Illustrator Ryoko Takagi visits Sumitomo Group
Washimibashi Bridge Sumitomo Mitsui Construction

Now under construction, Washimibashi Bridge on the Tokai-Hokuriku
Expressway will be the highest road bridge in Japan. Its tallest pier soars 125 meters from the valley floor.

  • Washimibashi Bridge Sumitomo Mitsui Construction. The bridge with the highest pier in Japan!
Washimibashi Bridge Site, Sumitomo Mitsui Construction.

Stand by the pier and peer upward. Up close and personal, the impressionis overwhelming, quite differentfrom when the structure isviewed from a distance. Overawedby the soaring vertical structure, I felt as if I were merging with thecosmos, becoming part of theever-changing cloudscape abovethe bridge.

So high! So long!
May I relax? Ahhh...

Up on the bridge is a comfortable working environment. Reminiscent of a sky lounge atop a high-rise building!

About a 90-minute drive from Nagoya Station on the expressway toward Gifu, leave the expressway for a mountain road and you will soon encounter a gigantic bridge under construction. When completed, it will add an extra lane in each direction to the expressway.

“Awe-inspiring!” I exclaim on encountering the soaring structure for the first time. From photos, Washimibashi Bridge impressed me with its “simple, elegant form.” But with the massive piers of the bridge towering over me, I am astonished. I search for words to express my feelings. Powerful, glorious, magnificent, and dignified are among those that come to mind. Quite simply, it’s jaw-dropping, overwhelming, “Awe-inspiring!”

I love gigantic structures. Whenever travelling, I never pass up a chance to visit dams, towers, castles, and, of course, bridges. Wherever I go, if there is a bridge in the vicinity, I will photograph it, read about it, and savor its distinctive character. But I never previously took a keen interest in the height of the bridge piers.

Let’s take a trip to the top of the bridge. I enter the elevator used for the construction work. The people on the ground get smaller and smaller as we slowly ascend. After about a 4-minute ride, I am 125 meters above the valley floor. Fortunately, I don’t have a phobia about heights. I wonder if the staff feel fine perched up here. They say, “No problem. It’s our profession and it’s safe.” Up aloft, almost in the sky, where construction work is underway, we walk on a rugged concrete surface. The expressway runs beside the construction site. You can see cars and trucks whizzing along. It’s like the feeling you get in the sky lounge of a high-rise building while gazing at the world spread out far below (chuckle).

The sense of wellbeing is a reflection of the orderly working environment. The construction site is neat and tidy. There is no sign of waste or clutter. One can stroll around with ease, unimpeded. Because it is so well managed, this construction site has an excellent safety record and visitors like me feel reassured and relaxed. I am impressed by how highly organized this workplace is. (In contrast, my desk is covered with clutter and an accident could happen at any moment!)

Safety harness on!
A safety harness is mandatory when working at height.
Noticeboard with a weekly slogan by a worker. Whenever someone passes by the noticeboard, the slogan recorded by the person who made it is played.
Goods and materials are kept securely covered to prevent them being blown away by the wind. So the adjacent road is safe.
So much more than the sum of its technologies!

Washimibashi Bridge is a road bridge on the expressway up in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. The region attracts lots of skiers and snowboarders. But how many of them will notice this magnificent bridge? When you are crossing a bridge in your car, driving along an expressway, you can’t see the bridge because you are on it. In fact, you scarcely notice it. From your perspective, the bridge is just a continuation of the road.

I wish people visiting the region for the skiing could enjoy a panoramic view of this magnificent bridge. The simplicity of the bridge design perfectly complements the green of the forested mountains and the blue sky with its scattering of clouds. It’s ravishingly beautiful, aesthetically delightful. I can imagine another beautiful scene: the bridge soaring elegantly above a snowbound, wintry landscape.

But there is much more to Washimibashi Bridge than good looks. It also has a remarkable structure. The piers have been constructed using a method called SPER—short for Sumitomo Mitsui’s Precast Form for Earthquake Resistance and Rapid Construction. This involves prefabricating half-precast concrete components at a factory and then assembling them at the construction site. The setting of concrete is subject to variation depending on the weather and other environmental conditions. So fabricating concrete components at a factory under consistent conditions helps to achieve stable quality and use of prefabricated components speeds construction. The SPER method maximizes these advantages. Having received this explanation, I peered more intently at the piers and could get an idea of how the various sections were combined at the site. In my mind’s eye, I could visualize the assembly work.

Another interesting insight is that when building a pier head, segments are added one by one on either side to maintain balance. I didn’t imagine that the horizontal structure of the bridge, perched atop the vertical piers, is extended bit by bit as if two arms were stretching out toward each other across the void and eventually clasping hands when the final section is put in position. The structure also includes a space where technicians can walk around to do maintenance. So you can actually go inside a bridge.

Washimibashi Bridge is such a remarkable example of engineering excellence in a superb natural setting, but it is not well known. I would like to think more and more people visiting the region will take a side trip to view this beautiful bridge.

But on reflection, like other gigantic structures I have visited so far, the most attractive attribute of this bridge is its understated, steady, reassuring character. It’s just there. And in its inimitable, quiet way, it not only helps people get from one place to another, but also empowers them to fulfill their aspirations. Awe-inspiring! My affection for outsize structures is deepening.

How to build a bridge

(1) Make the foundation and assemble the components for a pier.
(2) Extend the horizontal structure outward, bit by bit, on both sides from the center of a pier while always maintaining a balance.
(3) Connect the span by filling in the gaps. Pave the road surface and install lighting.

Compressive force is key

So high! Look here What keeps a bridge girder in place?
Won’t you get exhausted keeping your arms outstretched? No...No...
Prestressed concrete Increased strength against pressure from above and improved crack control High-strength steel tendons under tension are anchored. Utilizing reaction forces of steel tendons, strength of the concrete is increased.
Will compressive force make my face wrinkle-free? Well...

Editor’s note

Ms. Takagi loves gigantic structures and our photographer is a big fan of bridges. Indeed, they are his favorite subjects when he is pursuing his own interest as a photographer. So the entire production team was eager to visit Washimibashi Bridge.

The central piers are the highlight of Washimibashi Bridge. The tallest in Japan, they are composed of square-bracket-shaped concrete blocks measuring 6 meters in length, 1 meter thick, and 1.5 meters high. The blocks are stacked by a crane at the construction site. Although the blocks had already been stacked when we visited the site, that didn’t dampen Ms. Takagi’s enthusiasm. Noting the seams in the piers, she exclaimed, “It’s like Tetris!”

Ms. Takagi stands by a pier, gazing up at the bridge.
A pier under construction (photo courtesy of Sumitomo Mitsui Construction)
A pier head under construction (front view)
View from the top of the bridge. The van looks tiny.

Washimibashi Bridge has already become popular among bridge enthusiasts. At a nearby hotel, you can wallow in a hot spring while enjoying a fine view of the bridge. In fact, the bridge often crops up in conversation between guests and hotel staff. When we heard about it, Ms. Takagi and I chorused: “A view from a hot spring...Wow!”

Awesome panorama from Washimibashi Bridge!

Number (Manga Reportage "Visits to Sumitomo Group")