Early Meiji Era Bridges

Early Meiji Era Bridges

Old Tokyo was a city of waterways and canals; its many neighborhoods east of the Imperial Palace linked by ferries and pole boats or joined by wooden bridges. Until industrial metallurgy and other modern Western bridge-building methods were introduced into Japan by the Meiji reforms, bridge spans were made almost exclusively of wood. Wood would continue to be used to some degree into the 20th century but, by and large, from the 1870s on, Tokyo would begin to be criss-crossed by a growing number of spans made of iron, steel and stone.

It was for defensive reasons that, prior to the Meiji Restoration, stone was never used as a bridge-building material to cross the palace moats. (Wood burns; stone doesn't.) This changed in 1877 after the Satsuma Rebellion had been defeated. Stone began to replace wood for the construction palace bridges, including Tokiwa-bashi (above). This is a ca. 1905 view of the bridge leading to the palace Tokiwa-mon [def: gate], a short distance from present-day Otemachi. The bridge connected the palace to the national mint and banking district of Nihonbashi.

Ochanomizu-bashi, the Tea Water Bridge, spanned the Kanda canal north of the Imperial Palace. The canal was one of the first public works projects undertaken by the new shogunate of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1590 after his arrival in Edo; over the course of several years, tons of debris was removed by conscripted laborers and used for the reclamation of Hibiya inlet. The canal was not only a primary source of water for Edo (hence its connection to tea [o-cha]) but served too as a commercial waterway. In this bucolic view (above) are the bridge and canal ca. 1905, with the Nikolai Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the background, before the Kobu/Chuo train line was extended east from Iidabashi. When the rail line came through, the canal slopes would be reinforced with concrete and the Ochanomizu train station perched precariously, it seemed, on the south (right) slope.

Tsukudajima was reclaimed from Tokyo Bay tidal flats in the mid-1600s and originally settled by fishermen resettled from the Osaka district of Tsukuda. During the Meiji Era, the island became the site of industrial production and warehousing but was, until 1893, only reached by ferry. The first Tsukudajima-bashi was built of wood, connecting the island with the Shitamachi mainland at Fukugawa. That original bridge has long since been replaced by more modern spans. The Tsukudajima district survived the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the 1945 wartime firebombings without great damage, and still supports an old residential district reminiscent of pre-war Tokyo.

An undated example of an early, decorative Meiji Era iron bridge spanning the Kanda canal near Ochanomizu.

Old and new stand in close contrast. There was not a new bridge constructed of wood built in Tokyo after 1896, and few survivors after the 1923 earthquake.

Sunset over the Tokyo banking district ca. 1900 with the Tokiwa bridge silouetted against the setting sun.