Bridges

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Teruo Hirano

    Main guest

    After studying civil engineering at university, Teruo Hirano spent nine years at an architectural consulting firm, specializing in roads, bridges, and other public works. In 1977 he set up a company offering photomontages that are a vital tool in the bridge-planning process. In a parallel career, he has also photographed bridges all over Japan, and compiled this work in books.

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August 25, 2016

Bridges

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In Japan, even in locations that are now extensively urbanized, place names often give hints as to the former lay of the land.

It is a country of mountains (“yama”) and rivers (“kawa”), and it follows that such terms are found in the names of many towns and villages. Central Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya district may not look that way now, but the “ya” part of the name tells you that the neighborhood developed in what was once a valley.

And wherever there are rivers and valleys, one is also likely to find bridges. “Hashi” (often modified to “bashi”) is another common suffix to many place names, especially in major cities that grew around networks of waterways, notably Osaka (see Nipponbashi, Yodobashi and Shinsaibashi), and of course Tokyo (Suidobashi, Kyobashi, Asakusabashi, Iidabashi).

Indeed central Tokyo’s famous Nihonbashi (literally “Japan Bridge”) became so important a feature of the local mercantile district that it was taken as the starting point for each of five key highways connecting Edo, the seat of military and commercial power, with key provinces.

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Nihonbashi in Tokyo was the starting point for major highways in centuries past. The current version was completed in 1911.

In a country of so many rivers, it should also come as no surprise that numerous Japanese folk tales use such structures as a key setting.

Fords and overpasses loom large in the nation's folklore, ranging from the bridges traversed by the doomed couple in “The Love Suicides at Amijima,” a classic of both kabuki and bunraku puppet theater to “The Willow Wife,” in which a supernatural sweetheart comes to a young farmer who spared an ancient willow tree from being used as timber to construct a bridge. 

Another well-known tale concerns Kyoto’s Gojo Bridge. In a narrative similar to the character of Little John from England’s tales of Robin Hood, it is said that on this bridge in the 12th century, the semi-legendary giant warrior monk Benkei would challenge those seeking to cross to a duel.  

He bested 999 such foes, but was eventually defeated in his thousandth duel by the brilliant military leader Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159–1189). Benkei went on to become Yoshitsune’s loyal retainer, joining him for a series of great victories in the Genpei War and his master’s subsequent exile to the north of Japan.

It is said that Benkei met his end on a bridge at the Battle of Koromo River. With Yoshitsune finally surrounded by the forces of his treacherous brother Yoritomo at a fortress near the historic city of Hiraizumi (in modern-day Iwate Prefecture), Benkei single-handedly held off the approaching army as Yoshitsune committed ritual suicide within.

Defending the bridge, legend has it that Benkei killed some 300 opposing troops. Too terrified to confront him directly, his foes retreated to a safe distance and bombarded him with arrows, but even then the hero did not fall. Eventually they realized that Benkei had died standing up.

But bridges are not just the stuff of legend. They also play a key role in modern Japan. In 1999 came the completion of Shimanami Kaido, a series of bridges linking Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectures, and the last stage of the Honshu-Shikoku bridge project, which improved connections between two of Japan’s main islands and is credited with revitalizing the local economy.

Kokonoe Yume Otsurihashi is another bridge that transformed regional fortunes by attracting many visitors. This pedestrian suspension bridge over a gorge in Oita Prefecture hangs a dizzying 770 meters above the valley below, and offers striking views of the autumn foliage each year.

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Peter Barakan and guest Teruo Hirano stand on Kozuya-bashi, a bridge in Kyoto whose deck is designed to float away when the river is flooded.

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Gyoja-bashi in Kyoto is named for the monks who once crossed it.

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Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is the world’s longest suspension bridge.

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Maintenance of Akashi Kaikyo Bridge takes place every day of the year.



 

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