The elevator motor whirs into life. Inside, small lights track our ascent to the top. As we approach 297m, the compact elevator comes to a halt with a clunk. We have arrived. After walking through the heavily reinforced steel structure, an automated ceiling hatch slowly begins to slide open. I was about to experience the highlight of the Bridge World tour on Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan – the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world.
The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Exhibition Center is the starting point of the tour. You can find it on the mainland next to this 4km-long superstructure that connects Kobe to Awaji Island – the gateway to Shikoku. The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge World tour began in 2005 and is now a key global destination in the burgeoning ‘infrastructure tourism’ sector. The popular tours are scheduled twice a day between Thursday and Sunday, and National holidays from April to November. Last year they received over 11,000 visitors – so make sure you book early.
I met my guides for the day, Atsushi Nunohiro and Tatsuya Nishiyama from the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway Company who oversee the bridge’s day-to-day maintenance and operations. On the regular group tours, the guides are all retired engineers and operators who personally worked on the bridge during its construction.
The tour began with a safety explanation and a walk around the permanent exhibition. Looking through the exhibits, it was clear to see the incredible precision and innovation needed to complete such a colossal project. It was a testament to Japanese engineering. Opened in 1998, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge even managed to withstand the impact of the Kobe Earthquake in the middle of its construction.
“There are three main bridge connections between Honshu and Shikoku, each with their distinct roles,” explains Nunohiro. “The Shimanami Kaido route in the west is the ‘lifestyle’ bridge with its cycle lanes and sidewalks. The Great Seto Bridge forms the main rail connection, and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is the economic artery between the mainland and Shikoku.”
Spanning the length of the exhibition hall is a 1:100 scale 40m-long test model of the bridge. It was used inside a wind tunnel before construction to examine the bridge’s movements and distortions in high winds.
“There are counter-weights positioned throughout the towers to counteract earthquakes. Wrapped inside each of the main cables that run the length of the bridge are roughly 37,000 smaller high-tensile steel wires,” explains Nunohiro. “Each steel wire can lift 5 tons and if you put them all end to end, they would wrap around the earth 7.5 times.”
Nunohiro explained how an innovative air pump and filtration system continuously sends clean air through the main cables to combat deterioration and rust from the salty air. Examined 10 years after the completion of the bridge, the steel wires inside the main cables were in almost perfect condition. This was all reassuring as we were about to enter the enormous 297m-tall tower in the next part of the bridge tour.
Walking out of the Exhibition Center and knowing the monumental efforts that went into its construction, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge seemed to take on a new significance. The scale of the project they undertook was mind-boggling. In a strange way, the bridge appeared even bigger than it did before.
“We make sure people spend time in the exhibition before they go up,” says Nishiyama. “Once you know the background behind its construction, everything you see when you’re on the bridge takes on a deeper meaning.”
We boarded the first elevator to the bridge walkway running under the road. It only took a few strides before we were walking above the water – clearly visible through the porous metal grating underfoot.
About 1,400 ships pass under the bridge every day and during the walk to the tower you can see cargo ships passing underneath your feet. I never had a problem with heights, but with only a steel grille separating me from a 65m drop, I could feel my heart rate quicken and my knees begin to shake.
Once we made it to the tower, the only way was up. Stepping through the access hatch at the top of the tower was a sensation I will never forget. The whole of the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe, Akashi, Awaji Island opened up in front of my eyes in a panoramic view second to none. Looking down from such a height, the cars and trucks crossing the bridge and the ships passing underneath looked like toys.
“We get a lot of repeaters,” says Nunohiro. “Once they go up and try it, they get hooked and want to go up again and again.”
I could understand the feeling. It was the combination of the fantastic view with the thrill of the ascent that made this experience unmissable. On the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge World Tour, you use the same walkways, hatches, elevators as the bridge operators and engineers. It felt authentic. This a guided tour I will not forget in a hurry and yes, I will be coming back.
Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton