After traveling to fifteen countries, I never imagined that hitchhiking around Japan would become possibly the greatest and most inspiring vacations of my life. Most friends and family thought I was rather nuts, less a few of my closest mates: Jason, Dan, and Regina. We were all living in Shimane Prefecture in the southwestern region of Japan's biggest island, Honshu. Having never even considered hitchhiking before, I really had no idea of what to expect in the seven days ahead. The following took place ten years ago this month. Here's an overview. And yes, it's legal there.
We would begin our adventure in Kita-Kyushu, the northern most city of Kyushu island. The four of us set off in my leased Mitsubishi RVR, a rather terrible mid-sized SUV with a single sliding rear door, much like a 90's minivan.
Our only plan was to visit all of Kyushu's seven prefectures, and to meet up in the exact point of origin, seven days later. We held ourselves to only one restriction: no funds could go to transportation.
First ride of the trip!
Jason and I stood opposite Dan and Regina on a random intersection near where we'd left our car. Each pair brought white erase boards and markers, so drivers could easily see our intentions. It wasn’t until this point that I began to wonder how this week would pan out. I mean, what if nobody picks us up? But within ten minutes, a young couple pulled over in a Toyota sedan, and off we went!
The driver spoke very little English, but mentioned having to make a quick stop before taking us to Fukuoka City, where we'd spend the first night. His arms were heavy with bracelets and rings, and he wore a classic two-tone Rolex Date-Just. The stop, as it turned out, was to do a cash money hand-off with a man in a vacant parking lot. I know enough Japanese to understand the man's immediate query: who's in the back seat ? Our driver replied "FBI," and then handed over a thick stack of 10,000 yen bills (about 100 USD each). They both laughed as Jason and started breathing again. Afterwards, he bought us dinner, and as promised, took us directly into Fukuoka City.
We deciding that in each city, we should try any locally famous food or drink. In Fukuoka, that meant Hakata Ramen, a delicious pork-based noodle dish served best while drunk.
Hot ramen to round out the evening. Wish I'd owned a better camera back then!
The next day, three different drivers took us all the way to Nagasaki, and Jason was only run over ONCE in the process. We took turns communicating in Japanese and English with the curious drivers. Each had their own special story. Each rather caring for two complete strangers from foreign lands.
We got advice on where to stay, what to eat, and were driven each time to a spot far more convenient to us than them.
A young couple on their first date circled around to introduce themselves, and to see where we intended on going. The smiled at each other and told us to hop in. Though originally setting off for a 5km drive to get dessert, they ended up taking us more than 200km one way, from Oita City to Miyazaki City.
This was their first date! The Mitsubishi Pajaro 4x4 with push bar mounted Cibies (hidden from view) was pretty legit.
They brought us to a famous spot that inspired My Neighbor Totoro, a 1988 animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. They also wanted to stop by a known shrine to pray.
Afterwards, we bought them a local fried chicken dish for dinner, and said goodbye as they turned back towards home, 200km away. Moments later, on the city outskirts of Miyazaki City, a family of four pulled over and made room for Jason and I. We'd made it to the southern-most point of Kyushu.
The next night, a couple on their third date overheard us talking and chimed in, letting us know how impressed they were at our “drinking skills.” Accepting of praise, we invited them to our table to share in the great celebration that is life. When we left to pay, our new friends had already settle the tab without our knowing.
The night together carried on, and was followed up by an offer to drive us to our next goal of Kumamoto City. 0800 on the dot, they were ready and waiting for us outside our hotel. Hangovers be damned. With Kumamoto Castle in our sights, we hopped in their little red Mercedes and hit the road. We all still keep in touch, and quite astonishingly, they got married a year later, calling us their "cupids."
There was a moment I remember as we left Kumamoto Castle, where I thought to myself: what we are doing here is special. This isn’t ordinary. I'm so lucky to be here.
We had many more experiences on the trip than can be written about today. In the end we took thirteen different rides with ten drivers, three of them being repeats.
Hitchhiking in Japan is a sort of choose your own adventure storybook. Depending on which corner you stand, which direction you face, and who is inclined to stop, your journey is completely different. What a rush I get looking back on this trip! And what an ache in my stomach for wanting to do it all again.
Even though it's legal to hitchhike in Japan, there are still a few things to keep in mind should you give it a go. If a situation doesn't feel right, avoid it. If anything escalates, call the Police. If someone runs over your foot, gracefully decline the ride. And bring enough yen. Even though we had no travel costs, we each spent about 10,000 yen (100 USD) per day on food, drink, and shelter.
Keep an open mind, and show your gratefulness. Offer to buy your driver a meal rather than try paying for gas. If you stop at a rest area, surprise them with a treat, or if you visit an attraction, pay for their tickets before they have a chance to. Jason and I tried all of the above, but were thwarted at most turns. Our Hosts, both in community and transit, were truly amazing.
Living anywhere can get old. As an Expat, it was no different. But it was on this trip that I remembered why my parents took me abroad in the first place; to make new friends, experience different cultures, and to overall gain life experience. The same was the theme of our hitchhiking adventure. Meeting new people, in new cities, exchanging cultures. They don’t know it, but each of them changed my life that week forever.
Jason and I caught up with Dan and Regina as planned, each of us certain our experience was the absolute best. An argument that will no doubt stand the test of time.
Do any of you have stories about hitchhiking? Would any of you want to give hitchhiking in Japan a go? Good luck if you do!