Asuka Temple, Japan’s First Temple

Nara is home to many of Japan’s ancient treasures. The tiny quaint village of Asuka, might not seem like little more than a dot on the map now, but it was once the thriving capital of Japan! There are many archaeological sites and ancient structures throughout the village, but one of the most famous is Asuka Temple

Asuka Temple

According to the Nihon Shoki, during the war between the Soga and Mononobe clans, in 596 C.E. Soga no Umako built Hoko-ji Temple, now known as Asuka Temple, where he prayed for victory over Mononobe no Moriya. Asuka Temple is the very first full-scale temple in Japan.

This temple is crucial to a great number of things connecting to the beginnings of Japan and Buddhism. Asuka-dera Temple should be one of your first stops on your trip to Asuka Village!

Entrance of Asuka Temple Asuka, Japan.

The original temple remained in Asuka, and was more or less forgotten. Then, in the Kamakura Period, lightning struck the temple causing a massive fire that burnt down much of the temple. The fire was so bad that it left the bronze Buddha statue exposed to the elements for centuries!

It was only by the end of the Edo Period that people built the current temple for the statue. 

The Asuka Great Buddha

The temple’s principal object of worship is a bronze Buddha statue known as the Asuka Great Buddha. This statue dates back to 606 C.E.

Because of years of being out in the open, the statue has needed many repairs. Even with these repairs, this statue could very well be the oldest Buddha idol in Japan.

Asuka Great Buddha

The Buddha’s soft gaze and smile, called an “archaic smile”, are tale-tell signs of Buddha statues from the Asuka Period.

Another interesting fact about this statue is that he has never moved from this original spot ever since he arrived at the temple. Unfortunately, only part of the face, left ear and finger remain from the original statue. Since only these parts of the original statue remain, it is unable to qualify as a Japanese National Treasure.

Iruka’s Grave Marker

Once you see the Great Buddha, head outside the temple for another popular spot, the grave marker of Soga no Iruka.

Iruka’s grave

Prince Shotoku and Soga no Iruka defeated Mononobe no Moriya, who resisted the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. However, Soga no Iruka held so much power that they even assassinated the emperor.  

Later, Soga no Iruka was killed by Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Kamatari during Taika Reforms in nearby Asuka Itabuki Palace. Legend says his head flew from the palace to Asuka Temple.

Ironically, in front of the grave is Keyakinoki Square. Supposedly, it was in this square that Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Kamatari met and played that fateful game of cuju where they conspired to kill Iruka.

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