Yasubei Hosoda has a dream of cruising once again down the Nihonbashi River toward Tokyo Disneyland, as he did every spring long ago to collect shellfish.
Hosoda, a 70-year-old adviser to confectioner Eitaro Sohompo, said that if the elevated Metropolitan Expressway over the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward was moved, the area would become attractive again and businesses might be encouraged to start offering water transportation that would take him out to Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture.
“We used to go from Nihonbashi by boat to Urayasu — close to where Disneyland is — every spring to collect shellfish,” Hosoda said. “It was sort of a company outing. Life was still deeply connected to the water in those days.”
Born in the Nihonbashi district, a commercial and financial center that includes the Bank of Japan headquarters, Hosoda is vice president of the Association to Preserve the Famous Nihonbashi Bridge.
Town associations, stores and corporations in the Nihonbashi area started working in 1968 to preserve the bridge, four years after the elevated highway was built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The expressway runs over the Nihonbashi Bridge, casting a shadow over it, and many people complain that it has ruined the neighborhood.
Hosoda said he wants to revive the traditional neighborhood by preserving the bridge’s special character.
The issue entered the spotlight last fall when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry to study the possibility of moving the expressway underground.
The first bridge was built of wood in 1603 to span the Nihonbashi River and connect the city to the famed Tokaido and Nakasendo roads that led to such important centers as Kyoto. A zero milestone was set up at the center of the overpass in 1907.
A Renaissance-style, double-arched granite bridge replaced the wooden span in 1911 and is still standing. It survived the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the U.S. fire-bombings during World War II.
Architect Yorinaka Tsumaki (1859-1916), son of a retainer of the Tokugawa shogunate, designed the granite bridge. He used beautiful stone even on the underside of the bridge so people could see it while riding under it by boat. The inscription on the bridge was written by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), the 15th and last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, ousted to restore Imperial rule.
Hosoda said he dreamed of Tokyo becoming a futuristic metropolis when he heard about the expressway — built during the height of Japan’s postwar economic growth — which would take him to Haneda airport in 15 minutes from his company. But once the massive structure was completed, he realized it blocked out the sun to the diminutive bridge, leaving it completely in shadow.
His association adopted a resolution in 1983 calling for the relocation of the elevated expressway.
“There must be many places in Japan where history and culture are just like what Nihonbashi is to Tokyo. If such places are revitalized, the whole area will be resuscitated,” said Akinori Nagamori, 60, chief public relations officer of Mitsukoshi Ltd.’s main department store near the bridge and secretary general of the preservation group.
“I think Nihonbashi will become the first step in new moves toward” restoring these places, he said.
One of the group’s projects has been to wash the bridge every summer since 1971.
There are typically about 1,200 participants, including elementary school students and fireboats, which shoot river water on the bridge.
In the past, buildings in Nihonbashi were constructed no higher than 31 meters. Today, builders of new high-rise buildings design them to fit in with the existing structures.
A government panel presented a proposal in September to Koizumi to put a 2 km section of the Metropolitan Expressway underground and build a park and promenade near the bridge in its place.
The project would cost between 400 billion yen and 500 billion yen. The proposal said the government’s share should only be between 100 billion yen and 200 billion yen, with either the remaining amount covered by the private sector or by reducing project costs.
Some people say a public consensus is needed before the project could begin because of the huge price tag.
South Korea has successfully relocated an expressway in Seoul. The mayor there followed through on a campaign pledge to restore the Chong Gye Chon River, which runs through the capital.
A project was completed in 2005 to remove a 5.8-km section of the expressway from over the river, and plant grass and trees along the riverside to turn the area into a tourist spot.
Shumon Miura, an 80-year-old writer and member of the preservation group, described the expressway above the Nihonbashi Bridge as a symbol of Japan’s way of its thoughtlessness in developing urban areas since the late 19th century.
“I think Tokyo needs to have a development plan of the city so it can continue to be attractive in the 21st and 22nd centuries,” Miura said.