marky star

Nijubashi – Tokyo’s Most Famous Bridge

In Japanese History on May 13, 2013 at 12:40 am

二重橋
Nijūbashi (Double Bridge)

Is this bridge really called Nijubashi or the Stone Bridge? Hmmmm... let's find out!

Is this bridge really called Nijubashi or the Stone Bridge? Hmmmm… let’s find out!

The bridge above is the main bridge to the Imperial Palace. It appears on guidebooks and postcards and is arguably the most famous bridge in Japan – even a symbol of Japan. Most people, including the Japanese, call it Nijūbashi. But this is sort of a case of mistaken identity.

First let’s look at the kanji:

 

二重
nijū

double


hashi

bridge


Nijūbashi is actually a nickname. The correct name of the bridge is 正門石橋 seimon ishibashi main entrance stone bridge.

Folk Etymology 1
There are actually two main bridges to the Imperial Palace. The 正門石橋 seimon ishibashi main entrance stone bridge and the 正門鉄橋 seimon tetsubashi the main entrance iron bridge. When you stand in front of the stone bridge you can see the iron bridge behind it and it looks like there are two bridges.

Double Bridges - Tokyo Imperial Palace

Seems legit.

Folk Etymology 2
When reflected in the moat, an illusion of two stone bridges occurs, hence a “double bridge.” Some old people actually refer to the bridge as メガネ橋 meganebashi the “glasses” bridge because… well, it looks like a pair of glasses.

Double Bridge or Glasses Bridge - Tokyo Imperial Palace

I see what you did there…

Those two stories are cute, but they’re not actually correct. Here’s the real deal:

Edo Castle also had two bridges here, but the names were different. The stone bridge was a wooden bridge called 西之丸大手橋 nishi no maru ōtebashi “front bridge to the western compound” and the iron bridge was also a wooden bridge called 西之丸下乗橋 nishi no maru kejōbashi “dismount bridge to the western compound.”*

Nijubashi was actually the nickname of the kejōbashi (now the iron bridge), not the ōtebashi (now the stone bridge). The bridge was built in 1614 by the shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada. The bridge had a secondary wooden support mechanism built underneath which made it a 2 level construction. Because of these two levels, it looked like there were two bridges. The nickname 二重橋 nijūbashi/futaebashi came to be used as it was quite a distinctive bridge.

The Original Nijubashi - Edo Castle

A hard to see photo of the original “double bridge.”

Here's a digital version of the same view of the old kejobashi.

Here’s a digital version of the same view of the old kejobashi.

When the imperial court moved into the castle in 1868 but the bridges remained. After the confiscation and destruction of the daimyō residences in Daimyō Alley and elsewhere, the old bridge and gate system was re-evaluated. The two bridges were chosen as the main entrances to Tokyo Castle (the Imperial Palace). The kejōbashi was torn down and replaced with an iron bridge in 1888. It was rebuilt again in 1964 to match the 新宮殿 Shin Kyūden the New Palace, which is the collection of shitty 60’s-looking buildings that litter the palace grounds.

The iron bridge as it looks today (the true

The iron bridge as it looks today (the true “nijubashi”)

The 大手橋 ōtebashi was also torn down and replaced with the famous stone bridge in 1887. Because of its modern style, it quickly became a very high profile bridge – especially with the demolition of Daimyō Alley and the encroachment of commoners to the inner moats (in the Edo Period most commoners probably wouldn’t have been able to get too close).

Side view of the original otebashi bridge (now the stone bridge). My guess is the photographer was standing on the kejobashi... maybe...

Side view of the original otebashi bridge (now the stone bridge). My guess is the photographer was standing on the kejobashi… maybe…

Main Bridge to Edo Castle

Front view of the original ōtebashi  taken by a lopsided person. (present day stone bridge).

In the Meiji Period, since the old kejōbashi formerly known as Nijūbashi no longer looked like a double bridge, the new main bridge became associated with the name. All the strange folk etymologies started popping up then too. And even though the bridge is not formally referred to as Nijūbashi, the Chiyoda Line subway station in the area (built in the 1970’s) is called 二重橋前駅 Nijūbashimae Eki Nijūbashi Front Station. Today the area around the station and bridge is colloquially referred to as Nijūbashi or Nijūbashimae.

Imperial Palace Bridge Satellite

In case you were wondering where the bridges go… The left one is the stone bridge, the right one is the iron bridge. (Interestingly, if you look up 二重橋 on google maps/google earth, the iron bridge is – correctly – labelled as Nijubashi).

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* I’m not sure if I’ve translated the term correctly because I don’t really understand the purpose of this particular bridge. 下乗 kejō means “dismount” as in “get off of a horse.”
Also, if you’re curious about what “maru” means, please have a look on my post about Marunōchi and Daimyō Alley.

  1. It’s funny that after all that in depth explanation, the two bridges just lead to the same place.

  2. The two bridges don’t actually go to the same place. You would cross the stone bridge to a small ‘maru’, called the Matoba Kuruwa, then cross the Nijubashi bridge to enter the main Nishinomaru compound. This small maru around the entrance to the Nishinomaru is effectively an umadashi style entranceway, where a smaller maru protects a gate. This makes for a very strong and easy to defend entrance to the important Nishinomaru compound which housed the Nishinomaru Palace. On a side note, Matoba literally means ‘target’ named so because of the archery range that was here. You’ll find matoba kuruwa’s at many castles.

    • In the picture they are clearly leading to the same place. Do you mean in olden days, they led to different places?

      • That’s right, in the Edo Period the bridges led to areas that were sectioned off from one another.
        Wordpress won’t let me upload a picture to the comments, but if you click the link below, you can see an example of the two bridges and where they led to in the Edo Era. Clearly different routes through the castle.


        Note in this picture, Nijūbashi doesn’t have a double bridge, but it does have the extra stone embankments to support the bottom level of the bridge, an interesting discrepancy.

        I should have been more clear. My bad.

    • Yeah, the picture is really out of context, isn’t it?

      I wish there was a way to upload a pic to the comments. I could map out the route more clearly.

      That’s interesting about the Matoba Kuruwa. It’s my first time to hear that word.
      What’s an umadashi entrance? I tried to find an explanation on http://jcastle.info, but I couldn’t. Wiki didn’t have anything either 😦

  3. Hey marky, sorry to get too detailed on that! but now that you asked about umadashi…

    There is no explanation on Jcastle for umadashi. A couple photos show them, but no details. That’s something I should tackle one day.

    Umadashi is a small courtyard right in front of a gate. It should be surrounded by moats except for 1 or 2 narrow entrances to it. It bottlenecks attackers trying to get at the gate and bunches them up inside so they’re easier to pick off by defenders. In the Sengoku period small umadashi were frequently used in Eastern Japan around entrances. In the Edo Period, umadashi were mostly replaced by masugata gates, but you still see larger umadashi being built on the scale of a mini ‘maru’. The Sanada Maru in Osaka castle and this Matoba Kuruwa are good examples of huge umadashi. A couple links:

    Sugiyama Castle – perfect example of a Sengoku umadashi. You see the small courtyard and with a bridge in and one out, very similar to Edo Castle above
    http://jcastle.info/photos/view/1606-Sugiyama-Castle

    Koyama Castle – nice small round umadashi in front of the gate
    http://www.jcastle.info/photos/view/1717-Oyama-Castle

    This Japanese site has a few diagrams explaining the concept
    http://underzero.net/html/casl/cas_m_umadashi.htm

    • No need to apologize! That’s really helpful, actually. I love the diagrams. They’re so clear. It does seem like a good defensive “trap” to bottleneck the attackers in a small space without other routes of escape.

      Big thanks for the links too! It’s very clear now. m(.丁.)m

      Actually, now I’m wondering if there’s any connection between 馬出 and 下乗 – since they both have references to horses in their names.

      • I had a feeling you’d take it in that direction, but I’ll leave that investigation to you 😉

        BTW, when new ambassadors are deployed to Japan they have to visit the emperor in the palace for some ceremony. During that first visit they use a horse and carriage. I wonder if they have to get off at 下乗橋 and walk the rest of the way ?

      • It would be hilarious if they did!!

  4. I’ve lived in Tokyo 2 years and I never knew there was a castle there. I just thought the emperor lived in an apartment on the island. But you guys are saying those are moats.

    Mind totally blown.

  5. […] You’ll return to Sakuradamon, after which you can take a rest and take a picture at Nujubashi 二重橋, one of the most photographed spots in all of Japan. (See: Nijubashi – Tokyo’s Most Famous Bridge) […]

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