Japan, According to Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), written in 720, there were three major buildings at Asuka Kiyomihara Palace. To the “uchi no andono” building, Emperor Tenmu invited princes and other relatives. At the “o andono” building, parties and other entertainments were held, while the emperor’s followers gathered at the “to no andono” building.

Man'yoshu 4260 reads: “Our great king, a god indeed. has made into a model city Those swampy fields where chestnut ponies trudged in mud up to their bellies.” Man'yoshu 4261 — composed after the end of the Jinshin Disturbance in 672 and the establishment of the capital at Asuka Kiyomihara-no-miya — reads: “Our great king. god that he is. has turned into his capital A marsh where waterfowl used to mingle.”

Discovery of a Wooden Palace and Living Quarters at Kiyomihara


In March 2004, archaeologists announced they had unearthed the remains of a wooden palace believed to be part of Kiyomihara and said they thought it could be the residence of Emperor Tenmu. Associated Press reported: “The discovery in Asuka revealed new details about the layout and architecture of a complex of palaces and temples there. Archaeologists who have been excavating the site for decades recently found remains of a stone courtyard, a pond and holes for wooden pillars they believe were part of the residence of Emperor Tenmu.Previous digs had uncovered remains of walls, gates and other outlying parts of Tenmu’s palace, known as the Asuka Kiyomihara Palace, but never the emperor’s residence itself, said Kiyohide Saito, a researcher with the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara-Nara. [Source: Associated Press, March 10, 2004]

Archaeologists believe the courtyard, paved with more than 2,000 granite stones, and pond were part of a private garden adjoining a wooden palace that was 24 meters long and 12 meters wide. “We were fuzzy about the layout of the complex,” Saito said. “This find allowed us to pinpoint where the emperor actually lived — certainly the magnificence of the courtyard points to that.” Saito said earlier that Imperial palaces excavated to date did not have similar gardens on their grounds.

In March 2006, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The remains of what is thought to have been the living quarters of ancient emperors were discovered in the ruins of the Asukakyo Imperial palace in Asukamura, Nara Prefecture, the Nara Prefectural Kashihara Archeological Institute announced. The building was one of the central facilities of Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya, or Asuka Kiyomihara Palace. Other palaces built after the Nara period (710-794) have similar layouts to Asuka Kiyomihara Palace, leading experts to believe that the palace served as a model. The institute uncovered three 12-meter rows of holes about 80 centimeters in diameter, which are believed to have held the pillars of the western half of the 24-meter-wide Imperial residence, “uchi no andono.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 9, 2006]

The institute also discovered paving stones, flagpole holes and the remains of a side hall. In March 205, the remains of a building of similar structure and size were unearthed about 20 meters south of the recent discovery. These discoveries have led the institute to believe that the two buildings stood side-by-side. Because the southern building had a stairway, it is probable that ceremonies were held there. The northern building is thought to be a private Imperial residence, where only a limited number of people were admitted. The remains of walls were discovered in an area between the two buildings, where special rituals may have been performed, according to the institute. The institute believes the recently discovered remains are of “uchi no andono” and the building next to it “o andono,” south of which stood “to no andono.”

Fujiwara-no-Miya (Fujiwara Palace)

Heijo (Fujiwara Palace

Fujiwara-no-Miya was occupied by Empress Jito at the end of the Asuka period from 694 until 710, and it was the first palace to house multi-generations of the imperial family. Located in the northern part of the planned city Fujiwarakyo, both the palace and the city with its grid layout, were closely modeled on the Chinese pattern. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

The Fujiwara-no-miya was a full-fledged Chinese-style palace constructed by Empress Jito as the capital of Japan’s ritsuryo-administered nation-state. Centered on the present-day Takadono district of Kashihara-shi and surrounded on three sides by the "three Yamato mountains," the palace covered an area of approximately one kilometer per side. In the center was the dairi (sovereign’s residential quarters) and the chodoin,an area with ministerial offices arrayed on either side of a central courtyard used for ceremonial activities. The outer perimeter of the palace was ringed with a tail wooden fence and a moat. On the present site of the former daigokuden (main audience hall, the most important building within the chodoin), vestiges of an elevated platform. in local parlance known as the"omiya dodan" ("earth platform of the great palace"), rise above the surrounding rice fields. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Excavation of the interior of the palace district continues every year, and the remains of various offices have been discovered , in addition to those of the Imperial Audience hall and the Halls of State Compound. it is worth noting that the Fujiwara capital was much larger in area than previously presumed, rivaling the Nara capital in size, and also that it was built on a different architectural concept than the latter. But it is necessary to ask again why a capital of such great size was abandoned after such a short duration of only sixteen years, and the seat of government moved from Fujiwara to the Nara capital.

In the excavations conducted in 2001, several thousand mokkan were unearthed from the city street sector lying southeast of Suzaku gate. From their contents it is possible to glimpse the tension, just after the enactment (in 701) of the Taiho Ritsuryo codes, of officials performing their duties in accordance with the new laws. The legal order that was brought near to completion with the Taiho codes, and the outlines of the state polity founded upon them, are in many ways the starting point of the social order in which the Japanese people are integrated today.

Heijo (Fujiwara) shibi (roof ornament)

A poem on Fujiwara-no-miya goes:
Our sovereign who rules in peace
Child of a high and shining sun
Gave beginning to a great palace
On the Fuji-well plain (1)
And standing on the Haniyasu embankment
She looked and saw
Green Kaguyama of Yamato
Spring hill standing luxuriant
Before the eastern gate;
Miminashi. green and pure, seen to stand
Well-proportioned, divine,
Behind the gate at the rear;
And the celebrated hills of Yoshino
Far away at the very seat of the clouds
In the direction of the front gate.
Water from this high-ruling place,
Shelter from the sky
A nd possessed of the heaven-knowing
Radiance of the sun
May it be everlasting
This fine clear water of the palace well.
— Man’yoshu 52

(accompanying tanka) How indeed one may be envious
Of those court maidens
Born successively to serve
At the great palace of Fujiwara.
— Man’yoshu 53

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asuka Historical Museum ; Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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