Itabashi (Plank Bridge)
In 1180 Minamoto Yoritomo is recorded having temporarily stationed his army near a bridge called 板橋 Itabashi “the plank bridge” on the upper 滝野川 Takinogawa Takino River* in the 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District of 武蔵国 Musashino no Kuni Musashi Province. There was no road by the name at the time, but it is believed that this bridge is where the 中仙道 Nakasendō crossed the Takino River.
Today there is still a bridge called Itabashi where the 仲宿商店街 Nakajuku Shōtengai Nakajuku Arcade crosses the 石神井川 Shakujii River**. And it’s generally agreed that this is the same bridge. The arcade street is actually the Old Nakasendo highway and the name refers to the fact that it cuts through (仲) the post town (宿).
By the Edo Period, a major 宿場 shukuba post town had grown up around the bridge and the area was well known as 板橋宿 Itabashi-shuku. The town was a major stopping point for daimyō processions after the 1630’s. The town prospered under the sankin-kōtai edict until 1862 when the requirement was suspended in the crisis of the bakumatsu. Itabashi-shuku was a 3-4 hour walk from Nagareyama*** and it was also the starting point of the 川越街道 Kawagoe kaidō Kawagoe Highway.
So Why “Plank Bridge?”
The prevailing theory seems to be that in the late Heian Period in a backwater area far from Kyōto, the presence of an elegant and smooth plank bridge would have been something unique — as opposed to a bridge sorta thrown together with a bunch of crappy logs of various shapes and sizes. The fact that a bridge was even mentioned in the same sentence as Minamoto Yoritomo is held up as corroborating evidence… or that’s what people say.
Itabashi-shuku’s big claim to fame is a bit more nefarious than just being a convenient post town with a smooth-ass bridge. As the area was well outside of central Edo and on a major road, it was also the site of a prison and execution ground during the Edo Period. In 1868 as the Imperial Army was taking possession of the city and its infrastructure, they used the prison and execution grounds to detain and eventually execute Kondō Isami. Nothing remains of the execution grounds or the prison except for a quiet plot of land purchased by Nagakura Shinpachi to build graves for Kondo and Hijikata Toshizō and all the other dead members of Shinsengumi. Definitely a must-see spot if you’re a Shinsengumi fan like me.
Modern Itabashi is a sleepy area – boring one might say. But there are a few Shinsengumi related spots (mostly just plaques now) and of course the “Shinsengumi Graveyard.” But the bridge itself, while made of concrete now, is still there and the temples and shrines along the Old Nakasendō still remain****.
* Today the Takino River is called the 石神井川 Shakujii River.
** Remember, the Shakujii River was the Takino River back in the day.
*** Shinsengumi fans will know why I mentioned that.
**** Itabashi sightseeing spots. Knock yourself out.