The Rewarding Search For Asuka Beauties

The rewarding search for Asuka beautiesWhen you want the latest updates on how long you have to wait in line to see a popular art exhibition, all you have to do nowadays is to check on Twitter. It is very cool.

And that is just what I did from home the other day to check the wait time at the Tokyo National Museum in Tokyo’s Ueno district. Seeing that I had to wait 80 minutes to enter the museum, I almost decided not to bother going. But when I checked again later in the afternoon, the waiting time was down to 10 minutes. I hurried over to the museum, and was admitted in no time.

A special exhibition titled “Mural Paintings of the Kitora Tumulus” is being held at the museum through May 18. The ancient burial mound of Kitora, designated a special historic site, is located in the village of Asuka in Nara Prefecture. This is the first time that the murals are being shown outside the village. On display are three of the four paintings of mythological creatures that adorned the walls of the tomb’s stone chamber.

The history of the discovery of these vividly colorful murals is a fascinating story in itself. According to a book written by archaeologist Yoshinori Aboshi (1927-2006) and other sources, interest in ancient history surged following the discovery in 1972 of the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus in Asuka. The inner chamber of this tomb was decorated with murals, including a group portrait of women that came to be known as “Asuka Bijin”(Asuka beauties).

Many archaeology and history buffs who saw the murals believed that meant there had to be other ancient burial mounds with similar murals--a belief shared by experts and local patrons of art.

So they started searching in earnest, and their persistence was rewarded in 1983. An image captured by a remote camera of the interior of the Kitora Tumulus showed something that resembled the letter Q on a wall.

The image represents a tortoise with a snake coiled around it. The tortoise-snake creature is called “Genbu” (Black Tortoise) and is one of the three mythological creatures that are part of the exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum. It is believed to be a “divine beast” whose role was to guard the northern side of the tumulus. The other two are “Vermilion Bird” and “White Tiger,” which guarded the south and west sides, respectively.

The creatures I saw were smaller and seemed more delicate than I expected.

White Tiger eluded discovery until 1989. I can only applaud the patience and perseverance of archaeologists.

Unlike Takamatsuzuka, Kitora yielded no portrait of “Asuka Bijin.” When this was confirmed, a headline in The Asahi Shimbun read, “Why No Askuka Bijin?”

It could be fun to examine how the two burial mounds differ.