Life's a hitch

Simeon Paterson sticks out his thumb and heads North.

Travelling in Japan may be faster, cleaner and more punctual than anywhere else on earth, but easy on the wallet it's not. And in the weeks preceding Golden Week, the scramble to book plane, train and hotel reservations can be a frustrating and futile - not to mention outrageously expensive - endeavor. But there is an alternative. One that at its best is not only vastly cheaper but a lot more interesting: hitchhiking. While this method of travel may not live up to the reputation of the never-had-a-fatality shinkansen, the general safety of Japan applies to a large extent to thumbing a lift too and, once out of the cities, the country offers some of the best free transportation in the world.

Take the high road
In Japan there are basically two ways to hitch: by expressway or by smaller back roads, a division reinforced by the toll system. The expressways are fast, but they will never beat the smaller roads for beauty or interest. If you have time it's definitely worth sacrificing a little haste for the sake of a more interesting trip.

With either type of road however, one thing is true: The further you are from the city, the easier it is to hitch. People are in less of a rush, they feel safer about picking you up, and they are often on some kind of journey themselves. Greater Tokyo is not just a depressing place to be waiting for a ride, you could be stuck waiting for a very long time indeed. Travel to the edge of the city, or if possible further, by bus/train. If you get a bus to a parking area on the road you want to be on and jump out, you'll save masses of time. Parking areas are the best places of all to hitch from because people are driving slowly, have usually just been fed and watered and are feeling much more generous.

If you must start from the city center, work out which slip road leads where before you jump in someone's car. A note of caution for thumbing in the metropolitan area: Hitching directly in front of the IC (interchange) gates is legally iffy. It is not specifically banned, but doing things that cause traffic to make dangerous moves is. The access roads to the gates are better as long as it's possible to stop there. Hitching on the expressways itself is 100 percent illegal. Don't even try it.

The pickup artist

It is amazing how many drivers are the authority on hitching, despite never having done it. Some people suggest not using signs because some Japanese, out of either mental inflexibility or over-politeness, won't pick you up if they're not going all the way to your destination. While fine advice for country roads, on expressways, signs are handy. Even just "Hello," written in big letters works fine, though a national flag is excellent.

Smart clothes work wonders too, especially in Japan. Casual is OK, but try to look respectable. After all, if you still own a pair of acid-wash rip jeans you deserve the wait. A genki smile is essential. Eye contact and even a nodding bow helps if you have the enthusiasm. As for groups, generally male-female couples do well, female-female too and single males not badly. Groups and male-male couples are slowest. Single female hitching is "dame." Lorry drivers are rumored to be your best bet, but haulage companies usually have rules against picking hitchers up.

Mind your Ps and Qs
While it is important not to offend, not least because you are, de facto, considered representative of all gaijin once in the car, it's fine to relax and be yourself during the ride. Part of the reason you are being picked up is that you are a foreigner. You are not expected to be a typical Japanese because typical Japanese don't hitch. Then again, if your driver voices an outrageous opinion, 'so ka...' goes a long way to disagree without disagreeing.

About the rudest thing you could do is to chat only among yourselves in your native language. Even if you can't speak Japanese (and how difficult is it to learn the standards like "Actually I do like nato" etc.) make a stab at a bit of conversation occasionally. That said, Japanese people do not generally feel the noisy Westerner's urge to fill a silence so if there's a lull in conversation, just use the time to check your map and plan the next stage.

As for conversation itself, the knack is how to have a different conversation each time without having to think of something new to say each time (trickier than it sounds). Questions about what the local specialties, sites or expressions are, are both useful information plus a great way to surprise the next car's passengers. An even better way to impress is to carry some trinket omiyage (souvenirs) from your home country, stickers, badges etc. You will not only make a good impression, they may go out of their way for you because of it, too.

Drivers' generosity, whether giving advice or offering to take you on a detour, is well-meaning, but as sometimes happens in Japan, kindness can cause hassle. If someone insists on taking you on a detour, just politely but firmly insist on being dropped off. While the offer of a diversion to a mountainside onsen might be just what your body was craving, you don't have to go if you don't want. In this, the Japanese tactic of implying that you have some kind of excusing obligation will serve you well. Maybe you need to meet a friend further down the road, for example. As for personal questions, they simply do not need to be answered with anything more than "himitsu desu" (it's a secret).

Which way up?
When it comes to thumbing, maps are a must. Japanese maps are often more detailed than English ones and may have information about sights, onsen, izakaya, etc. too. There is quite a selection of them. The best English map however is Shobunsha's Road Atlas Japan (JY2857). Will Fergeson's "Hitchhikers guide to Japan" (Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1998, JY1600) is also useful. It's not a Bible, but it is both a decent Japan guidebook, and is full of tips from someone who has hitched the length and breadth of Japan.

Last of all, take all hitching advice with a pinch of salt. You will find the style that works for you, but have patience. The wait for the first lift always feels the longest even if it isn't (and it probably will be), but the further you go, the more philosophical you become about the randomness of it all. Cost-cutting, the chance to meet a wider cross section of people and enlightenment. What are you waiting for? Thumb out and take care.

The hits
The best places to hitch are those less well-trodden though anything but less interesting. Hokkaido, Shikoku and Southern Kyushu attract even Japanese hitchers, using it as a way to supplement a lack of public transport in those areas. According to Fergeson, the best roads in Japan are as follows:

1) The Nichinan Kaigan between Toi and Miyazaki (SE Kyushu).
2) The Miyagi-Iwate coastal highway (E Tohoku).
3) National Highway/Prefectural Highway 32 along the Ouboke and Iyadani Gorges (Central Shikoku).
4) The Yamanami Highway from volcanic Mt Aso to the onsen town Yufuin (Central Kyushu).
5) Any rural highway in Hokkaido.

Hanami thumbing
Ferguson seems to have the Japan hitching book market pretty much cornered, and no bad thing too. Though he has his own take on Japan and his humor is mainly of the sarcastic British variety, this makes him both informative and readable. His most recent publication is Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan (Soho Press, 434 pages) and relates his progress following the Sakura Zensen (Cherry Blossom Front) as it moves north. Of course this is more of a device through which he can describe and opine about the people, geography and customs of Japan's various and varied regions. The combination of extreme kindness and mistrust he experiences will resonate with gaijin readers but with Hanami upon us, Japanese readers should enjoy his account too.



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394: Sister act
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
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387: Water world
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384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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366: Life's a hitch
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358: Two-faced
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357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
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355: Wash out
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354: Means to an end
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352/3: Last Laugh
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351: It's a wrap
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350: Cable ready
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Diary of a happy hitchhiker

Day 1:

9am: Woke up way too late (broke rule number one: Get up early and catch the people doing long journeys), panicked and realised that I not only lacked a map, but also a paper pad signboard, marker and the nerve to attempt such a lengthy trek.

10am: Quick trip to the book and stationary shop solved the first three problems, the latter just ignored for now.

11am: Hopped on the Musashino line from Funabashi, Chiba, towards a stop near the Urawa interchange. From there the Tohoku expressway stretches right to the far northern tip of Honshu, my destination.

12pm: After getting a bit confused as to where the well-camouflaged expressway was (a compass is a good idea, so that you know what way you are facing!) I finally began my hitch…

1pm: …or so I had thought. Which of the spaghetti-like mass of roads leads to the northbound expressway, other than the too-busy and too-narrow main one?

2pm: Helpful local points out that I picked the wrong one, and also that I am unlikely to get a ride in such a built-up area. Cheers.

3pm: Finally! A businessman takes me to the Tatebayashi intersection, Gunma.

3:45: Within two minutes I had an offer of a ride, southbound, politely declined. Ten minutes later I was riding with an English-speaking construction worker, who had lived in America’s Mid-West.

4:30: Arrived at a big IC, possibly Utsunomiya. Wandered around for ages, trying to find a place to hitch that did not involve cars braking hard on a narrow curve.

5pm: More wandering…

5:30: Sympathetic woman in flashy car (who had passed me before in a different flashy car) picks me up and drives the wrong way down a long one-way road to a parking area, or rather the other side of the high fence to the parking area. Like several drivers, she speaks English.

6pm: Picked up by a Shibuya-kei guy with bleached hair and little chattiness in either English or Japanese. I don’t ask how a 23-year-old guy doing baito (part-time work) comes to own a white Mercedes costing 5,000,000 with standard issue tasteless “Hawaiian” trimmings, of course. He doesn’t volunteer the information either.

6:45pm: Arrive at Yaita parking area.

7pm: Car slows, passengers ponder, speeds up again, slows again, more pondering, finally stops 100m down the road. Turns out they too are headed to Aomori-ken. Spend the next seven hours or so driving with them, and then we take off our clothes and go to an onsen.

3:30am: Now waiting on a backroad somewhere near Towada-shi, having previously diverted from the expressway to get to the onsen. Picked up by a 21-year-old guy who goes via his house (leaves me in the car, along with the keys
- quick Japan reality check) towards Aomori. Since my newfound friend had hitched to Osaka - a massive trek indeed - he was keen to make sure I saw the sights on the way. We took in the famous crater-lake Towada in the pre-dawn light, and by about 5:30am were in Aomori.