At this time in autumn twenty-five moons ago, we were bashing around on the “living husband-and-wife bridges” in Japan’s most secluded wilderness in a “wild monkey cart.”
Needs explaining doesn’t it?
In the 12th century, long before suspension bridges like the Golden Gate, Brooklyn Bridge or Sydney Harbour, the Oku-iya kazura-bashi (Inner Iya vine bridges)were built on Japan’s Shikoku Island. At one time, thirteen vine bridges crisscrossed the V-shaped gorges of the Iya Valley. Today only three survive.
History is unclear regarding the building of these bridges. Some say they were initiated by Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Others say the Heike Clan built them to access their riding grounds. The most popular legend is the Heike constructed them, but for a different reason—fleeing here after being defeated by the Genji Clan during the Genpei War, knowing a quick slash of the bridge’s vine stays with their samurai swords would stop enemy access.It’s said Heike descendants still live in the Iya Valley.
Remote and mountainous, the Iya Valley is called the Tibet of Japan—it was isolated for 350 years and didn’t come under the government’s control until 1920. While Mount Tsurugi, the highest peak, is only about 3000 metres, the steep gorges are tightly enclosed and difficult to traverse. The term remote in Japan is relative. Across the road from the Kazurabashi bridges, as they’re commonly called, there’s a gift shop, vending machines, soft-serve ice cream, high-tech Japanese toilets in clean bathrooms, and nearby there’s a campground. Yet, the scenic cedar-forested Iya Valley is considered one of the three most-secluded spots in Japan.
The Kazurabashi bridges are designated “Nationally Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property.” They’re made from a native vine called Actinidia argute or Hardy Kiwi.This vine grows rapidly, up to seven metres in a season, so it was a great material for bridges before the advent of steel and cement. Good thing it grows quickly because building these bridges requires more than five tons of Actinidia argute vines! And the bridges have a short lifespan—they have to be remade every three years. Nowadays, with the number of visitors, steel wires and cables are used for reinforcement.
Crossing these bridges isn’t easy. Well, maybe for Magellan, Lynn and Ward, but I’m not such an agile monkey; the big sway and 20 centimetre space between each bridge plate was a wee bit disconcerting. I followed the “Monkey see, monkey do” directive and took up the rear.
While the Japanese used a “wild-monkey cart” to transport goods across the river, today you can propel yourself across the Wild Monkey Bridge (Yaen) next to the Wife Bridge in a wooden cart suspended on a rope. Childish, but fun. It reminded me of when Lynn was in kindergarten and Magellan and a neighbour built a “flying fox” in the playground at University Elementary School in Calgary. Four decades ago, half an hour after dinner on the flying fox was a family outing.
Why do they call these bridges Husband Bridge (Otto no Has) and Wife Bridge (Tsuma no Hashi), together “The Wedded Bridges?” Maybe the geishas with their tiny feet and elaborate kimonos preferred a bridge half the span of the Husband Bridge? Maybe the second sex was allotted only half of the harvested vines, forcing them to build less of a bridge? Maybe the women, being practical, wanted a shorter crossing for themselves and their children? I ask; I do not know. History has no living bridge to this mystery.
The bridges are open from sunrise to sunset everyday. They’re lit up every night from 19:00- 21:00, and can’t be crossed at that time.