OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan
One Friday night out at a Roppongi watering hole saw a good friend of mine and an acquaintance talking over drinks. Before long, some random piece of conversation got turned into a dare. A few drinks in and it morphed into an actual plan.
“There’s no way some Japanese person would pick up you two clowns. Just look at him, he hasn’t shaved in months.”
“Dude, I’ve researched it quite a bit, and it’s a lot easier than you would think. And besides, him not shaving will work to our advantage, we’ll look more desperate.”
“Yeah, I still don’t buy it. Maybe one of you, but not the both. And not all the way to Osaka for sure. There’s no way you’re going to get from Tokyo to even Nagoya.”
“Okay, we’ll send you a postcard from Osaka.”
And that was it. Dare accepted. With each beer the idea sounded better and better, and by the end of the evening the groundwork had been laid. That coming Obon holiday would be the perfect opportunity to put hitchhiking in Japan to the test.
Your mantra should be pack light. Having said that, there are some basic essentials to consider:
- A large dark color (black) permanent marker and a large (B4 or A3 size) notebook
- Comfortable shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, phone w/USB charger, map, and cash
- Omiyage/Souvenirs (more on this below)
- Daypack with a change or two of underwear, socks, T-shirts, and a raincoat
- Sports towel and swimsuit (summer months)
- Sleeping bag, tent, and head lamp (all optional)
Seriously, that’s about it.
The marker and notebook are musts as making signs using Japanese kanji (漢字/Chinese characters) is the best way to get rides. The map is necessary only if you do not have a charged (and working) smartphone. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are not necessities, but you will be glad you have them on a hot summer day. The raincoat as well, as it can double as a windbreaker at night if the temp goes down. That being said, other seasons would require proper seasonal attire.
While having a little Japanese-language ability is going to make just about everything in Japan easier, most can probably get by hitchhiking with limited to no Japanese and still have a blast. Funnily, even if you do speak (or write) some, at times it’s probably wise (even advisable) to downplay the ability, as this creates an opportunity to approach people. While those feeling ballsy enough to go right up and just ask someone for a ride might actually succeed, asking them instead to help determine the name of the next rest area or to help write your sign for you allows for the opportunity for a few niceties to start with and possibly them offering you the ride first. Plus, you can always still just ask directly. The idea being basic salesmanship, start with something smaller and work your way up.
It goes without saying that the bigger a sign is the easier it is to see. But one could probably get by with a regular notebook (or two smaller ones). As well, since one word will most likely remain unchanged—houmen (pronounced “ho – men,” and meaning “in the direction of”)—if the sign is on two pages then one of these pages could be reused over and again. An A3 or B4-size artist’s sketchpad seems to be the best way to go, as the paper is thicker, so it can stand up to the elements a bit better and the marker will not run through as easily. It should also be plenty large enough to be seen from some distance. Some people prefer a mini-whiteboard instead. While this would obviously be easier to re-use for the next sign, the pens for one are rather thin and the board being shiny makes it some what difficult to see on a bright day. Most are not pliable enough to cram into a bag while on the go either.
The marker is also crucial, so something that is dark with a wide, flat tip is going to make a huge difference in terms of visibility. Note: A width of 25mm is great in terms of being seen, but is actually not that easy to write with. Something in the 15–20mm range seems best, but if given the choice between, say, 5mm or 25mm then definitely go with the 25mm. Having said that, the biggest notepad and marker that you can find at a ¥100 shop will more than suffice. Your sketchpad will most likely have cartoon animals or the like on its cover, and the pages slightly thinner, but hey it was only ¥108. A mini-whiteboard and markers can also be found at most of these shops.
What is written on the sign is the most important and is something that will make the difference of a car stopping or hundreds passing you by. If you have the luxury of time in getting where you want to go, just writing down the next rest area is a good strategy for quick rides. NOTE: Hitchhiking on the highways in Japan is illegal, so the idea is to go from rest stop to rest stop. The problem with this is that in Japan the rest stops are often ridiculously close, so this tactic will require quite a few rides to get somewhere.
For example, if the next rest area is Nakai Parking Area (PA), the sign should say Nakai houmen (中井方面), which roughly translates as “the direction of Nakai.” You can explain to drop you off at the PA. If they are going further, ask them if there is a different rest area that might be better for you.
Also to take into consideration, you will most likely need to use an on-ramp at first, so plan for the extra time. In Japan, on-ramps are called “interchanges” (IC), so that’s what you will need to find to get started. However, it is much easier to get rides at rest areas because people are out of their cars. Getting someone to stop in the first place is infinitely more challenging than getting someone to let you in.
There are two kinds of rest areas in Japan: Service Areas (SA), which are bigger, better, and usually preferable; and Parking Areas (PA), which are smaller, more frequent, and still perfectly acceptable. Trying to stick to just SAs allows for better amenities—souvenir shops, restaurants, food stands, and sometimes even showers (or more)—and as they are farther apart it ensures a slightly longer ride for you. PAs are generally quite a bit smaller and usually just have vending machines for drinks and snacks and bathrooms. As such, there is a lot less traffic, and getting a ride is usually a numbers game. The one benefit that a PA has over an SA is that its smaller size makes you more easily noticed, so even though there are fewer cars, most of them will see you.
Camping at rest areas seemingly is not prohibited, but then again there really isn’t much info on this. So if you do decide to camp, take into consideration that it is a free, public, and shared area, so try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Foreigners tend to stand out in Japan, but they also get away with a lot more. The idea behind rest areas are for people to take a break, relax, and (if they want) sleep in their car, RV camper, truck, etc., so why not set up a little 1–2 man tent on the grass off to the side? Again, it shouldn’t be a problem but remember this is not considered an actual campground. Most rest areas are fairly well-lit at night near the buildings and parking lot, but if you are camping in an area off to the side, having a headlamp (or just a flashlight) is going to be useful. If it isn’t immediately obvious, campfires would not be allowed.
STUFF TO DO
Feel free to walk around the rest area, especially near the front of restroom entrances, noticing people heading towards their cars and ask for help in finding out the name of the next rest area (and even request help writing your sign). A little Japanese lingo makes this all the much easier, but it is still no prerequisite. Furthermore, you can ask if they are traveling in that direction and many will offer a ride. Most rest areas are one way, so that certainly helps.
Confirm where to sit in the vehicle and make sure to put on your seat belt. When walking in the actual parking lot, take care of moving vehicles. It’s certainly safer to wait on the sidewalk, but actively pursuing a ride is sometimes necessary.
If you meet someone traveling past the next rest area, try to be as polite and talkative as you can and let them know a few rest stops further would be great for you. If they are insistent to stop at the next rest area anyway, as possibly the novelty of talking to you has worn off, politely thank them for the ride and just find a new one.
Omiyage (お土産/souvenirs) are very common in Japan. Even a weekend day trip to “anywhere” usually requires a box of local goodies to be shared at the office come Monday morning. Therefore, be polite and bring some small snacks to pass out to those who give you a ride. Nothing expensive, but the tastier the better. Just try to find a box with individually wrapped “local whatevers” and you should be good to go. These same type of snacks are also available at most of the SAs, so you can pick up more as you go. Some are shockingly good and surprisingly cheap. Several typical favorites would be chocolates, cookies, fruit snacks, mini cakes, or rice crackers. Dried squid snacks (yes, this is a thing) on the other hand leave a little something to be desired and are pretty “effin” rank. Also, drivers might offer you something as well. If it isn’t something you would eat, and it is packaged, politely take it and say thank you and just pass it along later.
Asking to charge your phone in a ride’s car might seem a bit forward, but as long as you are polite, it is okay to ask. They did just pick up a hitchhiker after all. The USB charger is key because many people will have a multi-use USB adapter for the cigarette lighter and newer cars usually have a few actual USB ports. You might get lucky and find a regular outlet at a rest area, but you should not plan on it.
STUFF NOT TO DO
Try to resist the temptation of making signs that are for destinations much further down the road, but feel free to try 2–3 rest areas from where you are. This ambitious approach often works, but if you have been waiting for a while then it’s probably best to set your sights on something closer and more immediately obtainable. In other words, try to aim for the SAs and bypass the smaller PAs. However, if you have been waiting more than an hour and car after car keeps passing by, then it might be time to make a new sign.
If you are trying to go from say, Tokyo to Osaka, avoid telling anyone giving you a ride (or a potential ride) what your final destination is. This is not a safety concern, and so it probably seems a strange point to make. But the reason for stressing this is because “obligation” is so important in Japan that often drivers will go far out of their way to accommodate you, as once in their car they feel a responsibility for you. At the same time, some will avoid giving you a ride in the first place to avoid this very situation. So be vague and just say you are traveling around Japan. If they are seemingly going to give you a ride, find out their destination and hope that they are cool to drop you off at the last rest area before they exit the highway.
Do not get out of a car on the actual highway, and try not to exit off the highway. Unless you actually want to sightsee around that local area or city, use only rest areas. Even though technically not the highway (and so technically not illegal), on-ramps make horrible locations as more often than not cars have no space to actually pull over for you. Knowing this, if you do exit off the highway be sure to plan for a bit of a wait when trying to get back on. While going around the major cities, one can easily use local public transportation. Japan’s is considered “world class.” Getting back to the IC might take some planning, though, as normally buses do not go/stop there.
Do not be surprised if some rides actually speak no English at all, especially further away from Tokyo. In this case a phrasebook, or better yet Google Translate, can come in pretty handy to break the ice. It also creates an opportunity for you to try using some Japanese. You may get picked up by a traveling salesman, some young teenagers who just got their license, grandparents on vacation, or you may end up in the backseat with kids, pets, or luggage. For some reason, long-haul truckers are not common at all. If the front seat is open you may (or may not be asked) to sit there. Do not automatically assume and just hop in. Double-check before getting in the car. If traveling in a pair, usually one would be offered the front seat (and should accept) and when traveling solo and the front seat is available, again don’t try to sit in the back unless the driver prefers it. While it might feel like a perfect time for a nap in the backseat, the driver is often going to expect some conversation out of the situation, so be as outgoing and social as possible even if you’re knackered.
YOU HAVE CASH… SO WHY HITCHHIKE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
If you’re on a tight schedule, or if it simply sounds more misery than fun, then certainly there is no reason you “need” to hitchhike. However, if you have a little extra time and are looking for an adventure, why not? It’s cheap and makes for a great story. As well, Japan is probably one of the safest countries—if not the safest—to consider doing this. Still, traveling in a pair is safer and makes it easier to pass the time. While it may prevent you from being picked up when space is limited, it also makes you (“the hitchhiker”) appear more friendly and even less threatening.
Transportation in Japan is incredibly expensive. Whether it is the shinkansen (bullet train) or just gas and road tolls, one way can easily cost you ¥10,000–30,000 (US$80–250). For example from Tokyo to Fukuoka is about ¥23,000 (US$185) in tolls alone. And while there are several cheaper alternatives (discount train/air tickets, overnight buses), hitchhiking is hands down the cheapest. Besides, what you save on transport, you can spend on beer.
Hitchhiking at night is possible, but less cars usually means less rides. If you are not going to camp or even just sleep on a bench at the rest area, then you can certainly try hitchhiking through the night. If none of those three options are acceptable as evening approaches you might want to consider what cities are in the area and call it a day. Once in a city, there are usually capsule hotels, Internet cafes, and business hotels, all of which are usually in the ¥2,000–5,000 (US$15–40) range for one night. All typically include showers, Wi-Fi, and a place to charge you phone.
Keep in mind that an early start could get you from, say, Tokyo to Osaka in one day, so if you get hitching early enough you might just avoid the quandary of what to do at night completely.
One last concern would be highway junctions (JCT). While definitely something to be mindful of, due to the overall size of Japan there is usually just one main highway going east–west or north–south. When there are two options, they might actually run relatively parallel to one another, for example, one inland and one coastal. Most likely they will reconnect at some point, but that is not always the case, so make sure of this when you looking at the map and planning your basic route. If there is a JCT up ahead, this would be a time to be patient and make sure the ride you are getting is in fact going the right direction. Best would be to find the first rest area after the junction that is on the right route. Occasionally a rest area does serve both directions of traffic or is very close to a JCT, so keep this in mind.
If this “level” of hitchhiking is not for you, well then consider that it is also a great (and relatively quick) way to get back “into town” after coming down off a mountain somewhere in the countryside, even if you are only going as far as the local train station or bus stop. While in the cities the public transport is excellent, the same cannot be said for the countryside. Sometimes the last bus/shuttle from a mountain to the local train station may be as early as 16:00, so you may find yourself hitchhiking out of necessity. In this type of situation, walking on the side of the road and using your thumb should do the trick. Just be careful that wherever it is you’re walking/standing that you are easily visible as roads are often windy, narrow, and have blind corners.
By the way, if you are trying to hitchhike on smaller local roads, but actually going a longer distance, the signs are still your “currency” so to speak, but use michi no eki (道の駅) as your rest areas. The literal translation is“street station,” but these are basically roadside farmer’s markets. On the other hand, local routes can usually be hitchhiked with no problem as far as the legalities of it are concerned, so if you want to actively start hiking that’s up to you. Again, many local routes are crazily narrow and don’t even have breakdown or bicycle lanes so take that into consideration as far as safety and logistics of getting a car to stop.
Whichever direction you head, as long as there are cars moving along that road you should be able to get a ride. Having a sign only makes this all that much easier. Be polite, be friendly, and (most important) have fun and stay safe.
Anyone with experience hitchhiking long distance in Japan or other Asian countries, please let us know your stories and tips in the comment section below.