I was standing by the side of a small country road between Maebaru and Karatsu, hoping to catch the next driver’s eye with a smile and a bow. I had been staying with a surfing friend in Karatsu and was hoping to find some waves out in Itoshima. After just ten minutes of waiting, a woman in a small car stopped. As luck would have it she was a fellow surfer, and she ended up not only taking me to the beach but also taking me surfing.
I remembered this story recently because the woman who picked me up was Kimiko Kai, the face on the cover of the July 2005 Fukuoka Now. But this is just one of many great experiences I’ve had hitchhiking. I have been hitchhiking across three continents for over four years, but by far the best place I’ve ever hitched has been Japan. It is an amazing way to travel, and I believe everyone should challenge themselves and get out on the open road.
Why do I recommend hitchhiking so much? To start, it’s economical. I spent four months hitching around Japan in the summer of 2001 and must have saved thousands of yen on transportation. But more importantly, it is probably the best way to meet many kinds of people and learn about their lives. It is a communal act, with ample opportunities for improving international relations on a person-to-person level.
Hitchhiking is also ecological, as you are sharing resources with drivers. Of course public transportation is an ecologically efficient method of travel as well, but it can only take you so far. Hitching is a means to get off the beaten track and see parts of the country that most travelers will never see. It allows you to get away from fixed train and bus routes and deep into the heart of Japan, without the extra expense or environmental cost of renting a car. The entire country becomes yours to explore, from every city highway to the most hidden country road.
I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people hitchhiking in Japan. The drivers are friendly and helpful, more so here than in any other country I’ve traveled through. I’ve had people drive 100 kilometers out of their way to take me somewhere, and often been offered a room for the night. I’ve also been taken to drivers’ favorite izakayas more times than I can count (or remember!).
Perhaps hitchhiking’s lack of popularity in Japan is due to limited resources. While in Europe, I noticed that many countries had designated hitchhiking points. These areas, marked by signs with backpackers on them, were usually at the start of highways with a shoulder wide enough for cars to safely pull off the road to pick people up. Japan would do well to adopt this system. It isn’t needed so much in the countryside, but more in the outskirts of cities where the highways (and adventures) begin. This would improve safety and hopefully encourage more people to take advantage of this great way to travel.
If you’re up to the adventure of hitchhiking, here are some tips:
– Choose your hitching spot well. It should be a wide space where cars are going slow enough to have time to see you.
– When a car approaches, give a smile and a slight bow.
– If a car stops, open the passenger door and have a small conversation to see where the driver is going. Don’t just get in the car. This gives you time to get a feel for the situation and the person. If you open the door and the car smells like Asahi Super Dry, you probably want to take a pass.
– Be flexible. Hitchhiking can be a goal in and of itself. Frustration occurs when you are trying to get to a specific place by a specific time.
– Be friendly to the driver, talk about your travels, teach a little English, or ask about local sights. In my experience people love to talk about their areas and often will play tour guide and take you to some interesting places.
– Bring a map. It helps your planning and is a great conversation piece.
– For safety’s sake, let others know (possibly by mobile phone) that you’re catching a ride.
– For women, I recommend traveling in pairs and in daytime only.
– If you want to make a sign, use the word homen, which means direction, under the place name. I’ve had success hitching with and without a sign.
– Bring a tent when doing a multi-day trip. It gives you more freedom and flexibility and less worry about finding a place to sleep.
With so many amazing advantages to hitchhiking, what are you waiting for? You have an opportunity to have an adventure, meet helpful, smiling people, and get off the beaten path, so grab your backpack and see where the open road takes you. The county will unfold before your eyes. And spread the word about your favorite hitchhiking points so more and more people can enjoy this exciting way to travel. Dodesho?
By Daniel Flynn
American, Yoga & English Instructor
Illustrations by Shirley Waisman
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn81, Sep. 2005)