Have you ever heard of terraced rice paddies? It refers to rice paddies built in a stepped or terraced pattern on hillsides or other slopes. In Japan, a small island nation with many mountains, terraced rice paddies are sometimes seen in mountain villages in the countryside—a nostalgic sight for the modern Japanese. Amid this quintessentially Japanese landscape, a stone aqueduct, like something out of an ancient Roman ruin, stands quietly. This is the Tsujunkyo Bridge, a National Treasure and the pride of Kumamoto. In this article, we’ll take a look at the beautiful story of this National Treasure stone bridge and the landscape of terraced rice fields.

Many terraced rice paddies still remain throughout Japan. One of the most special is actually located here in Kumamoto. It is called the Shiraito Plateau. Dotted with villages amid beautiful terraced rice field scenery, the Shiraito Plateau was selected as an “Important Cultural Landscape” (cultural properties designated by the Japanese government) for its scenery and cultural value. Today, the Shiraito Plateau’s verdant terraced rice paddies seem to symbolize the abundance of the land, but in fact, until as recently as 170 years ago, the land was unsuited for cultivation due to chronic water shortages. It was the Tsujunkyo Bridge that breathed life into the Shiraito Plateau.

The Tsujunkyo Bridge, built in 1854 as part of an agricultural irrigation channel by a man named Yasunosuke Futa for people suffering from water shortages, is one of Japan’s largest stone arch bridges. It is 78 meters long, 6.6 meters wide, 21.3 meters high, and has an arch radius of 28.1 meters. Its construction techniques embody the advanced masonry and civil engineering technology of the time, and it was the first civil engineering structure in Japan to be designated a National Treasure. Completion of the Tsujunkyo Bridge enabled as many as 100 hectares of rice paddies to be cultivated, and the Shiraito Plateau was transformed into the beautiful, fruitful region of terraced rice fields that remains to this day.

The area surrounding Tsujunkyo Bridge and the Shiraito Plateau is a perfect example of a traditional Japanese rural village landscape, rarely seen in modern times. For this reason, many people come to this area from all over Japan to enjoy seasonal scenery in tranquil, nostalgic surroundings. The Tsujunkyo Bridge, the only stone arch bridge in the area capable of discharging water, is still in use as an agricultural aqueduct and is symbolic of the area. Its majestic appearance and cultural value attract many tourists, and during the off-season, many are entertained by the powerful discharge of water (originally designed to remove sand and silt from the aqueduct).

In addition to the beautiful terraced rice paddies, the area around the Tsujunkyo Bridge is also home to a variety of other spots to visit, including the 50-meter-high Gorogataki Falls, the Tsujun Sake Brewery, the oldest sake brewery in Kumamoto, and farms where visitors can enjoy strawberry picking (there’s even a shrine dedicated to Yasunosuke Futa, creator of the Tsujunkyo Bridge!). In addition, a large festival called the Hassaku Festival is held every September, attracting many tourists from all over the country to see 4-meter-high effigies (called otsukurimono) made of bamboo, cedar, Japanese pampas grass, pine cones, and other natural materials being pulled around the village. As a tradition, water is discharged from the Tsujunkyo Bridge during this festival as well.

The Tsujunkyo Bridge has breathed life into the land, nurtured it, and watched over it for the past 170 years. This stone bridge, symbol of the area and beloved by locals, played a key role in creating the beautiful terraced rice paddy landscape of the Shiraito Plateau. After learning the wonderful story behind its transformative beauty, if you stand by the Tsujunkyo Bridge and witness the powerful discharge of water, you will be moved beyond mere visual spectacle. It’s awe-inspiring how a single civil engineering project can change the future of a region to such an extent, supporting the lives and wellbeing of so many people over such a long period. If you visit Kumamoto, don’t think of it as just an old stone bridge—instead, visit it as a glorious historical structure. It’s powerful and moving in a way you won’t find anywhere else.