The Cliffs of Death

As mentioned last entry, Tennis and I decided that last weekend would be a great time to take a road trip to Nagoya. Neither of us being particularly adept at planning these sort of things, we basically got up Saturday morning, grabbed a map, two bottles of water and got in the car and took off in the general direction of “south”. Perhaps it was this lack of planning that contributed to our subsequent misadventure. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Japanese long distance road system is whack. Who can tell? All I know is I’m lucky we’re still alive.

When it comes to long distance road travel in Japan, you generally have two options: “jidoshado”s (自動車道) – the Japanese equivelant of a tolled expressway – and “kokudo”s (国道) – “national routes” that can (at least in theory) be thought of as a normal interstate highway. The biggest difference between the two of course is that the former is quite expensive, and the latter is free (at least in terms of money. Your sanity is another matter altogether). The journey to Nagoya spans a length of some 220 kilometers (about 136 miles) which on a toll road back in the US (say the Tristate Expressway) would take less than 2 hours and cost all of around $5.00 USD.

monkah on board!

On the Tokai Hokkuriku Jidoshado, it will still only take about 2.5 hours. But it will cost you $66 USD.

One way.

Now faced with the prospect of paying $132 for a trip down to Nagoya on the expressway, or $0 via “National Route 157″, it seems like a no-brainer. After all, both get you to where you need to go, and while the latter might take a little while longer and be a little dirtier, it can’t be that much longer or dirtier. Can it? I mean, it is a “National Route”. That’s like a major highway. The government has to maintain it to a certain degree of driveability. Doesn’t it?

Or so our collective thought process went. A thought process which was abruptly interrupted when we rounded a corner and saw this:

national route one five what-the-hell-is-this seven

What actually preceded this was an interesting incident wherein we were speeding along at a lovely clip of 70 kph when suddenly – and without warning – the road turned into a gravel path fill with slurry pits and mud. Let me repeat: without any warning, without any sign, transition or even those little bits on the road where it goes “brrrk brrrk brrrkk” to let you know something’s about to change and you should slow down, the road went from being nicely paved to be comprised entirely of rocks and mud.

WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHERF-ING BLACK JESUS WAS THAT!?” I bellow as my car starts to spin out of control, mud splashing up on my windshield, shocks creaking to absorb foot deep slime-filled potholes, the sound of ten thousand tiny gravel meteors flung up by spinning wheels at 70kph streaking through the air and denting the hell out of the car body. Tennis jolts straight upright in her seat desperately grasping for poor monkah (sent flying through the air from his vantage point on the dash as soon as we hit the gravel road) with one hand and the emergency stabilization handle above the door with the other. For one second, as the car starts to power slide (most unintentionally, let me assure you) through the gravel and mud towards a very painful looking ditch on the side, we catch glance of each others’ panicked faces and I imagine this is what rally car drivers and their helpless navigators must feel the second before they lose control around a hairpin loop and crash head on into a tree or catapult off the side of a cliff. Somewhere in the back of my mind I am dimly aware of the fact that while a souped up rally car flipped upside down over the edge of a hill has a certain kind of hardcore street cred (I think it’s all the logos plastered on the car, as well as the 500 hp engines purring away in front of the roll cage), my $500 13 year old Honda Civic crashed into a muddy gravel ditch, is well… just sad. (I make a mental note to put some logos on it later, if I make it out of the skid alive.)

national route my ass

Through some miracle, I manage to get the car under control and round the corner where we encounter the sign pictured above. Tennis and I exchange glances. We open our mouths simultaneously:

“Did that just happen!?”

After a brief pause during which some of the color returns to her face, she flips open the map. “Are you sure we’re still on the 157?”

I look around and spy the sign. “Well, it says it’s the 157….” As my eyes focus past the sign, I notice the road continues to get progressively worse, narrower and impossibly muddier in the distance. “But that can’t be right… no way this is a national route …! Are there maybe two Route 157s? Maybe a “National Route 157″ and a “We couldn’t be arsed to actually pave this motherfucker Route 157″?

She consults the map again. “No….” she begins, her voice hesitant as the absurdity of the road begins to sink in on her. “No… we’re definitely on the National Route 157….” A pause as she looks up and focuses in on the rest of the road ahead. “I just want to double check. Did this road suddenly turn into rock mud and gravel without warning?”

loft nagoya


“And did we hit it doing like 70 or 80 kilometers per hour?”

I swallow hard. “Umm.. Yes.”

A pause.

“That can’t be good for the car, can it?”


After a little while of urging my pounding heart down from my throat, checking on the condition of the suspiciously quiet Civic and reconfirming the our route on the map, we slowly creep forward through the muddy gravel road. Perhaps, we reassure each other, this is only a small, anamolous region of this road. It’s certain to get back to normal soon, right?

deadly cliffs looking deceptively beautiful

But it doesn’t get better soon. In fact, soon it gets much, much worse. There were early warning signs along the way – the construction workers who stopped their work and stared at us as we precariously creeped by at 20kph with a look that said “holy shit, we can’t believe someone’s actually on this road” might have been a sign. The fact that the frequency of the mud and gravel patches only began to pick up the farther we went might have been a sign. The fact that the road suddenly narrowed down to a single lane barely wide enough for us, line on both sides with ditches might have been a sign (we foolishly figured that the route must have split into separate north and southbound lanes somewhere along the way unbeknownst to us.) But the ultimate sign should have been the slow and steady rise in elevation and isolation the farther we went along. That and the increasingly proximity of the mountains looming before us. Mountains the road seemed to lead straight into. Oh yes, we should have noticed. We should have noticed. But we didn’t. Until it was too late.

Until the Death Cliffs.

death cliffs

The road had led us into the midst of the mountains and just as I was marveling aloud at Japanese tunnel building technology and how amazing it was that they had built a tunnel directly under and through a mountain (there are so many tunnels on the roads here, this seemed entirely plausible), the road suddenly broke left at a sharp 90 degrees. As I rounded the corner and continue on, the realization that this road was not, in fact, going to lead us through the mountains, but over them slowly began to dawn on me. Just as the road began to rise steeply and wind its way up the first mountainside, Tennis piped up.

“You know…” she began, bringing the map up to her face for a closer look – “It says something on this map next to this section of the road. I can’t read all the kanji, but it says something about semai (“small/narrow”) and abunai (“dangerous”). Also, there’s an icon on here that looks a lot like falling rocks.”

I glance over at her. “You’re joking, right?”

She glances back at the map, then back up at me. “Well, I’m not sure since I can’t read all the kanji, but that’s what it looks like to me. You want to take a look?”

As the road suddenly whips around in a single-lane hairpin loop with no guardrail separating us from the edge of the cliff forcing me to grip the steering wheel with a white-knuckled intensity to avoid certain death, I decide that this is not the best time to investigate the nuances of obscure Japanese characters, and politely decline the pro-offered map. I chuckle out loud those famous, famous last words:

monkah looks over the urban sprawl

“After all, how bad could it be, really?”

Interlude: soaring highways

Before I continue on with my tale, I’d like to reflect upon a sight which is apparently quite common here, but which I have never seen back in America. Now, everybody knows Japan is much more crowded than most parts of the US, and we associate a certain congested quality with the construction here as a result. Shops crammed into every available nook and cranny, advanced parking lots which mechanically pick cars up and store them vertically, massive danchi public housing flats that make American HUD gheto projects look like spacious luxury condominiums, some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, and imags of concrete, sweet, grey, bland concrete everywhere…! fill our minds when we think about Japanese construction. But while these things might be emblematic of the Japanese landscape, we can also find most of them – to one extent or another – in America.

What we can’t find – or at least, I’ve never seen – in America, is the unique Japanese way of building roads that stack atop one another in multiple levels. I’ve driven in some of the biggest cities in America – Chicago, NYC, Boston, etc. and of course there are expressways and overpasses built over and criss-crossing each other, but rarely do they go more than three “levels” high – I mean, you’ve got your base road, then an overpass over that, and maybe another overpass over that overpass. And that’s it. And the vertical height from the “ground” to the highest overpass usually isn’t even that great. Five stories, max.

elevated highway over an urban scene

But Japan…. Oh my. In Tokyo, I once saw an expresseway junction that had no less than 6 – SIX…! different levels of roads stacked over, under and criss-crossed through each other. SIX!! And these weren’t just casually over one another either – these roads were soaring, with the highest one so far up in the sky I could barely see it when I looked up. I wish I had taken a picture of it, because it just stunned me. Now I’m no urban planner, but if you’ve got so much shit going on in one part of town that you need to stack six multiple lane expressways over each other just to provide enough access, you might want to consider asking some people to move somewhere else. Can you imagine if you missed an exit!? *sigh*

But the thing that struck me the most about that sight wasn’t the number of overpasses, but rather, the sheer height at which they were constructed. I mean, the tallest road was easily 30 stories high. That’s crazy. That’s like nosebleed crazy. If your ears pop when you go over an overpass, then it’s pretty safe to say that overpass is hella high up. If you can commit suicide by jumping off an overpass and actually have enough time to write a short suicide note on the way down, then that overpass is crazy high. And ne’er ever have I seen such ridiculously tall overpasses and expressways back in America. Not even in LA, home of some of America’s most insanely congested road systems.

hotel at a crooked angle

But that sort of soaring construction is commonplace here in Japan, and contrary to what one might expect, not limited solely to congested urban areas, as Tennis as I soon found out. So onto the story.

Back to the story…

So Tennis and I are slowly making our way through increasingly treacherous and elevated mountainside roads, when we come to a bend in the road obscured by the side of the first mountain. As we round the curve, an unbelievable sight comes into view. I stop the car, perched precariously in the middle of the single lane road, mere inches from the unguarded side of the cliff. We stare out in disbelief.

We’re about halfway up the first mountain, easily the smallest of the cluster we have to cross. Stretching out before us is a single rickety suspension bridge gaudily painted with a bizarre half-neon shade of clown-nose red perhaps originally designed to evoke comparisons to the Golden Gate Bridge, but which has instead rusted into a insanely surreal caricatchure of construction gone wrong, nestled as it is amongst the delicate autumn shaded forests, lush natural greens and beautiful blue sky, sticking out like a sore thumb. A long, rickety, rusting sore thumb designed to carry two ton vehicles across a several hundred meter deep chasm dividing two mountains, but which doesn’t exactly look up to the task. In retrospect, it was the creaking sway in the gusting wind and notably missing rivets about halfway up the main post that mainly contributed to this impression.

village near the trip outset

As our eyes pan further along, out and over the Bridge de’ Clown, we trace the single rocky lane of our path as it winds precariously along the side of the second mountain. There are no guardrails or fences – nothing to separate you from the crumbling edge of the cliff, then down, down down the long, incredibly painful looking tumble into the dark maw below. As we struggle to pierce the haze of foggy clouds hanging about halfway down the mountain below us, we make out the dim image of a broad expanse of water filling the chasm at the bottom and dimly recall seeing a sign for a massive dam resevoir as we were driving up the mountain. So even if we were to survive the fall, we would promptly drown at the bottom, never to be found again (especially since the lack of a guardrail means that there would be no signs whatsoever if you drove over the edge of the cliff – just be silently swallowed up by the watery death below for all eternity.) I gulp once, and wipe the sweat from my white knuckled palms. Better not make any mistakes, I think to myself.

Suddenly, Tennis pipes up. “Oh my god” she says, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper – “Look up there…!

sunlight filtering through trees

I follow the invisible line extending from her outstretched finger and peer up the side of the mountain. I note that the 157 disappears around the left hand edge of my vision and then as I gaze up, I spy it as it emerges much much higher up the side of the mountain. I follow it with my eyes, until it suddenly disappears and re-appears even higher, a thin winding black snake precariously clinging to the jagged cliff edge. As I pan, my eyes are filled with dread as they alight upon yet another span this time a bridge between two more mountains, its gaudy color looking like a thin red string – and every bit as fragile – stretched taut between mountain cliffs hundreds and hundreds of meters from the dark chasm below. On the other side, I note the black strip of road wind around the mountain side two more times before – and this, just at the limit of my vision before the thick clouds and fog obscure the horizon into a uniform gray white sheet – I spy yet another bridge criss crossing over the other roads, its thin red line so imossibly high and tiny against the brilliant azure sky it looks almost like a tiny meteor streaking its way to the earth so far below. I notice also that no birds seem to be flying up any higher than the second bridge.

My heart skips a beat in terror as I realize that basically what I am seeing is my future laid out before me – with each successive level representing a spot where – barring a sudden slip of the steering wheel and unfortunate encounter with the rocky cliffs and watery death below – our path shall have to lead in the next few hours. My eyes pan up dozens of meters with each level, up, up up, up, up to the cloud shrouded mountain peak up at the very top with its mysterious thin red bridge disappearing into the blue stratosphere horizon at the edge of my vision.

“Oh my god” I think to myself. “It’s like a game of Donkey Kong.”

donkey kong!

I’m sure most of you have played Donkey Kong before, but if you haven’t, you can think of Super Mario as a similar analogy. Narrow levels upon levels of platforms stacked vertically atop each other, each filled with trechearous obstacles and bottomless pits of death around every corner, and you have to keep going up up up straight up until you reach the final mysterious platform where you have to face the boss character – and after his defeat – if you make it that far – a door (or bridge) appears leading you onto somewhere…. the next level? Off the side of a mountain? Onto MORE mountains and levels and bosses and death?

Swallowing hard, I push the video game analogy to the back of my mind – and along with it the memory of just how much I used to suck at Super Mario brothers back in the day (I kept falling in the damn pits), step on the accellerator and slowly begin to creep across the swaying rusty bridge to our doom.

tennis looking a little worse for wear

We’ve gone about 10 kilometers up the first mountain (a task that took nearly an hour) when my jaw starts to hurt – puzzled, I realize that it’s because I’ve been clenching my teeth tighter and tighter after every curve. Approaching a slight widened portion on the road (the first that didn’t threaten to crumble into the cliffside below if we paused on it for too long), I ease the car to a stop to catch a breather. Glancing over, I see Tennis (poor monkah cowering in her jacket) with her hands grasping the door handle with a certain sort of ferocious intensity I haven’t ever seen someone apply to a car interior before. Her eyes are squeezed shut and I swear I can detect a thin sheen of sweat on her forehead. Sensing the cessation of motion, turns her face towards me:

place to pray for those who died on this damn road?

“Why are we stopping?” she whispers.

“Umm, I need to rest for a second” I respond.


“Honey, can you open your eyes?” I inquire.

“Are there finally any guardrails or fences now?”

I glance over to check if by miracle some had suddenly appeared. “No”

“Then I can’t open my eyes. I don’t want to see my death coming.”

more cliffs

Suddenly I become very envious and wish that I could close my eyes.

“Good point. Can I get you anything sweetie?”

She shakes her head with the firm rigidity of someone currently riding a terrified rollercoaster. “The only thing you can get me is out of these horrible death cliffs.”

From somewhere deep inside her jacket, a muffled Monkah pipes up: “Les falaises de la Mort, Michelle. Les falaises de LA MORT!!!!

An involuntary shudder creeps up the back of my neck. “Monkah, cut it out, you’re scaring me.”

“Je suis desole.” Monkah mumbles his apology and continues to cower in Tennis’s jacket.

orange leaves lure you to your doom

Forcing my hands back onto the sweaty steering wheel, I slowly start creeping up the road once again. I almost slip several times over the edge as we round the bend. Trying to stay on the road without slipping off is made incredibly difficult by the fact that grass and flora growing on the vertical plane of the cliff side actually wraps up and around the edge of the road, obscuring the division between solid ground and the two thousand foot drop below, giving the illusion that the road is much wider than it actually is. I’m almost fooled by it on more than one occasion, sending a tiny stream of rocks and pebbles scattering noisely down the mountain and splashing into the watery chasm far below. I gulp and reduce my speed with each staccato echo floating back up to earshot.

what's tennis looking at?

We’ve crept about another 10 kilometers over the next hour when I decide to check the route with Tennis. I glance over to ask her for our map location and draw in an involuntary gasp when I note the rather unsettling shade of green coloring her pallor.

“Hey hon, ummm… are you okay?”

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Okay, hold on, I’m going to try and find a place to stop so you can get out. Do you think you can hold it?”

more trees by an eroded cliffside

She emits a gutteral groan (reflecting much how I feel) and I start frantically scanning the slippery (did I mention it rained earlier?) sliver of a road ahead, trying to find a place both safe enough to stop and wide enough to allow someone to get out without falling to a watery cliffy death. Twenty grueling minutes, we come across an upward sloping portion of the road that is miraculously paved in pristine looking asphalt (what the fuck?). I slow the car to a stop and pull up the emergency brake (important, remember this for the next paragraph).

“Hey hon, you can get out here.”

She doesn’t respond, but slowly cracks an eyelid. Noting the presence of asphalt, she opens the door and steps out, drinking in deep gulps of the mountain air. I sit in the car and look out at her with concern, then noting the color slowly returning to her face, turn my attention to the asphalt road underneath us. How on earth – I wonder to myself – did they get a a piece of heavy construction equipment as large as a paving machine up those teeny tiny mountain roads to this point!? And how did they get asphalt this far up? And more to the point, why the fuck would someone ever pave a random 30 meter long stretch of road but leave it flanked on both sides by gravel and mud paths…!?!! Intrigued, I decide to get out of the car to take a closer look.

want to buy a newspaper?

I step out and inspect the asphalt below. Looks like normal asphalt. Smells like normal asphalt. I wander over to check on Tennis, who smiles weakly. I peer over the edge of the cliff, feel my stomach drop when I see how frighteningly far up we are and quickly beat a retreat back to the other side of the car and continue to ponder the inscrutable logic that elected to pave this random section of road (I fail to reach a conclusion). After a few minutes, Tennis nods, and gets back in the car.

I hop back in the car and put my foot on the brake. I drop the emergency brake and go to put the car into drive when… what the fuck….!?

The car is already in drive.

I let out a strangly strangled urk. Tennis turns to face me.

“What happened?”

“I uhhh…. uhh…..” I stammer on the words.

“What’s wrong?”

“…ummm, I, uhh… left, the uhh… car in drive.” It sounds so innocent when you say it out loud.

Tennis, to her credit, doesn’t freak. She just stares at me. “You’re joking, right?”

Gulp. “I wish..”

“So ahh…. you left the car in drive?”

who knew i left the car in drive?


“While neither of us were in it?”


“And were instead standing in the middle of the Cliffs of Death some 80 kilometers from any civilization thousands of feet up a mountain road in an area surrounded by signs that say “Danger, Watch for Falling Rocks” and “Beware of Bear Attacks”…!?”

“….” I decide that sometimes silence is golden.


“Yes Tennis?”

“Don’t ever do that again, okay?”

I swallow. “Okay.” I squeak out.

“Now get us out of these Cliffs of Death and don’t ever bring us back.”

“You got it.”

tennis relates the story to risa

You can basically multiply these episodes over and over to cover the rest of our trip through the Cliffs of Death. Despite only spanning a distance of some 40 kilometers – a negligble solitary hour of travel at normal don’t-have-to-worry-about-tumbling-into-a-watery-mountainous-death-thousands-of-feet-below-speeds, the Cliffs of Death ended up taking a full three and a half hours to negotiate. Three and a half hours. Which is about half of what the total journey – at six and a half hours – took. A journey, which if you recall at the outset, was only supposed to take 2 hours.

There are some lessons which can be learned from this.

- Don’t be fooled by the fact that a road is labeled a “National Route”. This is a Japanese synonym for “Road of Death”.

- The Japanese words semai (narrow) and abunai (dangerous) when applied to a road should be translated as “An part is filled with Death”.

- The main reason the tolled expressways cost so much money is because they have guardrails. Your $70 USD are going to pay for thin pieces of metal to separate you from artificial mountain resevoirs thousands of feet below. Also, “Resevoir” is a Japanese synonym for “Watery Chasm of Death”.

- I love guardrails

nagoya international museum of design

That all having been said, as you can plainly see from all the pictures, the one advantage of taking the national route is all the absolutely stunning autumn foliage we got to see along the way (as opposed to the endless stretches of gray concrete one gets with the expressway). We took so many pictures of the autumn scenery along the way, but only like 5 or 6 pictures in Nagoya itself (which we did eventually make it to).

I think Tennis summed it up best when summarising our trip for Risa: “That was some of the most jawdroppingly gorgeous scenery and nature I have ever seen in Japan. And I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever. You hear me Michael? Never bring me near that evil place again.” *breaks down into shudders*


In other news

Still futzing with the blog layout, trying to get a format worked out that I like. This “recent news” and “featured entry” split isn’t really working because I can’t change the “featured entry” often enough, so it looks static, yet I feel guilty when I only post short things on “recent news”. Because I’m a verbose fool who desperately needs an editor to cut down all the superfluous fluff I fill my entries with. Conciseness. What a beautiful, but elusive, word. We’ll see how it goes.

If you want to see more pictures from the trip down to Nagoya (and maybe one or two from Nagoya proper) head over to the misleadingly titled Nagoya photo gallery.

Now listening to: John B & CoCo – “Keep it Real (feat. Jay-Z)”

Yo, realer than my late night creeps
You understanding me
The genuine article I can’t fade sleep
Jay-Z, the king of the one nights
I can’t stay forever, love
I get it done right
And I shall return to sweat out your perm
Cutie I would truly do damage to your dooby
That’s the deal, ma
That’s the deal of the deal
I keep it real, what
I keep it realer than real
Word to my life…Jigga

4 Reactions

  1. coolnahalf

    hahaha. man that was a long, harrowing tail.
    i’m starting to think i need cliffnotes of your entries. maybe you can write the post here, adn then give me the abbreviated version on my xanga. hahaha. glad to hear you’re alive, though.

  2. andrew

    1 word.. Shinkansen.
    See while you were risking life and limb on an unsure road, I was riding in the lap of luxury drinking over priced (non-starbucks) coffee. Blasting through Japanese ugliness at over 150mph.
    On my way to Miyajima where I got to watch monkeys humping each other.
    who could ask for anything more.

  3. Liz b

    Goooosh I’m sorry, I read this forever ago and kept forgetting that I never commented haha.
    I would have turned back as soon as I realized what was going on. I’m such a baby, though. It might be fun to like, park and…hike up there hahah. It does look really beautiful. Hey, if nothing else, it made for an exciting story!