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Wow Place #252: Kintaikyo, Iwakuni, Japan

When you think of a traditional Japanese garden, what comes to mind? Probably a stream filled with Koi fish…stone lanterns…a tea house perhaps…and one of those red, arched bridges. Strangely enough, hump-backed bridges are a fairly uncommon sight in today’s Japan – and certainly not outside of a garden. That’s what makes the Kintaikyo such an enjoyable (and unexpected) anomaly.

Located in the town of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture, the pedestrian-only Kintai Bridge was built in 1673. Spanning the Nishiki River, the bridge features a series of five wooden arches. A part of the expansive Kikkou Park, the bridge lies at the foot of Mt. Yokoyhama, at the top of a which lies the fine, reconstructed Iwakuni Castle.

Interestingly, when the Kintaikyo was constructed in the 17th Century, it wasn’t the only wooden bridge on the river. There were a series of them – all destroyed by floods! The lord at the time wisely replaced the old wooden piers with stone ones, hoping to make the bridge flood proof – which it was, until a flood destroyed it the following year. After that, the stone piers were redesigned for strength and rebuilt assiduously every 20-40 years. As a result, the footbridge remained intact for 276 years – until it was washed away in a flood from typhoon Kijia in 1950. Three years later, the Japanese reconstructed it for a final time, similar to the original, and that’s what we see today.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit the Kintai Bridge during the spring, when it hosts a very popular Cherry blossom festival, or in the autumn, when the nearby Japanese maples change from flat red to golden yellow. Still, the bridge is a gorgeous and evocative site, whatever the season, made all the more remarkable when considering that for nearly 300 years, the many versions of the bridge stood without the use of metal nails. Imagine the ingenuity required to fit all that wood together!

Climbing up the arches of the Kintaikyo is harder than it looks, they’re that steep! As I reach the summit of the bridge and gaze out at the pastoral setting all around me, I can’t help finding myself transported back into the past, to the time of samurais and shoguns, ninjas and geishas. A glance at a nearby telephone tower and Pachinko parlor snaps me out of my reflections, alas…but how great is it that a place like this still exists here in modern Japan — in spite of so many trials and tribulations, so many battles and skirmishes, so many years of high waters.

(Spotting anomalies is something of a sport for me. I love taking photos of palm trees in the middle of a corn field, or rice fields in the middle of a cluster of skyscrapers. Anomalies can exist anywhere. Why does that house have a giant bear statue out front? What were they thinking when they painted their chimney pink? Take a walk in your neighborhood this weekend and see how many anomalies you can discover. Ask an elderly person to share the story of their life and be amazed at how different the wild experiences of their youth clash with the calm exterior you see now in front of you. Become an anomaly hunter – it may just change your life!)