Vermont Public Radio Commentary
© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 7/13/99
Of the 31 states that have them, like Iowa with only 15, most have barely a few left, except for Pennsylvania with 220, Ohio with 145, and Vermont with about 105. While in third place, however, The Green Mountain State is the most famous place for covered bridges, or so I thought.
Recently when I was teaching in Japan, I accepted an invitation by that nation’s leading bridge expert, Takashi Itoh, to see Yanetsuki Bashi (Japanese for bridges with a roof). You mean there are covered bridges in Japan, I said? Itoh explain that roofed bridges can be found around the world including China. Russia, tiny Buhtan and yes, Japan, especially in rural Ehime prefecture, our destination.
Two weeks later Itoh and I and several Japanese yenetsuki-bashi enthusiasts set out in a brand-new, giant four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle, glistening with chrome, and bristling with gadgets like a global positioning television and an outdoor barometer. This metal behemoth seemed out of scale in a place where everything is compact like Japan. It was so wide that we barely avoided several head on collisions in the narrow mountain passes.
Finally we beached the “sport utility” and got out to look. There, in the middle of a rice field, across a little a stream, was a small covered bridge, built not of massive timbers like our covered bridges, but of thin and graceful wooden strips. As long as the roof remained tight so rain could not rot them, its seemingly frail parts, like the ribs of a paper umbrella, would remain as strong as they needed to be. Built for access to a farmhouse, occasional equipment storage, and as place for farm animals to get out of the rain, “ Its a daily bridge” Itoh said.
Off again in the road barge, and after climbing many hills laced with fluffy green bamboo trees like the landscapes seen in old Japanese prints, we stopped to see a second Yanetsuki bashi, even more delicate and graceful than the first, curving over a beautiful pond. It led to a Shinto shrine, towered over by ancient cedar trees. We took off our shoes at the entrance and walked into a little room and clapped. A eerily soft echo answered back. Itoh explained that pilgrims have been seeking out this echo since a shrine was first built here over seven centuries ago. The covered bridge leading to this shrine was not a daily bridge. It’s a passage to the eternal spirit.
Near day’s end we took in one more bridge. Unlike the others which were delicate, this massive structure, built of thick new timbers held together with large shiny steel bolts, bore an awkward resemblance to our covered bridges back home. I asked Itoh why this bridge seemed so different than the others? “Its not the work of traditional Japanese craftsman. It was recently built by Government engineers as a tourist attraction,” he said.
Then one of our entourage, a Mrs. Tanaka, chimed in how the government is building Yanetsuki bashi like this one to please the tourists because covered bridges, once little appreciated in Japan, are now becoming very popular. (I suddenly had a premonition of what was coming next) It’s because of a movie that just played here, she explained, the Bridges of Madison County. I can’t wait to tell the folks back home about this one. I retorted. She answered. “Sensei, I didn’t realize you are from Iowa.
Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont