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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 1999

Voices of stone in the Oita mountains


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

Deep in a quiet valley northeast of Kyushu's Mount Aso lies the town of Innai, its central river filled with an absurdly picturesque number of stone bridges. I first read about the town and its equally fascinating surroundings a few years ago, but only recently made the long drive there, a stunning descent through the craggy shoulders of Kyushu's central volcanic mountains.

There are 75 bridges altogether in Innai, making it the most stone bridge-filled town in all of Japan. Why so many stone bridges (some quite grand, some mere slabs) in a peaceful agricultural town not much different to any other? The reason lies partly in a rush of technology that affected Kyushu after the 17th century, and partly in the eccentricity of Innai's developers themselves.

Japan's oldest stone bridge was a structure built in 1456 in Okinawa, destroyed, unfortunately, during WWII. But it was the construction of the Chinese-influenced Megane-bashi bridge in Nagasaki in 1634 that led to a profusion of similar structures around Kyushu. Nagasaki's stonemasons became the proverbial hotcakes of the following century, and derivative "Megane-bashi" can be seen far and near.

By the late 1700s, glorious structures, ranging from immense single arches to aqueducts, had sprung up around southern Kyushu. But the stone arch bridge did not spread far beyond Kyushu: It is thought that permanent bridges were a disadvantage militarily. Today, Kyushu still contains 97 percent of Japan's stone bridges.

Innai is in Oita Prefecture, where stone bridges were constructed mostly after 1800. The town's central Eragawa River rushes down sharply from the mountains of Aso, giving rise to a need for strong stone embankments and conduits to guide the immense volumes of water. The ability to build these structures was an essential skill for Innai's farmers, and so the town's own tradition of working with stone was born. In due time, the construction of bridges was added to local stonemasons' list of skills.

However, it wasn't until early this century that most of the town's major bridges were built. This was when Shinnosuke Matsuda, son of a local construction engineer, returned from his own engineering studies in Kansai. He threw his energy into building Innai's largest and most lovely bridges as a last and final alternative to the wooden bridges that were repeatedly swept away during typhoons.

Of these, Arase-bashi, Fujimi-bashi (Mount Yufu, a Mount Fuji lookalike, is visible from the bridge), and the triumphal, five-arched Torii-bashi bridge occupy prime viewing spots in central Innai. All make for wonderful photo opportunities, but it's worth roaming around the Eragawa River's tributaries to explore smaller, quirkier bridges.

There are crumbling arches seemingly held together only by weeds (Tanohira-bashi), mossy green bridges hidden away under canopies of trees (Uchiagari-bashi) and graceful bridges at poetic turns of the river (Ichinohashi), where Innai's Romeo may have trysted with his Juliet. The bridge in front of Fukugon-ji Temple doubles as a flight of stairs leading upwards.

And there are many, many more bridges yet.

Innai is accessible by public transport, but if you go by car you'll be able to reach surrounding attractions. To the west lie the soothing, crystal clear streams of Yabakei and Takkiri gorges. Both areas should still be richly decked in the autumn colors they're famous for. To the east, on the road to Beppu, lies the town of Ajimu, whose unusual homes bear colorful murals that ward off evil spirits. To the north is the town of Usa, famous for its ancient and eerie stone Buddhas and demons.

Innai itself has several other unusual tributes to stone. One is Osaka-fudo Temple, where a fierce-looking guardian demon, created in the Muromachi Period, is surrounded by soaring, painted flames. Just up the road from Yutopia Onsen is an immense private Japanese garden, Henmi Tei, where low, sculpted trees are blended with granite boulders for a surreal effect in which the viewer towers above a miniature world.

Innai's bridges may be man-made, many of them constructed in this century. But they resonate with centuries of an older stone culture that came to Kyushu from far over the seas and Asia. Go see, and let us know what the rocks tell you . . .

For more information on Innai-machi Yakuba Sangyo-ka, call (0978) 42-5111. Japanese garden Henmi Teien can be reached at (0978) 42-6716. This garden is part of a private residence, so call before you go. By car, take the Kyushu Expressway to Kusu I.C., then Route 387. By public transport, take the Nippo Honsen Line to JR Usa Stn., then a bus to Innai-machi.



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