After traveling to fifteen countries, I never imagined that hitchhiking around Japan would become possibly the greatest and most inspiring vacations of my life. Having never hitched before, I really had no idea of what to expect in the seven days ahead. Most friends and family thought I was rather nuts, less a few of my closest mates, Jason, Dan and Regina. So with a day’s lead on Golden Week, the four of us piled in my car and hit the road.
With nothing more than a backpack, the four of us set off South from Shimane prefecture to Kyushu, where we would begin our hitchhiking adventure. Our only plan was to visit all its seven mainland prefectures and to meet up in the exact point of origin, seven days later. The only restriction: no funds could go to transportation. While I could write a book on the adventure (would you read it?), I’ll stick to the basics to help you prepare for yours.
Jason and I paired up and stood opposite Dan and Regina on a random intersection in Kitakyushu. We’d brought a white erase board and marker, so drivers could easily see our intentions. It wasn’t until now that I began to wonder how this week would pan out. “Wow, would if no one picks us up,” I thought anxiously. But within ten minutes, a young couple pulled over and off we went! The driver, arms heavy with jewelry, mentioned having to make only one quick stop, before taking us to Fukuoka City. The stop, as it turned out, was to do a cash money handoff. What a start!!! Afterwards, he bought us dinner and took us, as promised, directly into Fukuoka City.
After arriving, we found an affordable hotel, and explored the city’s nightlife, deciding that in each city, we try any locally famous food or drink. In Fukuoka, we tried Hakata Ramen, a delicious way to fill our stomachs. The next day, three different drivers took us all the way to Nagasaki, and Jason was only run over ONCE by a crazy driver. So far, par for the course, really. We took turns communicating in Japanese and English with the curious drivers. Each had their own special story, too. Each rather loving and caring for two complete strangers, from foreign lands.
We got advice on where to stay, what to eat and driven each time to the doorstep. One young couple on their first date circle around to introduce themselves and see where we intended on going. After smiling at each other, they told us to hop in. Though originally setting off for a 5km drive, they would on that day, end up taking us more than 200km one way, from Oita City to Miyazaki City.
We bought them dinner, a local fried chicken dish, and said goodbye as they turned around. On the city outskirts, within two minutes, another car, this time a family of four, pulled over and made room for Jason and I.
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”. All too happily, we invited them to our table and spent the rest of our evening dining together. When we left to pay, our new friends had already settle the tab. The night carried on with them and was followed up by an offer to drive us to our next goal, Kumamoto. 8am on the dot and they were ready and waiting for us outside our hotel.
Looking back on that day, I remember a moment, as we left Kumamoto Castle, I simply stopped and thought “What I am doing here is special. This isn’t ordinary. Thank God, I’m so lucky to be here”.
We all still keep in touch, and quite astonishingly, that couple, Shin-san and Mitsuko-san, got married one year later. Love is truly all around Kyushu.
Living in any place, foreign or native can wear you down. And living in rural Japan is no different. It was on this trip that I remembered why my parents took me abroad in the first place, to make new friends and gain life experience. This was the overall theme of our adventure. Meeting real people, in new cities. They don’t know it, but each of them changed my life that week. We met Dan and Regina as planned, each pair certain their experience was the absolute best. An argument that will no doubt stand the test of time.
Hitchhiking in Japan is a sort of “choose your own ending” storybook. Depending on which corner you stand, which direction you face, and who is inclined to stop, the next step is completely unknown. What a rush I get looking back on this trip! What an ache in my stomach for wanting to do it all again. Good luck to anyone brave enough to give hitchhiking Japan a go! And please let me know if you do.
Thankfully, hitchhiking is legal in Japan, but there are some laws you should live by.
- Don’t hitchhike on or within 100m of a highway onramp. Way too dangerous and you’ll get fined.
- 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.
- Bring enough yen. Even though we had no travel costs, each still spent over ￥10,000 /day.
- Keep an open mind and show you are thankful. Offer to buy your driver a meal rather than gas. (We tried this, but in fact, had most of our meals on the road paid for by our drivers.) Truly inspiring.