Staircase National Highway: Japan’s only car-free highway

A quirky hidden tourist spot for the intrepid traveler.

While many foreign visitors to Japan spend most of their time exploring famous cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, there’s a whole country outside of these sites worth exploring.

Take Tsugaru-gun in Aomori Prefecture, for example. This is where you will find the famous Cape Tappi, which juts out into the Tsugaru Strait at one of the northernmost tips of the continent. It’s a rugged, windy place that inspired a famous enka titled “Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki” (“Tsugaru Strait Winter Scene”), which became the smash hit singer’s signature song. Sayuri Ishikawa.

▼ Cape Tappi

The views from Cape Tappi are spectacular – on a clear day like this you can see the island of Hokkaido on the horizon across the Tsugaru Strait.

There are many secluded tourist spots in this area, which the locals like to keep to themselves, and one of them is the “National Highway Staircase“.

▼ The sign here says “Kaidan Kokudou”, which translates to “National Highway Staircase”.

It is the only place in Japan where a national road becomes a staircase. While the triangular sign for highway number 339 appears exactly as it does on nearby roads, no bikes or vehicles can access this particular section of the highway, as it is home to a long stretch of stone steps.

Originally it was a road used as a school path for primary and secondary school located in the middle and at the top of the road. The stairs from the middle to the top of the road were built after it was designated as a national road.

Following the designation of the motorway, which took place in 1974, the vehicular access road became divided into north and south sections. There is a steep cliff between the two roads at this point, which makes it difficult to build a road between the sections, so the stairs were built to allow access to this part of the national road.

▼ Japanese Highway 339, marked in red, includes the zigzag of stairs.

Now that the schools are gone, the highway of stairs remains as a tourist destination. When our reporter Haruka Takagi visited the area recently, she saw many people taking commemorative photos in front of the unusual road sign at the top of the stairs.

The starting point offered scenic views and a cool sea breeze, which inspired Haruka to walk along the stairs. As soon as she descended a few steps, she was surrounded by trees and greenery.

▼ Impossible to describe this as a typical national highway. It was more like a hike in the mountains.

Haruka was full of energy as she descended the stairs, but she was a little worried about the journey ahead when she saw people passing her on the ascent. They were visibly out of breath, hands on their knees as they seemed to struggle with the uphill return.

She decided to take care of the climb later, enjoying this part of the trip while she could. It didn’t take him long to get to the middle of the stairway, which opened up a bit to look like a small plaza, with a stone monument taking center stage.

▼ The monument reads: “Minmaya Village Tappi Secondary School Site

With the school now demolished, there appeared to be a new building set up in its place, which looked more like a community center or public hall.

It was certainly a quiet place for a school, and it must have been tiny, given the patch of land here. Haruka could almost hear the students laughing and chatting as she gazed at the beautiful view they could have enjoyed so many years ago.

From then on, every step down brought Haruka closer to the sea, until she could clearly see the boats and locals going about their daily business. It was such a beautiful day that Haruka marveled the blue of the Tsugaru Straitthat she had always thought was black, due to the harsh nature of the weather she had already seen.

Only about half a minute after leaving the school site, Haruka understood the reason why the ascension people looked so exhausted.

This section zigzagged relentlessly which made the climb difficult. Seeing the stairs, Haruka’s mind intervened to wonder if she really needed to complete the journey, but she silenced him with a determination that she hoped wouldn’t bite her from the back by the after.

After passing the zigzag section, Haruka thought the surprises were over, but that’s when the highway took another unexpected turn, leading her…

▼ …in front of someone’s front door!

If someone said they lived along a national road, you would expect it to be filled with noise and traffic, but that was definitely not the case here. The width of the road has also become narrower, stretching about one meter (3.2 ft) in diameter and looking more like a path than a highway.

Haruka was now at sea level, at the end of the stepped highway and at the point where it joined the usual stretch of Route 339.

Haruka had counted 362 steps in her descent, and now she had to go back and climb them.

▼ A daunting prospect.

It might not look so difficult in the photos, but according to Haruka, the stairs are incredibly steep and that’s what makes them so exhausting on the body. After all, you have to keep in mind that this is a cliff that no one could build a road on, so every step was strenuous.

▼ Haruka stopped a few times to catch her breath while walking up the stairs

Thirsty and sweaty, Haruka persevered until she finally made it back to the top of the stairs.

Feeling triumphant, Haruka was happy to say she had traveled the only stair highway in Japanand she highly recommends everyone to try it at least once, although you have to keep in mind that the stairs are not plowed in winter.

While in the area, Haruka also recommends visiting the cape, where you’ll find a large monument displaying the lyrics of the enka “Tsugaru Strait Winter Scene”…

▼…and a button that makes the enka explode when pressed.

▼ There are gusts here, so remember to hold on to your hat!

There are plenty of other great places to visit in Aomori, including destinations where you can see a unique set of Pokémon manhole covers, and seven other places the locals want to keep to themselves. This is an area worth adding to your itinerary once Japan opens up to tourists again. A nice journey to all of you !

Photos ©SoraNews24
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