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Flash In Japan: All Roads Lead to Nihonbashi

It’s funny how you can live in a place for a decade and miss a lot of what’s right there nearby.

It’s autumn, the weather’s been glorious here in Tokyo (here read cool that the scorching summer we just went through), and the leaves are starting to turn color-wise.

A couple of days ago I was on tight writing deadlines, but it was superb weather again so I decided to skip out and finally go explore the area in central Tokyo around the Nihonbashi, literally Japan Bridge — which was built a century ago in 2011, but rests on what has been a vital conduit spot for this city since the 17th century.

And I’d never even seen it before now except in ukiyo-e woodcuts like this one by Hiroshige (circa 1832).

Apparently it’s the point from which the Japanese measure distances: highway signs that report the distance to Tokyo actually state the number of kilometres to Nihonbashi.

And this site marked the beginning of the Go-kaido (five town roads), vital post routes that connected the old city of Edo (before it changed names to Tokyo), the Shogun’s capital, with the Imperial capital at Kyoto.

By 1905 they had trams going both ways on the bridge.

Japan Bridge is also the setting and title for a 1956 movie — Nihonbashi — by the great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa. Ichikawa’s first film in color told tells a riveting yarn of two geisha fighting for control of the Nihonbashi area, along the way brushing kimono with ghosts, murder, infanticide and flying daggers.

Just before the 1964 Olympics, an expressway (the Shuto) was built over the top of Nihonbashi, obscuring the classic view of Mount Fuji and just about everything else from the bridge.

To mark its centenary two years ago Nihonbashi underwent a bit of window-dressing — the removal of decades of soot and grime to showcase granite sidewalls — and it does look rather spiffy even now.

While it doesn’t play host to streetcars anymore, there are still some jazzy lion and dragon sculptures perched on the walls.

Incidentally, Japan’s first department store, Mitsukoshi, is on one side of the bridge, and there’s a monument to the Edo-era fish market which was formerly in Nihonbashi — the predecessor of  Tsukiji Fish Market up until the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.

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