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Sunday, July 6, 2003

Buried treasure: the mysteries and majesty of Nara

Staff writer

NARA -- At the end of 2001, the Emperor made a comment that received relatively little attention in Japan but one that will, without a doubt, stand as one of the most significant statements of his reign. In speaking about Japan's often troubled relations with the Korean Peninsula, the Emperor noted that he felt a certain kinship with the Korean people.

News photo
The five-story pagoda of Kofukuji Temple (Eric Johnston Photo)

The subtext of the statement, and the way it was reported outside Japan, was that the Emperor was publicly stating what serious historians and archaeologists had long concluded, which was that Japan's Imperial family has blood connections to the Korean Peninsula. It is in Nara Prefecture where those connections are to be discovered.

Nara, both the city and the prefecture, tends to get short shrift in English-language guidebooks on Japan. Kyoto, only about 30 minutes away by train, is usually the preferred destination of those seeking to experience traditional Japanese culture. The city of Nara is mentioned in passing as an interesting day trip to see the Great Buddha at Todaiji or the deer in Nara Park, not as a place where visitors would want to spend days on end.

But while it's true that some museums and temples in Nara Prefecture have about as much quiet dignity as a theme park on half-price day, the overall atmosphere is unhurried. There are fewer crowds than in Kyoto. Nara is greener, with more open spaces -- and the service in local restaurants and hotels is a bit slower.

Here, one can experience ancient, not merely traditional, Japanese culture.

The area in and around modern Nara city was the capital of Japan between roughly 643 and 794 A.D. There were people living in Nara when the Roman Empire was in existence, and it is here where Japan's earliest emperors are buried in mounds known as kofun. A type of blue glassware found in the burial mound of one of those ancient emperors offers tantalizing, if unsubstantiated, evidence that trade between ancient Rome and Nara may have taken place.

More conclusive is the evidence that Nara was, in essence, a Korean colony. Excavation of burial mounds found throughout the prefecture has revealed earthenware artifacts virtually identical to those found in similar burial mounds on the Korean Peninsula. And nobody challenges the notion that Buddhism first entered Nara from there. The word "nara" itself means "motherland" in Korean.

Claim to the throne

Nara Prefecture includes not only the city of Nara, but also Yoshino, a city in the southern part of the prefecture that is home to a very intriguing legend. It was here, in the 14th century, that a rival court rose to challenge the Kyoto court and gave birth to a story that is one part fact and one part romantic legend. To cut a long and complicated saga short, the legend says that it was the emperor of the southern court who was the true descendant of Japan's first emperor, Jimmu (circa 600 B.C.), and thus the rightful heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

After the Yoshino court was defeated, the rebels and the southern court emperor's descendants went into hiding in the wilds of Nara, in neighboring Mie Prefecture, and eventually as far west as Aichi Prefecture. There, they supposedly disappeared, marrying commoners and taking up farming.

But they did not vanish. They adopted the name Kumazawa. The descendents remained quiet for nearly 400 years, until one of them, a Buddhist monk at Tokyo's Enkoji Temple by the name of Taizen Kumazawa, approached the Meiji government with the claim that he was the rightful heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. After much debate and research, the Meiji government actually agreed that Kumazawa was the legitimate heir of the southern court, but Taizen was offered nothing more than a baronship, which he declined.

Taizen died in the late 1920s, and there the matter rested until early 1946, when Taizen's son, Hiromichi, a Nagoya grocery clerk, and a group of his "retainers" showed up at U.S. Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters to make another claim to the throne. According to declassified U.S. government documents dated May 15, 1946, Kumazawa asserted to the Americans that his family was the legitimate line of descent from the throne. But he was dismissed as an eccentric, and suspected of being a communist sympathizer.

Hiromichi spent the early 1950s traveling around the country trying to convince people he was the true emperor. He soon gave up and retired to Nichiren temple in Tokyo, where he died in the mid-1960s. His son Takanobu, who was reportedly running a bicycle shop in Osaka's Kyobashi district until the late 1980s, wanted no part of his father's claims and let the Kumazawa trail run cold, ending a 700-year-old legend.

Perhaps. A trip to the Yoshino district reveals that the Kumazawa clan has not been entirely forgotten. Many local shopkeepers know the story of the Southern Emperor, and will occasionally tell visitors they warm to that southern Nara Prefecture contains many Japanese who are descendants of the Kumazawa family, or served as its loyal retainers, and still consider the Kumazawas to be the true descendents of Emperor Jimmu.

Korean origins?

Imperial mysteries abound here and are most visibly represented by the above-mentioned kofun, which can be found at various locations throughout the prefecture but are concentrated in the northern part. Some mounds date back to nearly 200 A.D., but just who the occupants of the earliest kofun were is still the subject of scholarly debate.

For example, the Hashihaka burial mound, which sits at the foot of Mount Miwa, is nearly 280 meters long. Who, exactly, was buried here? While many archaeologists say it was an ancient princess born in Japan, legend holds that it was Queen Himiko, who ruled the ancient kingdom of Yamatai Koku -- which may have been less of a kingdom and more of a colony established by settlers from the Korean Peninsula.

Much of the pottery, stonework and other artifacts found in the mounds excavated so far is virtually identical to that in similar burial mounds on the Korean Peninsula, leading to the obvious conclusion that Nara got its start as a Korean colony. But establishing the extent of the relationship between Nara and Korea has always been fraught with difficulty, as government permission to excavate the burial mounds can be long in coming.

There are also political implications involved, because a thorough investigation of all of Nara's burial mounds could uncover the evidence to prove what many Japanese rightwingers and royalists most fear: that the current Imperial family really is descended from a Korean imperial family.

Rife with nature

The burial mounds of Nara are not frequented by the hordes of day-trippers that one finds in city and make for an interesting trip for the adventurous traveler who enjoys historical mysteries and quiet walks, since the kofun are often located away from major population centers. But even if one has little interest in poking around old burial mounds, there are other aspects of the prefecture that have appeal, especially for those who prefer dirt paths to concrete.

Nara Prefecture is a outdoorsman's dream. Hiking and bicycle trails snake through the area. You could easily spend a month hiking and camping in various parts of the prefecture and never lack for quiet forests or beautiful vistas.

A good place to start is the town of Ikoma, just inside the border of Nara Prefecture and only 20 minutes from Osaka's Namba Station. Heading south from Mount Ikoma to Minami Ikoma takes you through ancient paths where noblemen on horseback once passed (the town of Ikoma reportedly started as a series of stables for those making the trip from Osaka to Nara).

Those interested in taking in city vistas can take a cable car ride from Ikoma Station to the top of the mountain and then hike down the other side for a stunning view of Osaka.

Alien attraction

Despite its proximity to both Osaka and Kyoto, Nara Prefecture is considered by many in Kansai to be something of a backwater. The rugged mountains of Nara Prefecture, as well as the extensive rice fields were, for many who lived in the Kansai region, too far away from the bright lights and big cities. Those who worked in Osaka or Kyoto would not usually consider Nara as a choice of residence.

That view has changed, especially over the past few years. With better access to Osaka and Kyoto available via JR and private railways -- most recently new Kintetsu lines and extended subway lines connecting Nara and Osaka -- Nara Prefecture has emerged as the place to be for those who have to work in either city but prefer to live elsewhere. Rents are extremely cheap, the natural environment is far better than Osaka, and the pace of life is much more civilized.

Nara Prefecture's charms have begun to attract foreign residents as well. Traditionally, Kansai's foreign residents were based in either Kyoto (home of the culture vultures) or Kobe (preferred by merchants), and the two groups sometimes had very different values that kept them from mingling unless they happened to meet professionally or socially in Osaka.

Now, though, the area's natural environment, large number of universities, and convenient links to Kyoto and Osaka are attracting a small but growing number of non-Japanese teachers, writers, high-tech entrepreneurs and others who like their peace and quiet, have a sense of history and culture but enjoy the energy of a big city.

This is especially true for universities that specialize in information technology. The Nara Institute of Science and Technology -- a leader in the field of research into the Internet and its effects on society -- is a magnet for those who want to study information technology or computer programming and run off to start their own companies afterward. In the 1990s, it seemed every prefecture in Japan wanted to be a "Japanese Silicon Valley," but Nara, without really making a lot of effort, has quietly gone about investing in technology research.

The changes to Nara have also meant the creation of small but active groups that attract residents interested in international affairs. The Global Education Study Group, which consists of Japanese in Nara Prefecture who have worked as volunteers overseas, as well as interested foreign residents, has been meeting since 1991. A broad variety of themes, from women in Bangladeshi society to Kenyan education to Nepalese cooking, attracts those looking to broaden their horizons.

But, unlike other Kansai prefectures that bellow about how vibrant and international they are, Nara tends to keep quiet. A recent survey by the Kansai Economic Federation has revealed that, while Osaka and Hyogo prefectures were very keen to attract more foreign direct investment, Nara does not court overseas investment. The prefecture does not offer tax breaks for foreign investors, and lacks the cosmopolitan amenities (such as international schools) that companies seek when locating in Japan.

Those who do not know Nara often have problems understanding its unwillingness to advertise its many charms.

The city of Nara is often overlooked in favor of its neighbor Kyoto. Yet Kyoto can quickly disappoint. For anyone who pulls into the architectural nightmare that is Kyoto Station, the shock can be considerable. Visitors strain their necks anxiously for a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture amid the sea of dreary concrete buildings. Of course, one can find much beauty in Kyoto, but it is usually tucked away in the corners of a modern urban environment and displayed to busloads of tourists by a greedy tourist industry.

This writer has chosen to live in Nara Prefecture since 1997, an admission that often draws blank stares or puzzled reactions from friends in other parts of Kansai or Japan because they can't figure out what kind of strange foreigner would willingly live there. Toi, which usually means "far away" and sometimes implies "remote," is the most common response the questioners utter before quickly losing interest.

After all, in 21st-century Japan, with its manga-like megacities screaming at us 24 hours a day to work hard and buy more, what possible attraction could someplace "toi" like Nara offer, with its quiet mysteries, out-of-the-way temples and kofun, majestic nature and utter lack of interest in looking -- and thinking -- like everybody else?

What possible attraction, indeed?

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