Saturday, September 14

Kintai-kyo Bridge

Iwakuni  is home to Kintai-kyo Bridge, an iconic Japanese landmark. It’s a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Nishiki River in five elegant wooden arches; each built without the use of nails. Its three central spans rest on four stone piers embedded into the riverbed, while its end spans are supported by piers of hefty wooden logs. The three middle spans are 35.1 metres long, while the two end spans are 34.8 metres, giving the bridge a total length of 175 metres.

The current structure was completed in 1953. Its predecessor was swept away by floods caused by Typhoon Kijia in 1950. Incredibly, the original bridge has stood for 276 years. It was commissioned by Kikkawa Hiroyoshi, the third feudal lord of Iwakuni in 1673. However, a year after its completion the bridge was destroyed by a flood. The local rebuilt the bridge, but determined to see it endure, they redesigned its stone piers and introduced a special tax to fund its ongoing maintenance.

This maintenance involves periodic rebuilding of the entire bridge.  The three central spans are rebuilt every 20 years, while the riverbank spans are rebuilt every 40 years. This tradition continued uninterrupted until the Second World War. However, Japan’s defeat left the nation impoverished and like many historical properties the bridge was neglected. The weakened structure was no match for the floods of Kijia.

I love taking people to see the bridge. It screams Japan. There's nothing else quite like it. During our vacation Mum and I decided to see it before the crowds arrived. We caught an early morning train from Hiroshima.  Our timing was perfect. For much of our visit we had the bridge to ourselves. Mum loved it. While crossing we paused mid-stream to watch the local fishermen. Their fishing technique is rather unusual. Instead a of rod, each man wades out into the stream carrying a small net for encircling their prey.

On the river’s opposite bank, a large park greets visitors. At its entrance stands a statue of Kikkawa Hiroyoshi. The park’s grounds once held his feudal palace. Today, only a few moats and stone walls remain. At its boundary sits Kikko Shrine, a truly tranquil and sonewhat unexpected oasis. This is the family shrine of Iwakuni's powerful Kikkawa family. Mum and I loved it.

We spent the remainder of our morning riding the local ropeway up to Iwakuni Castle. Kintai-kyo Bridge was once the main gateway to the castle's environs. The hilltop castle was constructed by Hiroyoshi between 1601 and 1608. However, it stood for only seven year before the Ikkoku-ichijo (literally "One Castle Per Province") decree issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate. As an older castle already stood in the district, Hiroyoshi's building had to go. It was subsequently demolished in 1615.

The castle you can see today is one of Japan’s ferro-concrete reconstructions. As the Lonely Planet guide notes, it's already stood for longer than its predecessor. Surprisingly, the imposing stone foundations of the original castle are still lovingly maintained nearby. The castle grounds offer visitors a stunning view along the Nishiki river valley as far as the Seto Inland Sea. As you stand on the hill's rim, and survey the scene, you really do feel like you're the king of the castle.

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