Backpack: check. Thumbs: check. Sense of adventure: check.
That’s about all you need to hitchhike in the wide-open countryside of Ura-Nihon (the Backside of Japan).
The slightly derogatory term Ura-Nihon is used by Japan’s urbanites to describe the quiet prefectures of Tottori, Shimane and Yamaguchi. Here on this page, though, I can share a secret with you: It’s a hitchhiker’s paradise.
But why hitchhike when Japan’s extensive rail network is very fast and its bus companies have cheap fares for those on tight budgets?
For an initial answer, I can cite the fact that several years ago I bought Will Ferguson’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan.” It tells of legions of English teachers crossing the nation in thumbing rallies, and independent travelers being picked up by kindly drivers, shown all the local sights, and treated with the immense hospitality that can only be found in slower-paced, rural areas of Japan.
That was all in the mid 1990s.
Now, as I am planning a long stint of travel through continental Asia, I set out to test a simple hypothesis: Is it still possible to hitchhike long distances in Japan, meet wonderful people, be safe, have fun — and do it all for less money and time than you’d spend on a bus or a train?
Specifically, I would attempt to travel from Tottori City to Yamaguchi’s Shimonoseki City at the southwestern end of Honshu, but if it didn’t work out, the train would be my safety net.
The first problem that arises when you decide to hitchhike here is permission.
“Hitchhike?!” say your Japanese acquaintances. “Impossible. Japanese don’t hitchhike.”
Don’t listen to this. It is certainly true that Japanese people generally don’t travel by thumb, but this is to the benefit of a foreign visitor. A slightly lost-looking foreign traveler standing on the side of the road in a region totally devoid of non-Japanese is both extremely interesting and cause for concern. So, when you are picked up, it will be out of compassion or fascination.
Hitchhiking is actually so uncommon in Japan that there are no laws specifically governing it. According to the Road Traffic Law, it is illegal to interfere with traffic, or to walk on an expressway, but as long as you aren’t inconveniencing vehicles or causing them to stop in no-parking zones, you should be in the clear. Ferguson does note though that trying to hitchhike in front of a police box is just stupid. They’ll tell you to scram.
The second problem is misinformation.
“Hitchhike to Shimonoseki? Well you’d want to take the expressway. Don’t take country roads. No one goes there.”
Your concerned, but inexperienced friends, are thinking of the fastest routes with the most traffic: This is not for you.
It is very difficult for cars to stop in the proximity of expressway ramps because of the traffic’s high speed and a lack of places to pull over. The ideal place to catch a lift, according to Ferguson’s book, is on a main or secondary highway through the countryside, on the outskirts of a town, where the visibility is good, traffic is a little thin and speeds are moderate. You need to give your driver enough time to decide to pick you up and pull over without incommoding other road users. In short, when you start to see rice fields, you are entering good hitchhiking territory.
Ferguson makes special note of appearance. Men should appear clean and respectable, preferably clean shaven. Women should dress conservatively, to avoid giving the wrong impression to the wrong kind of driver. Let me be clear though: Solo women should not hitchhike. Japan is safe, but not that safe, unfortunately.
His book reports that couples and pairs of women have hitchhiked successfully, but it is always best to exercise caution before getting into a car.
With this information in mind and a map in hand, I caught the bus from the urban sprawl of Kyoto to Tottori, where I would meet a friend and begin my hitchhiking experiment.
Tottori is a strangely beautiful prefecture: Its coast is lined by the dramatic cliffs of the San-in National Park, which once harbored pirates who roamed the present-day Sea of Japan, and the massive sand dunes on the edge of the city to which people flock to pose with a camel, enjoy the beach in summer, or even practice hang-gliding from their lofty heights. The whole area has a desert coast atmosphere reminiscent of the dry coastlines of California or Morocco, and my chosen hitching highway, Route 9, ran right along these beautiful oceanside locales.
Enter a third (non) problem: A friend or an unknown friend of a friend says as you begin to stick out your thumb: “Hitchhiking? Don’t do that, I’ll take you.”
“OK . . . thanks for the lift,” you reply.
So, before I even had chance to extend my thumb hopefully toward oncoming vehicles, I had a ride from Tottori an hour west to Yonago with my old university friend — because we were having difficulty saying goodbye.
Arriving there, I found Yonago is a quiet port town: It and nearby Sakai Minato are mainly known in connection with Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the monster-filled “Gegege no Kitaro” manga series that is enjoying a revival in print and film these days. The spot I chose to start hitching in earnest seemed ideal: space to pull over, and with a slight curve providing good visibility and traffic slowed by a intersection just ahead. I waved goodbye to my friend and, having set my stopwatch, put on a big, friendly smile and stuck out my thumb.
Precisely 1 min. 57 secs later I had my first ride. It was from a middle-aged man in a business shirt driving a white sedan. Before jumping in, I gave a little bow as the guy rolled down the window and thanked him for stopping. “Doko made? (where to?)” he asked. “I’m planning to go to Oda City today,” I replied, “but toward Matsue is fine.” He was headed that way for work, so I jumped in and launched into an awkward conversation.
I should warn that without small-talk- level Japanese proficiency, there isn’t much point in hitchhiking. I broke out my best English-teacher conversation starters and muddled through a social situation of which neither of us had much experience. He was from the Oki archipelago, an almost totally unvisited cluster of islands off the coast of Shimane Prefecture, where I had had one of my first hitchhiking experiences.
On that occasion — during Golden Week 2008 — I’d been in the tourism office of Nishi-no-shima (West Island) asking about buses headed toward Japan’s tallest sea cliffs, when an older woman broke in: “Why don’t I take you? I’m bad at driving, but if you don’t mind granny driving . . . “
She took me to the western end of the island, where I hopped on a tour boat that braved stormy seas to visit the cliffs, which towered so high as to disappear in the dark clouds above.
Actually, I wished I could go back there, but we flew past Matsue and its ferry terminal. Then, after a half-hour ride, I was waiting for my second lift just outside of Matsue. I was only there 5 minutes before a kindly old man in a Toyota Prius pulled over. It was almost lunch, so conversation started with the virtues of the Matsue region’s cuisine and its unusual lake, Shinji-ko.
“Shinji-ko’s waters are a mix of salty seawater and fresh river water, so many people think it’s fish are quite delicious,” said my host. There followed a list of fish and shellfish names that I had no chance to absorb, but to prove his point, he took me to lunch!
After being treated to some local fish at a busy cafeteria, I was dropped off with a can of coffee as a parting gift on a long, clear stretch of a Route 9 bypass in Izumo City. There was room to pull over, so I proffered my thumb. Ten minutes, 20 minutes; the cars roared by and few people even looked my way. I was stuck.