“I have no idea if people can read this,” I think to myself as I look at my first cardboard sign and the spidery writing scrawled across it.
The hiragana couldn’t be simpler, but I only manage a hesitant smile as I hold up the sign that reads something along the lines of “いわき” (Iwaki).
Only 20 minutes later, an elderly lady frees me of my uncertainty. She looks a bit puzzled as she opens the car door for me. It seems that she is not only surprised by me — the curious Swiss sticking his thumb out at the world — but also at her spontaneous decision to give me a ride. She wipes the thought and starts the engine. I am unsure where she is headed, but I am convinced it is the beginning of a remarkable journey.
I am starting this solo trip across Japan from Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, with little in the way of planning or understanding of the Japanese language. My idea is simple enough, though: to head up to Cape Soya, the northernmost point of the country, then all the way south to Cape Sata on Kyushu. All by hitchhiking. I have plenty of time — and an apparently friendly appearance, which seems to be the key to getting people to stop in Japan.
Things go smoothly as I travel north toward Aomori Prefecture. I get picked up by community workers from Iwaki on their way to Fukushima, by a confectioner, students, a lawyer and a psychologist. Never have I grinned as much in my life. And never have I had to wait as little to hitchhike as here: on average a mere 12-minutes. Last year I hitchhiked across the U.S., once sticking out my thumb for an excruciating eight hours before anyone stopped for me.
Each time I step into a car, I enter a new person’s world. This is one of the most precious aspects of hitchhiking, you get authentic insights into almost all types of society. Even though the Japanese are not commonly known for extroversion, I am granted intimate insights into the lives of many of the people I meet. Be it the father worried about his son playing too many video games instead of studying — or the elderly woman driving to hospital to get her dysfunctional thyroid checked.
The drivers that stand out the most are a mother and her son who could speak some English. The first two pieces of information they learn about me are that I come from Switzerland and study medicine. Instantly, the mother cries out, louder than she might have intended: “You will have to marry my daughter!”
I am caught entirely off-guard and try to wave aside the proposal with a smile. When I leave their company, a shared selfie suffices, but I feel a little sorry for the excited mother, who says farewell to me with the hopeful words: “I’ll see you next time.”
Perhaps it is the ephemerality of the hitchhiker’s presence that opens people’s hearts. Indubitably it is mostly me who benefits from the lifts — but I hope I return the favor in some way. In many cases, that simply involves listening to people’s stories and their sorrows; in some ways, hitchhiking can turn a driver’s seat into a confessional. Whatever people share, it remains between us and, soon after popping into their lives, I just as swiftly hop out again.
That being said, the depth of most conversations is brutally restricted by my sparse knowledge of Japanese. I learn the basics necessary for hitchhiking quickly, and after a few days I can understand the most common questions and reply to them. With some semblance of fluency, this leads to a number of confusing situations, when my drivers think I can actually speak the language. Alas, two minutes into the conversation, I am at my wits’ end, while they keep going.
Before I know it, I am standing on Cape Soya, the northernmost point on the mainland. It took me just 12 days to get here, even with a detour through the remote and mystical landscape of the Shimokita Peninsula. Before I start heading back to Honshu, I try to pack as much hiking into my nonexistent itinerary as possible and I decide to ascend Mount Rishiri, Mount Asahi and Mount Rausu, some of Japan’s most remote peaks.
Mount Rausu is the most intense of the three. With a negligent amount of water and a ridiculously heavy backpack, I tackle a path that leads straight through bear territory. The hardship pays off a million times when I finish the day, sitting beside my tent on top of a hill overlooking the glimmering Sea of Okhotsk, not a soul in sight and my thoughts wandering off into the wind . After a freezing night and a nine-hour nonstop hike on the second day, I finally reach the end of the trail. I thank the gods for the couple that picks me up; at this point I am gaunt, a washed-out figure, almost stumbling and lifting my thumb with the last of my energy.
The evening’s onsen (hot spring bath) is the perfect moment to reflect on the trip so far. Only now do I realize the velocity of the journey. Even when traveling alone, there is always something happening. Be it setting up my tent in a hidden corner of a city park, figuring out the ideal spot to hitchhike from and getting there, or copying the more and more familiar kanji characters onto my sign. Before coming to Japan, I wondered how I would cope with the loneliness. Now I know that the best prevention is hitchhiking itself: Every day you meet at least five new people and stay in contact with many of them.
From now on, I carry a sign with the character minami (south) drawn on it, for my next goal is to reach the southern tip of Kyushu. The only time I become desperate is when I pass back through the Tohoku region. In both Aomori and Akita prefectures, I have to wait over two hours to find a ride. With no one to talk to, this turns out to be my first real test of patience and optimism.
Later, my drivers tell me that the people in this area are particularly shy. Still struggling to comprehend the regional differences, I cross prefecture after prefecture. While the process of hitchhiking becomes routine, the encounters with the drivers never do. One car I hop into is filled with little children in the back, frantically screaming kiken (danger) at their very relaxed-looking mother. In Tottori Prefecture, three young women stop for me, giggling the whole way, as though picking me up was the most adventurous thing they had done in a while. Hitchhiking is full of surprises.
Luckily, the surprises on my trip around Japan are always pleasant. Unlike in other countries, I never come across anyone driving drunk, and my one encounter with a police officer ends with him offering me an ice cream to make the heat more bearable. In Fukui I even meet “God” — or at least someone claiming to be him.
Apparently, he knows how to heal all diseases and informs me that all I have learned as a medic is humbug. In the interest of harmony, I keep my thoughts to myself and reply with a friendly nod. This is one of several Japanese customs I acquire on my trip, others being learning to pay with the most precise amount of money possible, bowing as a sign of respect and gratitude, and refilling other people’s drinks in the Japanese style.
After nine weeks and over 5,000 kilometers on the road, this is as deep as I can immerse into Japanese society. Many aspects of the culture remain undisclosed to me, and the country is even more intriguing as a result. What remains is the memory of generous people who bravely opened their cars — and their hearts — to me, a complete stranger.
As I part with my last driver in Takamatsu, a brief moment of melancholy turns into a smile when we both raise our thumbs one last time.
Tim’s tips for staying safe on the road
While hitchhiking can be one of the most rewarding ways to discover a country, it is not without its risks. Here are some tips for staying safe while hitchhiking in Japan:
- Have a close look at your potential driver and their car, especially the interior. A messy car and empty beer cans are red flags.
- It is generally not advisable to hitchhike as a single female. Hitchhiking as a duo is more difficult, as drivers might not always have space and might be more intimidated, but the wait is worth it for the added safety.
- Only hitchhike in the daytime. Firstly, your visibility is much better, which increases the chances of getting picked up. Secondly, there are fewer shady people on the road.
- Note that it is illegal to hitchhike on the expressway other than from service areas, or from bus stops and near road crossings. Use common sense and don’t disturb the peace!
- Be patient and optimistic, someone will pick you up. This is the key to a successful hitchhiking adventure.