A First: Hitchhiking Down and Back Up Japan

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

I came across this question the other day, and besides immediately making me want to walk out the door and do something crazy, I started pondering the last few months of my trip. Technically, just about everything I did, I did for the first time, but after months of traveling, it started to seem routine. Doing cool stuff that is. But there was one thing that I’d never done before and Jack Kerouac reminded me of it: hitchhiking. He lived in a different time and these days it holds such a negative and, on top of that, dangerous connotation. To be honest, I know very few people who have ever hitched a ride anywhere. But that less than positive feeling associated with the idea only served to encourage staying nice and cozy in my comfort zone and that was precisely what I wanted to avoid on my trip.

So when my old college buddy hit me up about paying Japan a visit and possibly hitchhiking across the country, I was all ears. By this time, I’d hitched rides multiple times in Malaysia, but they were all relatively short distances. A few miles down to the market for example. He was talking about sticking the thumb out and joining strangers headed across the country. That was a little more adventurous than figuring out the public transportation system. After asking myself when I’d have another opportunity like this and realizing that the answer was probably never, my mind was pretty set. What better time than now? I booked a flight to Japan.

Osaka Direction Hitchhiking Sign

Our Hitchhiking Sign/Plea for a Ride

It had been an hour and we were still exactly where we started. We double checked the Japanese characters on our sign reading “Osaka Direction” and moved from the convenience shop area of the rest-stop to the highway onramp, but nothing seemed to help. Besides a few smiles from amused passers-by, our quest for a ride was coming up empty handed. Maybe this brilliant plan of ours wasn’t such a good idea after all. Would we fail before we ever began? Then a van suddenly slowed to a stop and the driver pointed at our sign and then to the back of his van. Jackpot. But with one problem solved came another. What type of person is willing to give rides to hitchhikers? I know I’ve never picked one up, much less been in the car with anyone who has and we’ve all seen our share of horror flicks. So who actually picks up foreign backpackers?

Turns out, all sorts of people. Our first ride from Tokyo to Osaka came from a pair of newlywed musicians who were more than happy to show us the wedding reception video of them jamming out, her on the drums in full wedding gown of course. And our entertaining drivers didn’t stop there. Working our way all the way down to Hiroshima, among others, we also had the pleasure of meeting Tammy, a former Baja 500 rider who got poked fun of by his American buddies for having a girls’ name, and a couple of world class dog trainers traveling in something crossed between a mobile home and a van (by world class I mean they go to canine agility competitions as far away as Europe).

But I’d have to consider those rides tame compared to our last of the trip. Not that we would have turned down a ride, but a little backstory is necessary to show you how desperate we were in need of one. After spending the better part of the day unsuccessfully waiting at a less than optimal rest stop, we decided to change locations and took a train out to the countryside where another highway rest stop stood a few miles away. After a pleasant meander through tranquil Japanese rice paddies in the dead of night, we made it to our destination and busted out our sleeping bags under a nearby gazebo for a cold nights sleep out of the drizzle. The most action we saw that night was a rest stopper in need of a urinal but choosing a too close for comfort spot on the lawn instead of the provided facilities.

Waking up, we were being extremely (extremely) optimistic in hoping for a ride all the way to Tokyo (a 9 ½ hour drive according to Google). We pulled out our sign once again indicating our direction, cleaned up as best we could after sleeping on a concrete bench, and stood near the highway entrance with a friendly smile. A few minutes later, a beat up van pulled up and after tossing a bunch of collected junk and trash into the back to clear some space for us, we were introducing ourselves to our new drivers who miraculously were also headed all the way to Tokyo. What luck! Only thing was, after an attempt at an introduction, the two old men looked at each other amused, smiled and turned their attention back to the road. Not knowing what else to do, my buddy and I sat back and observed.

Our new companions were quite the pair. The driver was quite tall for a Japanese man, was missing most his teeth and talked in a nearly unintelligible form of slurred Japanese. His shorter than average co-pilot gave directions, doubled as our driver’s translator and seemed used to ignoring the driver every time he was told how dumb he was. Both wore old beat-up clothing, chain smoked cigarettes and pounded small cans of coffee, all while their eyes were glued to the sumo wrestling tournament airing on their small in-car tv. So there we found ourselves, watching the Japanese countryside flash by as we hurtled down the expressway at 160 kph, no seatbelts in site.

We made great time. And after our co-pilot told the driver he couldn’t stop here and the driver completely ignoring him, we were dropped off in the middle of a busy street in the heart of Tokyo. As we scrambled over a barrier to the safety of the sidewalk, our drivers were gone as quickly as they’d appeared. The evening neon lights were just beginning to light up the world’s biggest city adding to our surreal state and thoughts of “Did that really just happen?” We still don’t know what on earth those guys were up to or where they were headed, but regardless, we made it back to our cozy apartment, in one piece and happy as can be.

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

7 thoughts on “A First: Hitchhiking Down and Back Up Japan

    • Hey Eira! Thanks a ton for the shout out on your blog. I’ll definitely have to take a look to fuel my wanderlust. My next adventure is in the very early planning stages, but in the meantime hopefully I can get around to writing about some of my past adventures. There are a number that still need telling.

  1. How was your handle of the Japanese language? I am considering doing the same and have about a year of basic Japanese under my belt. Did you find it difficult to communicate?

    • I actually left the Japanese conversations up to my buddy who had been teaching English in Tokyo for the past few years. However, most of our drivers spoke at least a small amount of English. Good luck on making your trip a reality. I’d recommend it!

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