YAMATO, Japan - Horse sashimi, shochu spirits and the mascot character Kumamon are aspects of Kumamoto Prefecture that quickly come to mind for many people.
But I'm most impressed with the prefecture's amazing stone bridges. I recently flew there for a closer look.
About an hour's drive in the mountains from Kumamoto Airport, I arrived in the town of Yamato. There, I saw huge artworks made of tree branches, tree barks and other materials in the shapes of people, animals and other subjects.
I heard they were floats made for the hassaku festival, which was held in early September to pray for a good harvest and prosperous business.
Much renowned in the small town is the Tsujunkyo bridge. It is designated an important cultural property by the central government.
Just over 20 meters high, the bridge has an enchantingly dignified air.
I walked up a slope from the foot of the bridge to reach the flat surface on top. Then, with a roar, water that had been flowing unseen inside the bridge burst from its sides.
The water gushed from the central part of the bridge like a waterfall on each side, falling into the river below.
I wondered why water is discharged from the bridge. Soon, I found the answer when I saw displays at the Tsujunkyo Shiryokan museum nearby.
"Tsujunkyo is an aqueduct bridge connecting two plateaus," Shinjiro Ishiyama, 70, who works at the museum, told me. "It was built 160 years ago to supply water to the Shiraito Plateau, which had no water source."
A set of three stone pipes runs through the upper part of the bridge. Water is brought from a source six kilometers away through the pipes to the Shiraito Plateau, where 100 hectares of agricultural land came into cultivation as a result.
I was amazed at the bridge's precise design and the details of its operation.
I also heard the water discharge was originally meant to wash away mud and pebbles that accumulated in the pipes. Currently, the discharge is conducted as a tourist attraction from noon on weekends and national holidays from April to early May, and from late July to the end of November.
In Misato, a neighbouring town, you can see the magnificent Reidaikyo bridge, which is also an important cultural property. That grand bridge is nearly 90 meters long.
In addition to Tsujunkyo and Reidaikyo, there are also many smaller aqueduct bridges in the surrounding area of central Kumamoto Prefecture. These bridges are tucked away in the mountains amid forests and cultivated fields.
Among them is the Okedakebashi bridge in a mountainous area in Misato. It was built nearly 200 years ago and is still in use as an aqueduct.
"As Tsujunkyo is a large-scale project, it looks the bridge must have been built by the national government. However, stone bridges in this area were actually built by local people, not by the Tokugawa shogunate or the local feudal domain," said Satoshi Mizukami, 38, an official of the social education department of the town's education board.
Bridges built with funds provided by local farmers are still used today by people to cross rivers and to supply water to rice paddies and cultivated fields.
Detailed records of the history and background of stonemasons who built these bridges are preserved at the Toyo Sekishokan museum in Yatsushiro in the prefecture. It is located in a mountainous area about an hour's drive southwest of Reidaikyo.
The place was once home to stonemasons called Taneyama ishiku (stonemasons in Taneyama). In keeping with local history, the museum is built with stone.
It displays a huge model of timber supports that are used in the construction of arched stone bridges.
"Kangoro Hashimoto was a local stonemason who was involved in building Tsujunkyo. He was later invited by the Meiji government to build Manseibashi bridge [over the Kandagawa river near Akihabara Station] and other bridges in Tokyo," Naotaka Uetsuka, 79, honorary director of the museum, explained to me, referring to hand-lettered display panels and other exhibits.
Many bridges in this area were built by local stonemasons for local people using welded tuff, a type of stone created in eruptions of Mt. Aso in the prefecture.
Tsujunkyo is a record of the "stone culture" that prospered in this area.
Kumamoto Airport is about a 100-minute flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The Tsujunkyo bridge is about an hour's drive from there.
For more information, call Tsujunkyo Shiryokan at (0967) 72-3360 or Toyo Sekishokan at (0965) 65-2700.