As a Roman archaeologist, historian, and person generally fixated on the past, I can’t help but see a city as the sum of its parts — both its ancient ruins and its icons of the future. How does the built environment affect the natural one? How do modern structures coexist with the past? I don’t always have the answers, but it’s what I’m thinking about when I visit the bridges and shrines in the Seto Inland Sea, Japan’s most beautiful waterway.
A distinguishing feature of this quiet seaside area are the 3,000 islands — some big, some tiny, some uninhabitable — that span the distance between two of Japan’s largest islands, Honshu and Shikoku. The sea’s strong currents historically made navigation costly and challenging, but there has been sweeping change in the last 30 years. Several remarkable bridges have been built along the Nishiseto Expressway, also known as the Shimanami Kaidō, a 70-kilometer highway project completed in 1999. (Japan, it turns out, is a world leader in bridge-building: By the end of the 20th century, the nation had constructed six of the world’s 10 largest.)
The massive steel structures are at once elegant, stolid, and imposing. Their purpose is both practical and aesthetic, providing easy transportation as well as enhancing the scenery. From the removed heights of the crossings, everything is more picturesque — the modest villages, the empty beaches, the low-lying farmland.
Tatara Bridge, which links Ikuchi and Ohmishima islands, was the most striking of the bridges I saw. Many locals compare the Seto Inland Sea to the Mediterranean, as they were quick to tell me when they learned I live in Italy. There are obvious similarities: Both are protected seas, with a surrounding island barrier that creates a pleasant, moderate climate. But I wasn’t expecting all the lemon groves that I saw while crossing Tatara.
The cable-stayed structure, the longest in the world at the time it was completed in 1999, is extraordinary, its white concrete pillars and cables standing fast in the breeze. Originally planned as a suspension bridge in the 1970s, it was changed to a cable design to lessen the environmental impact, as large excavations and anchorages would have permanently scarred the landscape. Looking up, the inverted Y towers loom with their imposing height. Looking down to the passing ships in the sea below is vertigo-inducing. The bridge itself is alien-like in contrast to the bucolic landscape, but it was designed to withstand typhoon and seismic conditions, two invisible but prevalent forces in Japan.
On the other end of Omishima island — land of sunset beaches, mandarin orchards, and salt works — is Omishima Bridge, connecting to Hakata island in the east. If Tatara is vertical, Omishima is horizontal, its wide ribs and zinc arch a dramatic frame for blue-gray skies and dense trees. It’s also the shortest of the main bridges.
Not so Kurushima-Kaikyō, linking Imabari and Oshima islands. It’s the world’s longest suspension bridge, composed of three separate suspension bridges, six towers, and four anchorages. It looks like San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, and it makes for an impressive photograph.
The coolest feature of Innoshima Bridge, which links Innoshima and Mukaishima, is the private road for cyclists that runs beneath its vehicular traffic. The massive platform is confined by a surrounding fence, which makes for a thrilling (and claustrophobic) feeling that is further heightened by all-encompassing external girders. Passing is like tunneling through an industrial thicket. On the upper level, the stiffened truss suspension bridge has three elegant spans, making it hard not to look up while driving.
But the best way to see the bridges may be from the top of Mt. Senkōji, on Onomichi. In years past, locals walked the narrow paths, past landscaped shrines, to reach the summit. Today, they take a smooth ride on the Senkōji Ropeway, a cable car ascent that provides stunning views of the bridges, the islands, and the ferries and barges crossing below. The mountain is home to the 9th-century Senkōji temple, which is especially beautiful in the spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom and the colored temple flags flap in the wind.
Not too far away is Jōdo-ji, an imposing temple complex. Lucky visitors might encounter a local priest who will show them around the elegant Chinese-style construction, through the manicured Japanese gardens, and into the reception halls filled with 15th-century paintings. They will no doubt be moved by the sight of cooks laboring over massive cauldrons, preparing rice on a large, wood-burning stove, which lights up the otherwise dark, unadorned hall, exposing rafters full of smoke. The temples are a reminder that our buildings hold and shape our histories, as our bridges connect and cross our divides.