Travel

Hitchhiking in Japan: Thumbs up all the way from Tokyo to Naoshima

by Hanako Montgomery

Contributing Writer

The night before I left for Kagawa Prefecture from Tokyo in late December, my grandmother asked me imploringly, “You’re still going to drive even though you know I have a bad heart?”

Shocked by the degree of her guilt-tripping, I smiled and reassured her that my friend was an experienced driver. Little did she know my “friend” would be a random assortment of strangers: families, couples, lone travelers — anyone willing to let me into their car.

I didn’t like lying to her, but I reckoned if I ended up in a freezer instead of my destination, I could discuss the details with my grandmother in the afterlife.

With that reassuring thought in mind, I set out to meet my actual friend, another young woman in her 20s, at the Yoga Station intersection. It was early, around 7 a.m., and I suspected it would take us a while to find our first driver. Much to my surprise, we were picked up in a mere 10 minutes by an elderly couple.

As my friend — somewhat of a hitchhiking veteran — had told me to expect, upon enter the car we were showered with food. Two burgers were pulled from an all-too-familiar McDonald’s paper bag and presented to us with a beaming smile. More snacks followed at the next service area we stopped at. At the hands of these strangers, I realized my preconceptions of hitchhiking couldn’t have been more wrong.

But our first mistake soon followed. Instead of insisting on being left at a service area, we let the couple drop us off at an intersection, unaware it was illegal for cars to stop there. After they let us out, we wandered for an hour, with not a ride in sight.

It was only upon finding a convenience store that our fortunes changed. Perhaps the winter temperatures struck sympathy in the hearts of drivers that day, as we were again picked up in 10 minutes. A kind family of five shuffled us in, giving us yet more free food and cheerful conversation. This became a familiar pattern.

Graced with both luck and kind company, we made the 700-kilometer journey from Tokyo to Kagawa Prefecture in a mere 17 hours. Our last driver took us to a train station from which we traveled to the prefecture’s eastern coast to meet our host for the night, a middle-aged woman we had contacted through Couchsurfing, a website travelers use to meet and stay with locals for free.

She had prepared osechi ryōri (traditional New Year’s feast food) and Christmas presents for us in the shape of ikemen (attractive men)-themed anime calendars. Needless to say, this was my first time staying with such an excessive, yet heartwarming, host.

Udon noodles are a specialty of Kagawa Prefecture, located on Japan
Udon noodles are a specialty of Kagawa Prefecture, located on Japan’s Shikoku island. | HANAKO MONTGOMERY

The majority of our stay consisted of eating udon noodles, Kagawa’s specialty dish, and long bike rides around the prefecture’s remote, beautiful islands. Other attractions included Naoshima, one of Japan’s “art islands” and, as an avid fan of the artist Yayoi Kusama, my main reason for visiting Kagawa. The island’s Tadao Ando-designed Benesse House Museum, which houses the works of other renowned artists such as Bruce Nauman, is another main site for art enthusiasts.

Anything for art: Yayoi Kusama
Anything for art: Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin on the island of Naoshima | GETTY IMAGES

Soon, it was the beginning of January and university classes were set to resume in just two days time. With no concrete plan for our return to Tokyo, we hoped to hitchhike by finding a lift aboard the ferry that took us back to the mainland.

A ferry carries passengers from the Setouchi Islands to mainland Okayama Prefecture.
A ferry carries passengers from the Setouchi Islands to mainland Okayama Prefecture. | HANAKO MONTGOMERY

We stood amid families, wearing our pleading smiles and hoisting our hitchhiking sign for everyone to see. Once again our luck came through and we were picked up by a family on the vessel. Through the generosity of such strangers, we found ourselves in a service area in Kyoto, after which we met a man who was returning home to Tochigi Prefecture.

He had a quiet demeanor and was driving a large van, the type that parents point to when training their children to distrust strangers.

I initially hesitated, but he offered to take us all the way to the Ashigara service area in Shizuoka Prefecture, which has an onsen (hot spring) where visitors can sleep for up to three hours. The opportunity was too good to pass up and, for the budget traveler, comes highly recommended.

In the morning, we found one last car to take us back to Yoga Station, realizing that we had nearly come full circle with few hiccups. I had a moment of self-reflection as I enjoyed the last cloud of humble hospitality I had become accustomed to: The only thing separating these kind strangers from my friends was my trust, now rightly earned.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5