The Meiji and Taisho Eras in Photographs: From photographs in publications held by the National Diet Library - Tokyo, Kansai, Tohoku in Photographs


Column <Tohoku>

2 Kurikoyama Tunnel and Mishima Michitsune

Kurikoyama Tunnel in the snow

The Kuriko Pass near Yonezawa
The Kuriko Pass near Yonezawa "Tabi no Iezuto, No.42"
The Kuriko Pass near Yonezawa
The Kuriko Pass near Yonezawa "Tabi no Iezuto, No.42"

A tunnel called the Kurikoyama Tunnel was once an important point on the traffic routes between Yamagata-ken (Yamagata Prefecture) and Fukushima-ken (Fukushima Prefecture).

This photo shows the entrance of Yonezawa (Yamagata-ken side) of the Kurikoyama Tunnel buried in snow sometime around 1902. Yonezawa is an area of heavy snowfall, and this photo depicts an almost dreamlike scene where the snow glistens silver-white like a hut made of snow; however it also shows that the tunnel was likely often impassable during the snowy season.

The first prefectural governor's initiative and excavation work

The Kurikoyama Tunnel is a tunnel which was excavated as a part of the construction of new roads (the new road of Kariyasu and the new road of Nakano) leading from Yamagata-ken (Yonezawa) to Fukushima-ken (Nakano-mura (Nakano Village)) in the early Meiji era. This was a plan to construct a full-scale traffic route from Yamagata-ken to the capital of Tokyo by the shortest route.

Even among construction of new roads, the construction of the Kurikoyama Tunnel was an unprecedented difficult construction consisting of the excavation of a tunnel with a total length of 864 meters through the side of Mt. Kurikoyama at an elevation of 1,217 m, and when it was completed in 1881, it was the longest tunnel in Japan.

Mishima, Michitsune "Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures"

The primary name given as the party who promoted the tunnel's construction is Mishima Michitsune, the first prefectural governor of Yamagata-ken, which was created through the merging of Okitama, Yamagata, and Tsuruoka. Mishima, who is today known under the nicknames "the road governor" and "the engineering governor", incurring continued opposition from residents due to compulsory labor and the heavy burden of expenses, rapidly advanced the construction of roads, tunnels, bridges, schools and other projects.

The name Mt. Kurikoyama was adopted based old sayings of local elderly residents likening the shape of the round peak with 3 ridges in a row to a chestnut ("kuri" in Japanese); there is another view that the mountain was so named under Mishima's instruction.

Passage of horse-drawn carriages

When the new roads were constructed, a major premise of the design was to maintain a sufficient road width to allow for the passage of horse drawn carriages. The width of the new road was planned to be 4 ken (approximately 7.2 m), a design that was meant to allow for horse-drawn carriages to pass each other, even inside the tunnel.

Kurikoyama-zuido Nishiguchi shisatsu shashin

"Kurikoyama-zuido Nishiguchi shisatsu shashin" from Kindai wo Shajitsuseyo edited by Nasunogahara Museum (2014) - Taken around 1877, Repository: Nasunogahara Museum; the figure holding the stick and hat in the center of the photo is Mishima Michitsune (governor of Yamagata prefecture). The tall man to the right of the tunnel entrance is the Dutch engineer G. A. Escher.

The upper photo shows Mishima and the Dutch engineer G.A. Escher observing ongoing construction in front of the Yamagata (west-side) entrance to Kurikoyama Tunnel, and if one looks carefully, a horse drawn cart can be seen stopped inside the tunnel. One can also slightly see the wheels of another cart to the left side of the tunnel, possibly the cart the two men arrived on.

The day of breakthrough

Construction on the Kurikoyama Tunnel began in January 1878, and the construction was greatly aided by the latest model of boring machine, which had been delivered from the United States at the end of the previous year. Excavation work from the Fukushima (east side) was carried out manually using chisels, explosives, etc., and excavation from the Yamagata (west side) was carried out using machinery as well. The power of the boring machine was described as, "more than 20 miners", and it is said its use greatly sped up the excavation work.

Breakthrough was achieved before dawn on October 19, 1880. The two tunnels met at a depth of approximately 470 m from the Yamagata side and approximately 404 m from the Fukushima side, and according to records at the time the moment of breakthrough was quite dramatic.

Prefectural governor Mishima stayed and waited for the breakthough in a construction hut at the west entrance, and around 1.00 AM on the 19th, the sound of the chisels in the tunnel changed. There was great joy when breakthrough was ascertained, described as, "The tips of chisels were seen from the east and west, and everyone rejoiced, calling out to each other in a sudden rush of noise".

According to the records, the hole which had broken through at this time was still not large; however the sight and appearance of the tunnel "suddenly changed", wind blew through from the east to the west entrance, blowing away the smoke from the explosives used to excavate and one could feel the air flowing.
Mishima wrote a tanka poem praising the day:
  The voice calling out "breakthrough" awakens us from a dream, and the first wind passes through

The passage of the Emperor Meiji

Construction of the new road continued simultaneously from the Fukushima-ken side, and the new road between Fukushima and Yamagata was completed.

On October 3, 1881, the Emperor Meiji, who was on an imperial tour of Tohoku, attended the opening ceremony, and it was a big moment for the new road. Ahead of the imperial visit, the people involved worked assiduously to clean up the tunnel, including, preparing, 48 new carts to clean up the rocks that had been scattered by the construction and running the carts to remove the debris.

On the day of the opening ceremony, the Emperor Meiji passed from Yamagata-ken to Fukushima-ken through the Kurikoyama Tunnel. The Emperor dismounted from his palanquin at the west entrance to the tunnel, and was guided by Mishima, with aid of lamplights to the left and right, crossed through the tunnel on foot, arriving safely on the Fukushima side to be greeted by the governor of Fukushima prefecture.

Nishitagawa County public office
Nishitagawa County public office "Shonai Manyu Annai"

The Emperor Meiji later gave the name "Banseitairo (great road for all ages)" to the new road from which links both prefectures, including the Kurikoyama Tunnel, as a reward for the services of the locals.

During the imperial tour of that year, the Emperor visited Akita, Yamagata, Hokkaido and other locations, and a number of buildings in Yamagata-ken were observed by the emperor during this time, including the Yamagata prefectural government building, Yamagata Prefecture normal school, and the Nishitagawa County public office which would later become a lodging place.

Kurikoyama Tunnel thereafter

After the opening of the railroad (present day Ou Main Line) in 1899 linking Yamagata with Fukushima, the role of the Kurikoyama Tunnel was diminished drastically. Transit was often blocked during the winter; and tunnel and the Banseitairo were altered through the large-scale improvement intended for passage of automobiles in the Showa era (from 1933 to 1937). This function was instead transferred to the Kuriko Expressway completed in 1966. In 1972, a large scale of cave-in occurred, and the tunnel became impassable.

The appearance of the new road and tunnel before and after the excavation were recorded in photographs by the photographer Kikuchi Shingaku (Website of the Yamagata Prefectural Library) on the orders of Mishima, and the tunnels and new roads of various regions also became the subjects of artwork by the leading modern Japan western-style painter Takahashi Yuichi. The sights both before and after the construction are preserved vividly in photos and artwork, and the project made its mark on history as one of the representative civil engineering projects promoted by Mishima Michitsune.


  • "Kuikozan Meisho no Ken, " Jannary 19,1878 "MIshima Michitsune Kankei Monjo, " 【482-13】 (held by National Diet Library Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room)
  • "Kuriko Shindo Koji Shimatsuki, " 1882. "Mishima Michitsune Kankei Monjo, " 【482-17】 (held by National Diet Library Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room)
    (held by National Diet Library Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room)
  • Kunaicho (ed.), Meiji Tennoki, vol.5, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1971 【288.41-M448K4m】
  • Takahashi Yuichi, Nasunogahara-shi Nasunogahara Museum (ed.), Kindai o Shajitsu seyo, Nasunogahara-shi Nasunogahara Museum, 2014 【GK184-L220】
  • Nishinasunomachi, Ozaki Takafumi (ed.), Takahashi Yuichi to Mishima Michitsune, Nishinasunomachi, 1981 【KC16-1030】
  • Bansei Tairo Kenkyukai (supervise), Bansei Tairo wo aruku: Bansei Tairo Chosa Kenkyu Zikko Iinkai, 2010 【DK32-J65】
  • Yamagata-ken Shi, vol.4(Kingendai Hen; vol.1), Yamagata-ken, 1984 【GC31-55】
  • Yamagata-ken Shi Hensan Iin (ed.), Yamagata-ken Shi, Shiryo Hen; vol.2(Meiji Shoki; vol.2, Mishima Monjo), Gennando Shoten, 1962 【GC31-8】
  • "Kikuchi Shingaku, Yamagata-ken Shashincho, " (Website of the Yamagata Prefectural Library)