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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

And so, I have finally reached Asuka. After climbing the Sacred Mount Miwa I am a bit too tired to do anything but driving directly to the hotel and my head is filled with nothing but the image of the onsen waiting for me, but I cannot prevent my self from wondering at the feeling of ancientness this land immediately gives me. It's not just because of the road signs indicating a different Emperor's mausoleum, ruins, archaeological site, historical temple at each cross. It's not just that here, if you drive a stick one feet in the ground chances are that you'll be hitting an archaeological find.

It's simply that this place is incredibly perfect as the cradle of a civilization. A vast plain surrounded by high mountains, rich in fertile ground and deep streams, with the terrain porous enough to avoid the formation of swamps, with sudden hills and little mounts naturally dividing the land and providing a raised observation spot, as the one from which I took this photo, or the mounts that can be seen from there:

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If there is a group of humans in the range of 100 kilometers from this place, they will move here and make this the center of a powerful civilization. And indeed, that's what happened, as traces of the Yamatai people were found moving out from Awajishima and occupying this land around 300 B.C.E.

My hotel, the Nara Fitness Hotel, has a very nice Japanese stile room setting, with an onsen that is exactly what I need now.

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Pitifully, the view from the room is not at the same level of the Hinotani resort:

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And the meal is not included in the room price, so I am forced to get out the hotel after using the onsen hunting for food. In an act of rebellion for this scorn, I head for a chain restaurant called Gusto, Italian for "taste", and I am planning to experiment how they render the Italian cuisine here, but when I am at the spot, the Japanese menu is so inviting (or maybe the Italian menu is so disappointing) that I opt for this:

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One sign of a superior civilization is that all the drinks are free, coffee included. Remember that the next time you are in Japan and you pay the equivalent for three pounds in a shop like Starbucks for an ordinary coffee.

The next day, the program is light: visit the Asuka historical museum, then the Nara Man'yo cultural museum, then a couple of kofun, the ancient tombs that sprout everywhere in the area. Most importantly, I want to visit the so called "Tomb of the Chopsticks", which is another spot where my novel takes place. I studied the tomb through any photo, satellite image and video I could find on the net, but I still want to see it with my eyes.

The visit at the historical museum reveals to be a great hit: it sums up most of the knowledge about the ancient Kofun and the constitution of Asuka as the first Capital city in the history of Japan in a very compact place.

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There are limits at the photographs I can take, but two of the tombs summarize the advanced astral knowledge imported from China through the mediation of the Koreans, in particular of the Soga clan that is accepted and bestowed a very high ranking in the Yamato aristocracy

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This animation shows a starmap on a natural-scale reproduction of the inner side of a sarcophagi lid. The buried aristocrat name didn't survive, but he or her must have been a star-diviner, probably a precursor of the Onmyoujis. This practices, delegated to the Korean immigrants (similarly as many oracles in Rome were managed by Etrusks), demonstrate how the Chinese philosophy, cosmogony and religion penetrated rapidly the Japanese aristocracy, up to forming this capital during the first years of the fifth century:

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There are many other finds in the museum, but all point to the same evidence of the Yamato court being more and more under the influence of the Korean families, either because of imitation or simply because caught in their network of power, until the prince Naka no Ooe and the clan Nakatomi (then renamed Fujiwara) organized a secret assassination of the Soga clan heads, placing an Emperor without any blood relation with the Koreans in power, the Emperor Koutoku. Under his reign, in the year 645, Japan starts to become a full fledged autonomous nation.

Particularly interesting is the finding of this water clock, of Korean invention, that was used to drive automatically the bell rung in the first Japanese Buddhist temple, the Asuka-dera.

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And then, really too many findings to be listed here, all very intriguing and thought provoking about the origin of Japan from the early Yamato and the even earlier Yamatai.

I then move on to the Museum of the Man'yo culture of the Nara prefecture. The name Man'yo refers to the collection of the ten thousand most famous small poetry compositions (usually in the form of tanka, but also haiku or other metrics), called "book of the ten thousand leaves" (Man'yo-shu).

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The museum is hosting an exposition of contemporary art that's very interesting: the interpretation of modernization seen by Japanese painters in the first half of the 20th century. Pitifully, (as expected), I am forbidden from taking photos.

The proper Man'yo section is actually a big delusion, as I expected some analysis of the most interesting samples from the collection, or, for example, some analysis on the stylistic evolution from the first samples from the sixth century up to the late eighteenth century, or again some side stories about the most important authors and characters depicted in the poetry (some section present several songs in a row having the same theme, or written as part of mail exchanges between nobles in love affairs), but the museum had nothing of the sort.

The visit was more worth for the archaeological finding unearthed in the building of the structure than for the theme of the museum itself. For example, this was a factory producing several goods, including the metal alloys used to produce the coins representing money in the small empire. This is very interesting, as it's an indication that the coins didn't have an intrinsic value commensurate with their nominal value: as in a modern economy, the coins just represented a value granted by the government, and they were not considered an object valuable in itself as the gold and silver coins in Europe.

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I also take the occasion to visit a mausoleum right besides the museum, said to be the tomb of the matriarch of the Fujiwara clan: Ootomo Bunin.

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The tomb is the tree grove you see in the distance behind this shrine. I have also other pictures taken from very near, as this one:

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but as you can see, the mound is indistinguishable from a simple hill, and the site has not been excavated yet.

So, I drive to an actually excavated and well studied site: the so called Ishi Butai kofun, literally "stone stage", said to be the tomb of an important member of the Soga clan, Umako.

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The tomb is a small earth pyramid, truncated on the top, where this rough stones are laid:

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Also, the entrance was very obvious, and simply sealed with a heavy stone, and the "chamber" is simply the prosecution of the pressed sand corridor.

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There was no sign of any sarcophagi nor particular relevant object when the tomb has been opened, although some turf remains suggest there might have been a turf sarcophagi that was destroyed in search of precious objects. This would be rather strange, actually, as in many other kofun with sarcophagi, they were found intact.

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The monoliths laid on top of the stones are far from prefectly closing it, and much light and rain filters down. However, notice how the rain is channeled in the little escape flows bringing it out of the tomb:

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It seems that the roughness and imperfectness of the tomb was actually carefully planned, to simulate a natural cave where the body wouldn't have been sealed and preserved, but willfully returned to the earth. Also, this was one of the latest kofun, built after the construction techniques of this tombs was perfected for hundreds of years. It was perfectly possible, by this time, to build perfect walls in many fashions. To me this is the start of the taste for the "artificially natural" that Japaneses have in regards to i.e. Japanese-style gardens.

But what surprises me is that the Japanese are so accustomed to throw money at the local Gods, that the spirit of this Umako gets it's share too:

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Time to move on and reach for the tomb I so long to see: the Hashi Haka, or "Tomb of the Chopsticks".

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