Nagasaki’s Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge) got its name from the way the reflection of its double arches in the river combine with the bridge itself to look like a pair of glasses. In addition to its historical significance as Japan’s first arched stone bridge, it has a personal connection for me. When I studied in Japan, I was not the only Adam in my program, so my bespectacled mug garnered me the nickname “Megane”.
From the ancient to the modern, Japan has some great bridges. Some of them can provide insight into Japan’s history and culture or reflect archetypes that span cultures. Most often, of course, a bridge symbolizes a connection or transition. So let’s traverse the bridge of time together and see what we can see.
A Bridge Across Worlds
For our first bridge we’ll have to go back, waaaay back, to the beginning. I suppose technically this bridge isn’t even Japanese because, in stories, it existed before Japan did. I’m referring to the floating bridge of heaven (ame no ukihashi). It was from there that the god and goddess, Izanagi and Izanami, stood looking down upon the vast ocean that covered the world. They dipped a jeweled spear into the water, and used it to churn the sea. When they withdrew the spear, the drops of water that fell formed the first land, Onogoroshima. The divine couple then descended from the heavenly bridge to carry on creating.
The floating bridge of heaven can be seen as an example of an axis mundi, a mythological archetype found in many cultures. An axis mundi is what culture sees as the center of the world and/or the connection between heaven and Earth. It’s also often the point of original creation. Examples with which you might be more familiar include Mount Olympus for the Greeks or the tree Yggdrasill for the Norse. The Norse also had Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, which connected Earth and Asgard, the home of the gods. It’s easy to see how many people around the globe have taken the real practical function of bridges and made them symbols of connection between spiritual realms.
Let’s move on to Kyoto’s Gojo Bridge. At some point in the late twelfth century, the warrior monk Benkei decided to park himself on this bridge and let no warrior cross it. He took the weapon from each fallen swordsman that challenged him, and amassed quite the collection, 999 swords to be exact. That thousandth sword proved difficult to acquire, for Benkei finally met his match in a young Minamoto no Yoshitsune.
When Yoshitsune approached the bridge one moonlit night, a legendary fight ensued. The agile Yoshitsune proved too much for Benkei’s strength. Afterwards, Benkei became Yoshitsune’s most loyal retainer. They went on to achieve great victories together during the Genpei War. However, after the war, Yoshitsune’s older brother became convinced that Yoshitsune would betray him, and thus ordered his death. Yoshitsune and Benkei were on the run together for years and, while they were historical figures, there are many tall tales of their adventures. Eventually, Benkei was killed while buying Yoshitsune time to commit seppuku.
In this story the bridge is more of a meeting place than anything, but it could also be viewed as transition from enmity to friendship. The most obvious comparison here is to Robin Hood and Little John. A big, strong guy guarding a bridge is defeated by a smaller, clever guy, and the two become fast friends who together elude the law. One could also draw comparisons between Benkei’s sword collecting to the similar habit of a certain knight of English legend. King Pellinore (aka the Sable Knight) guarded a bridge and hung the shields of his many defeated enemies in a nearby apple tree until he was eventually defeated by a young King Arthur.
The Floating Bridge of Dreams
Our next bridge is not one that can be found on any map. The floating bridge of dreams (yume no ukihashi) can only be found during a night’s slumber. Well, that or a good book. It crops up from time to time in some literature of the Heian and Kamakura periods. Yume no ukihashi was the title of the final chapter of The Tale of Genji. Unlike the other chapter titles in the book, yume no ukihashi was not drawn from the text of the chapter.
This bridge also appeared in a poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) in the Shin kokin wakashu. Fujiwara no Teika was a great scholar and poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. He was also one of six compilers of the Shin kokin wakashu, a collection of poetry, commissioned by his patron, the retired emperor Go-Toba. Here is the poem by Teika:
春の夜の haru no yo A spring night
夢の浮き橋 yume no ukihashi the floating bridge of dreams
とだえして todae shite comes to an end
峰に別るる mine ni wakaruru parting from the peak
横雲の空 yokogumo no sora a sky of cloud banks
Like dreams and poetry, the yume no ukihashi is open to interpretation. Generally, it seems to be another example we can add to the list of Japanese symbols of ephemerality, along with cherry blossoms. Of course symbols of ephemerality are intertwined with ideas of transition, whether they be between dreams and wakefulness or life and death.
The Bridge of Japan
The Floating Bridge of Heaven may have been Japan’s original axis mundi, but at the dawn of the Edo period a new bridge was completed that would come to fill that role in many respects. I speak of the Nihon-bashi (Japan Bridge). With a name like that you know it must be important. The original wooden bridge was finished in 1603, in Edo (modern Tokyo).
The Nihon-bashi marked the eastern end of the Tokaido and Nakasendo roads that connected the old capital, Kyoto, to the new, Edo. Even today, highway signs displaying the distance to Tokyo are actually showing the distance to the Nihon-bashi.
The Nihon-bashi district that built up around its namesake was, from the beginning, a center of activities for merchants. The precursor to today’s Tsukiji fish market was there, and so was the ancestor of Mitsukoshi. In 1673, a kimono shop called Echigoya was founded which one day would become this international chain of department stores.
A Bridge Too Far
Now we must turn to a more somber chapter of history. Hiroshima’s Aioi Bridge was built in 1932. It sat in a fork of the Ota River, its T-shape connecting it to both sides as well as the island that split the river. Unfortunately its unique shape made it easily recognizable from the air, a quality that led it to its choosing as the target for the atomic bomb in 1945.
Ultimately a little off target, the bomb exploded over the nearby Shima Hospital. The bridge was seriously damaged, but survived. It was repaired after the war and remained in use until it was replaced by a replica in 1983. You can still see a piece of the original bridge in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Aioi Bridge can be seen as symbolic of the violent transition from imperial to post-war Japan.
The islands of Honshu and Hokkaido are connected by tunnel and, although there is a bridge connecting Honshu and Kyushu, it was long preceded by a tunnel. However, when it came to linking Honshu and Shikoku, not just one, but seventeen bridges were built. There are three routes, all seen below.
The first route to be completed was the central one, the Seto-Chuō Expressway, finished in 1988. It consists of six bridges. The eastern route was finished in 1998. It consists of two bridges, including the Akashi- Kaikyō Bridge. At 1,991 meters (6,532 feet) it is the world’s longest suspension bridge. It also has several beautiful illumination options. In 1999, the western route was the last to be finished, and is made up of a whopping nine bridges.
Prior to the construction of these bridges ferries were the only option for traveling between Shikoku and Honshu. Japan has always been a country divided by seas and mountains, isolating small regions. Over time technology has allowed Japan to become more unified, and bridges have been a major part of that. It has been both a blessing and a curse. As Japan became smaller and more opportunities became available, regional dialects and culture were diminished.
Crossing the Next Bridge
We’ve come to the end of our bridge across history, but surely there will be many more bridges to come. Whether they span a river, a sea, life and death, or heaven and Earth, bridges will always serve as a great way to get from here to there.