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Want to see the real Japan? Try hitchhiking

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By Chris McCormack

Can’t afford the oil surcharge for the flight to Hokkaido? Having trouble getting to know the locals? Feel like you don’t know the real Japan? Try hitchhiking.

I first hitched alone when I was 17 during a summer trip around Europe. Although I visited a few museums and famous landmarks, what I mostly did was see the country and get to know the people. Because hitchhiking is illegal, and dangerous on major motorways, I crisscrossed Western Europe on the back roads that passed through small villages and countryside that most people don’t get to see. I got hooked. I traveled through eight countries in two months and only paid for transportation twice. Spending money on rides, I came to believe, was for chumps.

In Japan, I first hitchhiked on a whim. My then girlfriend and I had missed the last bus from Mt Mitake to the train station, and it was a long walk to town. So we stuck out our thumbs. We were picked up within minutes — and a whole new Japan opened up to me.

We got our second ride in Tohoku, where an elderly couple in their 70s picked us up on a small, dusty road in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t believe it. The last thing my grandparents would do if they saw a foreigner sticking his thumb out at the side of the road would be to stop and give him a ride. I figured elderly Japanese would be even more averse to the idea, but I was wrong. It reminded me of the couple in Germany who picked me up, fed me, went out of their way so I would be heading in the right direction, and then dropped me off with a warning that I should stop hitchhiking — instead of being the scary foreigner at the side of the road, I became their adopted grandchild.

The most hitchhiking I’ve ever done in Japan was during a trip to Hokkaido. Two friends and I spent a week hitching from campground to campground. When we started, I thought there was no way we would get anywhere fast. Most cars simply don’t have enough room for three extra passengers and their bags, so I figured that the number of people both willing and able to pick us up would be impossibly small. But, again, I was wrong.

The drivers who gave us rides weren’t in a hurry. They were taking their time and were willing to share that time with us. Although they were a surprisingly diverse group — young, old, men, women, singles, couples, families — they were similar in important ways: they were kind, generous and curious about people. We shared our stories with them and they shared theirs with us. We got to know what it was like to live in Hokkaido from the locals, but we also met people from all over Japan who were drawn to the island’s clean, cool air and abundant natural beauty. We came to appreciate the kindness and generosity of the people we met, and felt more connected to the country.

Of course, hitchhikers also encounter the worst in people. It can be dangerous, and hitchers should always be cautious when accepting rides. The very vulnerability that makes it dangerous, however, also creates a space for strangers to demonstrate a remarkable capacity for goodness. I’ve always been lucky in this regard. I’ve hitchhiked in many places, and each time I have rediscovered my faith in humanity. This is certainly true of my hitchhiking experience in Japan.

In Hokkaido, one of the last rides we got was from a young man who was going to the same campground we were. He was meeting his family, his whole family: parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews. They invited us to join them and, unexpectedly and to our delight, we spent the night eating, drinking and laughing with the whole clan. When we left the next morning, the man who picked us up gave me a keychain and a photo of us all together. I still have them today, six years later.

That was my first summer in Japan, and the first time I really had the opportunity to talk to people who weren’t paying to see me. I was still struggling with the language, but it didn’t matter. Before that trip, it seemed like I might never get beyond the isolated lifestyle of expats living among expats, but hitchhiking changed it all. The wall between “me” and “them” began to crumble, and I felt that at last I was finally communing with Japan and its people.

Chris McCormack is a Canadian writer waiting to be picked up. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

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49 Comments
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A wonderful story, once again defying the oft repeated negative stereotypes of Japanese people here and elsewhere. This would make a nice book or extended blog of various hitchhiking trips in Japan. Again, a nice refreshing story.

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Ok !!! He should try doing this in Saitama or Utsunomiya. Please try it!!! I want to see how far you get ? You can get far walking not begging for a ride. Plus the police will check give you a free ride to the police station for serious questions. " Police: " Why do you want a free ride ? " " What are you doing in my city ? " In Tochigi and Saitama prefecture the people are afraid of their own shadow, let alone gajin/foreigners. They don't even smile, they don't even slow down.

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The police in my city will give you a freee ride to the police station for some questioning !!!! That's as far you get im my community. The neighbors try to run me over on a daily basis going over the speed limit of 20-30km they go about 56km on a residential road. I live in Saitama the City of Angels. Los Saitama.

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South Central Saitama... not the place to be for a lonely gaijin hitchhiker. Now that would make a nice book!

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"Before that trip, it seemed like I might never get beyond the isolated lifestyle of expats living among expats"

So get out and meet some Japanese people then!

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Chris has obviously never seen the movie "The Hitcher." Ha ha ha

I have hitched rides in the "abunai" USA. Didn't have a problem. But I wouldn't recommend hitchiking, even in "safety" Japan. You don't know who's behind the wheel of that vehicle. And once you're inside...

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Hitchhiking is possible in Saitama if you're a highschool girl...many kind gentlemen willing to offer you a ride.

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Altria - I think you meant to say "willing to ride you"

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I was ready to be derisive about this article, but was quite charmed by it. I wouldn't try hitching unless I was desperate (the one time I've hitched was in NZ, when our car broke down in an area with no mobile phone reception and Mr Zaichik and I got a lift back to the nearest town so we could call a tow truck), but I'm quite pleasantly surprised to hear that it is possible to hitchhike in Japan....

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Of course, there are good stories and bad stories about hitchhiking. Just be careful who you get into the car - drink driving laws could get you in a lot of trouble now even if you're a psssenger/hitch hiker.

Moderator: The issue of drunk driving has nothing to do with this commentary. Please stay on topic.

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I have travelled hitchhiking around Japan (cars, trucks, motorbikes) during months, maybe 7 or 8 in total. That was absolutely great, I have not met one unfriendly person. Many times I was invited at people's home and I made a few real friends.

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I've tried to hitchhike in Japan, no one ever picked me up, I look normal, I just thought no one understood what a thumb ment.

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I used to hitchhike in the States back when I was in college. Made for some great adventures, but you certainly had to be careful.

I've never actually hitchhiked in Japan, but a number of times in rural areas when I've found myself wandering down some back road, someone has pulled over and offered me a ride, no thumb necessary. Happened a couple of times in Kyushu, once in Okayama, once in Gunma. Each time, it was just a genuinely kind soul or souls who seemed happy to offer a lift, and in one case in Kyushu, dinner as well.

You might expect it would be those in the rural areas who are suspicious of foreigners (rather than in the urban centers), but it seems to be quite the opposite. Each of those encounters left me with a beautiful "ichi go, ichi e" feeling, and a deep sense of gratitude.

People in and around Tokyo, sadly, do seem to be much more suspicious/defensive around strangers, no matter whether the other person is foreign or not.

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There IS a book about it, called Hokkaido Highway Blues, and retitled Hitching Rides With Buddha, by William Ferguson. It is quite possibly the most accurate and most entertaining book about people in Japan that I have ever read.

I've hitch-hiked around Kyushu and Shikoku, and it's true; getting into someone's car is like being welcomed into their home. People would pick me up and because I was camping (in December) they insisted that I stay at their house, feed me dinner etc. Some of the best experiences I've had in Japan were hitch-hiking.

However, a great way to ruin the experience for everyone is to write an article recommending it in the news...

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With regards to hitchhiking in places such as Saitama, it's a non-tourist area so I think it stands to reason that it would be very difficult to hitch a ride there. As the story confirms, hitching around somewhere like Hokkaido, where a foreigner with a backpack is obviously touring around the beautiful countryside is a much better prospect.

On the other side of the coin, I picked up several hitchers when I toured around Hokkaido by car a few years ago. One guy was hitching through during a typhoon so couldn't just pass him. We stopped for one young Japanese guy but it was difficult to speak to him because he was apologising and thanking us so much. Turned out his motorbike had broken down so he was trying to salvage his holiday by hitching. He said that the only people who had given him rides so far had been foreigners! Maybe Japanese people will tend to look more sympathetically at a foreign hitchhiker rather than a native one.

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Thinking back to my hitchhiking days, my advice for people planning to hitch in Japan or anywhere is:

look presentable! difficult when you've been on the road for a while but I'm convinced people are more likely to stop for a clean-looking presentable person.

find a good place to hitch, where a potential ride has a safe and easy place to stop further along the road. That is really important.

sew your national flag on your pack. Just a small one is fine in Japan because they are good at picking out details. Some people don't rate this idea but I think it works in your favor as it gets people in the car thinking more about you.

above all, SMILE when a potential ride passes by. Hitchhikers so often look desperate... almost like criminals on the run! A big friendly smile as you hitch will definitely help you get to your destination. And remember, you should be smiling 'cos it's your holiday and you're having fun, right?!

That's my advice! My best hitch was all the way from Cape Town in South Africa to Windhoek in Namibia... took several rides but made it in under 24 hours... those were the days...

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Sounds good

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Isn't hitch hiking illegal in japan. How often do you see someone doing it. Only a gaijin would try.

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DXXJP - have seen it a few times. Was quite amused to see some salaryman cause an accident when he locked up all 4 wheels trying to stop to pick up a young female hitchhiker, causing the car behind to go straight into him.

Sadistic, yes, but it made my day!

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Can’t afford the oil surcharge for the flight to Hokkaido?

I can afford it, because there is no oil surcharge.

Fuel surcharge, on the other hand....

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because any Japanese motorist would pick up a hitckhiking gaijin... laughable at best..

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DXXJP, that's perfectly legal. Bike, car and truck insurance allow them to carry passengers. You need a helmet if you want to bike-hitchike, of course.

I don't do exactly what Imacat says. Well look good, anyway. I make a board with the kanji name of the place where I want to go, I find the road leading to there. That's true the "thumb" is not understood. The board is the local way to do it. Then I go to speak to people while they are drinking their coffee or taking gasoline. Or I stand at the entrance of a parking. Along the road is usually unconvenient to stop the car several minutes. And if they don't know where you go and why, most people hesitate too much. It's better to have time for aisatsu. I talk to them friendly, not too smily, not staring at them, bow slightly, well as usual. I also tell to waiters or ryokan staff that I'm looking for a car and they introduce me other customers. Truck drivers would find me the next truck among their friends. And as I'm a good hitchhiker, many gave me their phone number so I could join on their next trip. And bikers introduced me to their club/association so I could join their day/week-end trips. They like riding in groups of about 10 bikes to a leisure place. I no longer do it because I don't have time. You never know exactly when you'll arrive, so you'd better have a long holiday. I have heard that was more difficult for Japanese, but I don't think it's the case. If I have my sun-glasses, people don't know I'm a gaijin, and that doesn't make any difference.

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OK on rural roads Im sure its fine but try and walk up on a highway and they'll tackle you like a terrorist.

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In real Japan things are dirty and there's lots of shouting. Take the train!!

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If hitchhiking in Japan, avois Nikko - the "real Nippon" they call it. They really hate gaijin there. A more unfriendly place I have yet to visit, especially if you are a gaijin Japanese speaker.

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A wonderful story, once again defying the oft repeated negative stereotypes of Japanese people here and elsewhere. This would make a nice book or extended blog of various hitchhiking trips in Japan. Again, a nice refreshing story.

Cuttin' and pastin' till the cows come home again. It's a good thing you've never come to Japan. Those positive stereotypes you have might vanish fairly quickly. Stick to your side of the Pacific.

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Does hitchhiking still work in the 21st century?

If I were to pick up some stranger first thing I would do is negotiate the fuel fee (making sure I profit of course).

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When I was in my early twenties (I'm now in my mid-fourties) I hitched all over Honshu ... from the very north to the very south. It was at times a desperate way to go ... but always showed me the BEST that Japan has to offer in terms of hospitality and genuine kindness. Some of the sweetest times of my life.

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Hmm, as a nineteen year old white female... I imagine I'd end up with more than just a ride in a car if I were to try hitch-hiking. Just going on the trains is bad enough, even when I mind my own business!

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because any Japanese motorist would pick up a hitckhiking gaijin... laughable at best..

Try it, before you slander it. I've never had any problems hitching in Japan. As a matter of fact being a gaijin has probably got me more and better lifts than a native might get.

However I would like to add that after hitching all over the world in my youth, human kindness to a non-threatening stranger is a universal.

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I wouldn't try hitchhiking if it is the " LAST RESORT !" And foreign women should not hitchhike in Japan. That's just plan dangerous and asking for trouble. Japan has it's serial killers too !!!! This article is a fairy-tale, fodder for the eyes.

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An old wiki I found on this very subject... http://wikitravel.org/en/Hitchhiking_in_Japan

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man you must be crazy to hitchhike in japan!

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Tried hitch-hiking from Kyoto to Tokyo once, and it was not an easy experience. Japanese drivers are just not used to hitch-hikers, so it took me 3 hours of gesturing to get someone to stop and pick me up - and that someone turned out to be a colleague who had a good laugh at me! He could only take me part of the way, so had to repeat the process near Nagoya where it took even longer. Departed from Kyoto at 6am wanting, arrived in Tokyo at 11 PM, well, at least I made it but for less than 6000 yen for an overnight bus it was a bit pointless.

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http://www.japantoday.com/category/commentary/view/want-to-see-the-real-japan-try-hitchhiking

Apparently there's a good book on the subject called Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

Here's a vid talking about it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZNH5vnKGYc

I haven't read the book, but it seems to be well recommended.

Peace

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That book is great, really funny.Its been renamed Hitching rides with the buddha.

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Lay off the hitch hiking. Too many loonies in Japan.

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In the book Hitching rides he doesnt meet any dangerous people but alot who wanna preach about how (fill in the blank) Japan is.

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Mate, nice idea, but you are living in the past. Japan is no longer a safety country to hich-hike in - you are likely to end up knifed, decapitated ... or worse.

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I had to hitch hike once from Akigawa back to Otaru when my truck broke down. An old farmer picked me up. He didn't say much to me on the way, we talked about beer so I bought him some of his favorite as a thank you. Other than an emergency, I don't think I would hitch hike in any country...even Canada!

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Before hitching, why not get inundated by riding the crowded a.m.and p.m. trains. If you ever get a seat, its quite likely the lass or chap sitting besides you is quite perturbed to have a foreigner seated next to or in between them. Japanese become helpful on occasion when you are in trouble situation like dropping your cell phone, which is most appreciated, but in a normal situation, getting a courtesy is about as easy as pulling a tigers tooth. And not too much smiling about it either. So before putting out your thumb, learn to sit up or stand up straight and not make a move on the crowded trains. That is where part of the "real" Japan is. I put up with 95% of the xxx that I have to. When the additional 5% comes, I find myself speaking up inspite of knowing that doing so makes "the others" uncomfortable. Dick Chaney em!

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God, that story brings back so many great memories!! A pity its considered unsafe to hitch hike these days because it really is an amazing and fun way to meet people and see places!!

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Are you kidding! Hitch hike around Japan? I'd feel safer hitch hiking around the western suburbs of Sydney!

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I've hitchhiked between Iwate and Yamaguchi many, many times, not mention Kyushu and my only time ever in Shikoku was a hitchhiking trip.

It's funny to see some of the responses and although some of the fears are valid, moreso now than previously, they show an elitist attitude that they know more about something they've never done than those who have.

For those who think it's too difficult, they're right, and probably should avoid other difficult things like surfing, mountain climbing, living in a foreign country and interacting with the local populace outside of urban comfort zones etc...

There are ways to make hitching easier or more difficult but getting directly between the bigger cities is generally more difficult.

As far as the dangers involved, it can be scary at times, and most rewarding at others. The single scariest incident for me was a van full of middle easterners who pulled over and started shouting and arguing among themselves whether to give me a ride or not. The ones who thought they should give me a ride won and the ones who had been glaring at me smiled and said that I should get in. I opted for waiting till I could get a ride to my exact destination.

The final decision as to whether anyone should try hitching or not is theirs to make but by all means, try to take some rational precautions in your approach.

In closing, I have also hitched several times with my girlfriend in the Touhoku and Chuugoku areas of the country and once with another girl from Saitama to Niigata, all with nothing but the kindest of interactions.

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I'm with akami, hh-ing is a great experience in Japan, but then I've also hh-ed in Europe and down the west coast of the US, so it seemed tame in comparison.

I remember one guy who picked my mate and I up in the early morning in Hokodate, after we had drank ourselves silly on the ferry from Otaru. He dove us in to Sapporo while we slept and in the end pulled a US$20 out of his wallet for us, thinking we were hard up, which we were at the time. Great guy!

Don't miss your chance to see another side of Japan while you are here.

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akami;

For those who think it's too difficult, they're right, and probably should avoid other difficult things like surfing, mountain climbing, living in a foreign country and interacting with the local populace outside of urban comfort zones etc...

Good point.

I second the point made earlier that people out in the sticks are friendlier and less nervous about foreigners than Tokyoids - Tokyo is not Japan.

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Lets go fun time hichihaikingu!

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I have hitchhiked on every trip to Japan over the last few years. It is a wonderful way to meet locals. So I am surprised by the negative responses. It is too easy to get lifts in most rural areas and I don't speak Japanese. I rarely wait more than a few minutes, but I am not wanting long, fast rides. I want to experience the culture. I have been treated like a celebrity on small islands in Okinawa. People have shaken my hand for honoring their village by camping in their park!! The worst thing has been too many nights drinking with locals, and being treated so well - it is a little embarrassing.

On one hitch, I was taken to an historic rural mountain village I wanted to see, by museum guides in training. They took turns translating what they were learning about local folklore and history. It was the best trip. They put me up in the best hotel room, shared a wonderful, drunken feast, and gave me US$200 when they dropped me off on the second day.

I am planning my next trip to Japan from March to June. It will be great to see and stay with the friends I have made.

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Maybe i chose the wrong places to hitch a ride, or maybe i don't look very trustworthy for the Japanese to offer a lift. This was Nikko, near Kogen falls, and i had led my family the wrong way, away from Chuzenji lake. For over an hour, no car would stop by, even to offer us directions , let alone offer a ride! And it was too tiresome for us, on the winding hill-road.

Maybe that's just what one gets with being an Asian non-Japanese, in Japan. Another incident was at Shosenkyo gorge, when we missed the last bus back to Kofu station. We couldn't get a ride from any of the cars! Thankfully, an old lady at a restaurant took us in and telephoned a cab driver to come get us (from Kofu).

After travelling so much in Japan, the lesson i've learnt is to ALWAYS double-check the bus timings, and return to a bus-stop, from ANYWHERE, before 4 pm.

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