Hitchhiking Japan

September 21st, 2010By Category: Travel

With the humid summer weather slowly fading into temperatures fit for humans to move around in, it’s finally approaching the time of the year when couples young and old will be taking advantage of the cheaper highway tolls and getting out on the road. Which means plenty of ride opportunities for the adventurous hitchhiker to see the undiscovered country. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you should choose to go the road (more or) less traveled.

Futamigaura Torii

Sunset on Futamigaura beach in Fukuoka, Kyushu

The first rule in hitchhiking is that there are no rules. Approaching the road with a concrete set of values is the same as being a rigid oak tree during a typhoon: you end up lying prone and wet on the side of the road (Bring a poncho, just in case).

Two: the successful hitchhiker may need to reinvent him or herself with each prospective driver, assuming you can speak their language. The first thought being the purest, usually works best. Try portraying: Aloha-shirt clad tourist, journalist, expectant father (women may want to reconsider this option), wandering priest, rich candy bar magnate (pass out snickers here), drunken government consultant, wayward fiance trying to reunite with soon-to-be-betrothed, yakuza-hunted whistle-blower, and almost boring by comparison, a photographer (though all of these at one time were likely true). This again depends on your ability to communicate, so cultivating imaginative gestures cannot be underestimated. Carry lots of candy too.

Wash Me

Dust off your ride and hit the road

Three: act the fool. It’s a playful game for you and an exciting new adventure for your chauffeur, who will be telling this around the water cooler (or teapot) for years to come. I suggest alternatively smiling, whistling, making faces at the kids, bowing, tap-dancing (perhaps oddly or not, this has always gotten me a ride very quickly, maybe because I look more like I have Parkinson’s disease than just being a weird American…), anything short of taking off your clothes or cursing the majority of passing vehicles who will not only not stop for you, but likely wouldn’t even help an old woman if she fell in the street. Shaving helps.

Four: heading out of the cities is always more of a challenge than getting back. basically everyone is going toward Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto/Nagoya/Sapporo, but almost never are they heading to where you are planning. Above all, be patient. You will get a ride. Using the multitudinous Parking Areas located alongside the national highway system is the fastest way to move. Be sure to have cardboard, thick black markers and an atlas on you at all times. Some swear by “日本語OK!” (Can Speak Japanese) in big black lettering while other prefer to state some kind of destination, i.e. “北方向” (Northbound). Either way you may have to change plans on the spur of the moment, so be fluid. The bypass is always another (though slower and often jammed with traffic) option to get out in to the hard to reach countryside. For info on how to legally get on the Parking Areas, send me an email.

Five: in the event of being stranded (though that is the goal, there is a gray area between being nicely stranded within easy reach of a convenience store, which means you’re ten minutes away from another ride, and being dropped off by a wacky tourist on a lonely road at dusk, i.e. screwed), unsure or feeling at all like this road is not the way you need to be going, make for the nearest convenience store, which are the lifeblood of the successful hitchhiker. Above all keep hydrated, keep the blood flowing, keep moving, it’ll keep you warm in winter and breezy in summer.

Squid Party

The Most Squid You Have Ever Seen, in Yobuko, Saga

Six: start early. Hitching after dark is difficult and dangerous. Plus the likelihood that a generous family or some rave-bound hottie will pick you up and offer you comfort, food and shelter for the night significantly drops alongside the setting sun. Northern countries in the summertime do not have this problem. In Japan, where at the summer solstice daylight peaks at 7:45pm, your last ride should be no later than 6 or 7. All that considered, your chances of being picked up by some friendly neighborhood Yakuza do increase the darker it gets, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how many fingers you have. You may want to spread out your sleeping bag on any beach or patch of grass you find and hunker down with some local rice wine for the night.

Author of this article

Manny Santiago

Hopping back and forth between Tokyo and San Francisco, the founder of HESO Magazine is currently writing a book on Overland Travel.

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  • Riseofashes says:

    I managed to go from Aomori to Kanazawa 2 years ago, I think its roughly 500-600 Miles and I done it in less than a day. All I can say is persist with cars. It took 4 cars to reach my destination. One of whom saw me crossing the Zebra crossing outside the port towards the right side of the road to stick my thumb out, and others at service/parking stations where they came up and talked to me during their coffee break.

    Definetly the best way to travel and Its always, always a good adventure.

  • It does tend to freak 90% of the people that pass you, be they city or country folk. It’s the other 10% who are outgoing and adventurous enough to take a chance and maybe a bit surprisingly, offer up their home more often than not. It’s by far one of the best ways to experience living like the Japanese while living abroad.

  • Setsuna says:

    Awesome sunset.
    I’ve always imagined a foreigner hitchhiking in Japan would freak any local – especially in the country side.


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