Last Updated: Sep 17, 2023
Well folks, it’s that time of year again! As the sultry summer finally comes to a close and the temperatures gradually start to drop, the autumn leaves are again about to grace us with their magnificent presence. Beginning in October, the entirety of the Japanese countryside slowly starts to come alive with the vibrant colors of the fall foliage. Honestly, if you haven’t had the chance to experience the fourth quarter of the year in Japan yet, I highly suggest you drop whatever the hell you are doing and book a flight to Japan ASAP.
Now that the pandemic is finally over (at least in as much as border policies are concerned) and inbound tourism is again booming, you can expect popular spots like Higashiyama in Kyoto to be absolutely mobbed. Luckily, I’ve got you covered. Today, I want to recommend Saruhashi (lit “Monkey Bridge”), a beautiful but off the beaten path allure that is absolutely stunning during autumn. Spanning a deep gorge, Saruhashi is an eccentric archway in Yamanashi Prefecture that you likely won’t need to share with too many people thanks to its remote location.
Historically, the 30.9 meter-long bridge dates from the Edo period (1603–1868) where it was an important connector along one of Japan’s main highways, the Koshu Kodo. Today, it is one of the best surviving examples of what was called a hanebashi design. The bridge is supported by four pairs of sturdy cantilever beams set into the opposing cliff faces. Thanks to this ingenious layout, the structure is easily able to span the Katsura River many meters below without the need to be further supported.
In the days of yesteryear, there were actually a lot of other hanebashi bridges in Japan (and specifically in this mountainous part of Yamanashi) but sans Saruhashi, I don’t actually think any of them still remain. Due to the deep gorge below, only an agile monkey could cross the ravine without the aid of something like Saruhashi. Truth be told, the “Monkey Bridge’’ moniker actually comes from an old Japanese folktale. According to a local farmer, many monkeys bridged the chasm by chaining their bodies together as a way of getting an elderly couple across.
While I am only guessing here, I suspect that the only real reason that Saruhashi survived to the present day was due to its famed beauty. The bridge and the Katsura River far below have appeared in a number of famous Japanese prints. When coupled with its prominent position on the Koshu Kaido that connected Edo (present-day Tokyo) with the rest of Yamanashi Prefecture, it’s no surprise that Saruhashi has earned its official status as a Place of Scenic Beauty in Japan.
How to Get There
If geography happens to not be your strong suit, know that this part of Yamanashi Prefecture is located in the mountains directly between the open fields of the Kanto region and the valley basin of Kofu. Officially part of Otsuki City, a trip to Saruhashi is a pretty easy one to make, all things considered. As you’ll see if you plug Saruhashi Station into a service such as Jorudan, you’ll need to take a series of local trains to reach this site of scenic beauty. While there are limited express trains going to Kofu, these don’t stop at Saruhashi Station so you’ll need to make your way over slowly.
From the train station, you can either wait for a bus or take a page from my playbook and walk your way over to Saruhashi. Though I am indeed a strong walker, I’d wager that just about anyone could waltz over to the so-called “Monkey Bridge” in anywhere from 10–15 minutes. Given the short distance, I really cannot recommend waiting around for the bus unless the timing lines up really well for you. There is frankly nothing else to do at Saruhashi Station while you wait. Moreover, the bus is bound to be crowded when the beautiful autumn leaves are at their zenith.
Now, before moving on, I’d like to say that as superb as it is, I would not suggest a trip to this part of Japan solely for Saruhashi. At the end of the day, there are just too many other places in Japan that warrant your time. Still, should you be going somewhere else nearby and it happens to be the peak season for the fall foliage, you should take it as a sign from the Japanese deities above that you should go visit Saruhashi.
Saruhashi, the “Monkey Bridge”
Despite the story that inspired its title of the “Monkey Bridge,” Saruhashi has seen several renovations over the years. Thanks to these repairs, the original rickety plank structure has been rebuilt and reinforced with modern-day materials like concrete. As can be seen in the photos throughout this article though, the iconic archway still retains the same Saruhashi-bridge architecture that earned it its reputation as one of the most unique bridges in Japan.
Like with its other two cousins on the list (which I’ll cover in a second), you can actually walk out onto the wooden beams of Saruhashi. Just be warned that it is a long way down so in the event that you’re afraid of heights, you might want to hurriedly scuttle your behind over to the far side. Here, you’ll find a sign post with information about Saruhashi. Though the bridge has been designed to withstand much more than your weight, I imagine the 30-meter drop might be a bit nerve-racking for some readers.
Speaking of the banks, there are two primary spots for taking photos of the bridge. The first location is from below and will require you to descend a few dirt-covered steps. From a vantage point below the archway itself, you’ll be able to get a shot similar to the one that I opted to post at the opening of this article. The second spot is from a modern bridge that was constructed to be able to handle car traffic. It’s hard to miss but it’s the one that is adorned with Japanese monkeys.
Japan’s Other Two Unusual Bridges
As noted, Saruhashi is part of a trifecta of bridges in Japan that are legendary throughout the country. As you may be able to guess by the imagery above, the Nikko’s Shinkyo is one of the two other bridges on the list. The third and final representative is none other than Kintaikyo (which is often rendered just as “Kintai Bridge” in English for some reason) over in Iwakuni. Together, these three complete a trio of truly spectacular archways in Japan.
Both the Shinkyo and Saruhashi bridge environs are best seen during the season when the beautiful autumn leaves are out in full color. Kintaikyo on the other hand is best seen during the springtime. Spanning the Nishiki River that is lined with an endless array of cherry blossoms, the sight of Kintaikyo during full bloom will blow your mind. Just check some of the photos that I posted on Glimpses of Japan in the spring of 2023 to know what I am talking about!
Other Nearby Attractions
First things first, know that the Saruhashi bridge area is allegedly home to some heavenly hydrangeas. Unfortunately, I can’t verify this myself as I visited during autumn but if you happen to be here during Japan’s rainy season and want to see this magnificent bridge, know that late June is also a great time to swing by. Since I am curious to see what the bridge looks like during this time of year, do be sure to send me a few snaps!
Other than Saruhashi itself, know that there are a lot of other things to do in the nearby area. Which of these you opt for largely depends on the direction in which you’re traveling. For example, if you’re heading back towards Tokyo on a local train after seeing the bridge, you’ll need to transfer at Takao Station. Thus, you could manage to shoehorn in the ever-spiritual Mt. Takao if you get an early enough start on the day. Alas, this is likely a bit too aggressive for most people.
Instead, I imagine the majority of tourists will be continuing west after their Saruhashi bridge adventures. In my case, I went over to explore Kofu but you could even continue on all the way up to Matsumoto if you so desired. I’ve written a lot about this part of Japan before so rather than reinvent the proverbial wheel here, I’ll just link to my former work below. Note that all of these can easily be accessed from Otsuki Station.
Lastly, the city of Otsuki also has a few things to check out as well. For example, Mt. Iwadono is a gentle, 45-minute long hike for outdoor enthusiasts that you could tack onto your trip to Saruhashi. Additionally, there’s also the Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center should you be a raving rail fanatic. For most international tourists though, you’d do better to swing by one of the other spots mentioned in this article after checking out the Saruhashi bridge area.
Until next time travelers…