A wooden bridge that shares the history of a famous Japanese tea-making region
Horai-bashi Bridge over the Oi River in Shizuoka Prefecture was recognized by Guinness World Records in 1997 as the longest wooden pedestrian bridge in the world. You can enjoy the river's flow and the seasonal scenery as you stroll across the bridge, feeling the gentle wood underfoot. This is especially true in winter, when visitors enjoy a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji. We made a visit to Horai-bashi Bridge.
Horai-bashi Bridge is a wooden pedestrian bridge measuring 897.4 meters in length and 2.4 meters in width that spans the lower reaches of the Oi River in Shimada City, Shizuoka Prefecture.
Shimada City is one of Japan's leading tea-growing areas. "The history of Japanese tea has much to do with the construction of Horai-bashi Bridge," says Takahashi Hiromichi from the Agriculture and Forestry Civil Engineering Section, Shimada City Agriculture and Forestry Development Division.
"Tea production in the Oi River basin began to flourish around 1540. In 1869, soon after the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the retainers who had guarded the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, started growing tea in the Makinohara Heights on the river's right bank. As cultivation stabilized, people from Shimada, on the left bank of the river, began asking to cultivate the land, and a method of crossing the river between the banks was considered. However, the Oi River at that time was famous for strong currents that made it impossible to build bridges over it."
At the Oi River, which was also known as the most difficult section of the Tokaido* road, the kawagoshi system** for crossing the river was established and developed by a group of operative laborers called ninsoku who had mastered the skills of crossing the river.
However, when the system was abolished in 1870, Shimada's laborers were left jobless, and the tea plantation on the Makinohara Plateau became the perfect place to find new employment. On the other hand, the former shogunate retainers on the Makinohara Heights also used boats to go to and from Shimada to obtain everyday goods, but they couldn't cross the river when the water level rose, and being unable to cross the Oi River freely at all times posed a major problem for them. Therefore, a Shimada City innkeeper named Shimizu Eizo and others started up a movement to build a bridge over the Oi River.
"Shimizu Eizo and other representatives of Shimada's reclaimed land cultivators' association submitted an application to the Shizuoka prefectural governor for permission to build the bridge. And making the most of traditional wooden bridge-building techniques passed down over many years in Japan, Horai-bashi Bridge was built," Takahashi explains.
At first, Horai-bashi Bridge was toll-free for tea farmers and other agricultural workers, but charged others a small fee as a chintori-bashi.***
However, due to typhoons, heavy rains and other factors causing water levels to rise, the bridge was washed away and rebuilt several times. In 1966, a full-on disaster restoration project was completed. The wooden piers of the bridge were replaced with concrete ones and the bridge has remained unchanged to this day.
"Wooden bridges are easily damaged, and repairing damage wrought by typhoons is expensive, so they're very difficult to maintain. But we appreciate the wishes of the local people who have been safeguarding the bridge since its creation, and we'll continue trying to preserve Horai-bashi Bridge's traditional appearance as much as possible."
Wooden bridges are comfortable to walk across and ideal for enjoying a view. Sometimes Mount Fuji is also visible, and on many days in winter one can see it clearly and looming large. In addition, every May, the Bonbori Festival is held, where Japanese lights called bonbori**** are displayed on the bridge parapets, and various events, including traditional dances and taiko drum performances, are held. The festival lets visitors sense the atmosphere of the time when the bridge was built.
Also popular these days are Horaibashi 897.4 Plaza on the left bank of the Oi River, where a market and events are held, and Horaibashi 897.4 Teahouse, a rest area with a shop that sells various goods.
"They sell take-out green tea, matcha soft serve, and other products unique to a place that's famous for its tea. We'd love visitors to enjoy some Japanese tea on a tatami-mat bench and take their time for viewing the wooden Horai-bashi Bridge, which blends exquisitely with the surrounding scenery.
* The Tokaido Road was an important arterial road for east-west traffic throughout ancient and medieval times. It is one of the Five Highways(see pp.12-13), a traffic system fully developed and expanded in the 17th century.
** A system of crossing a river on foot with a rendai (river palanquin) or on horses and so on The system was strictly regulated, including the price of a ticket to hire ninsoku or use a rendai to cross the river. A unique culture developed around the system, but it was abolished in modern times.
*** A bridge over which a toll is charged for passage. The toll for the Horai-bashi Bridge today is 100 yen for adults and 10 yen for children (elementary school age and younger) (as of August 31, 2023).
**** Lighting equipment consisting of a candleholder with a long handle and a paper or silk cover. An andon (lantern) with an attached handle and a base attached below.