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Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan

Not for the Galaxy, but still Useful: Hitchhiking in Japan


During my latest travels in Fukuoka and Nagasaki, I met a fellow traveler from Australia at the hostel we were staying at. A few minutes into our conversation I realized the two of us had arrived at our destination by very different means. After listening to him talk about his travels in Japan, I thought his experience was both unique and potentially useful to other foreigners staying here and decided to do the following interview.


Can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re in Japan?

My name is Simon Darveniza and I’m a 22 year old Australian who just finished college. Before getting my first “real” job after my studies I figured I needed a brief break to decide what I really wanted with my life and what kind of lifestyle I wanted to lead from here on out. So after saving a little cash from a part-time job at a hotel in Melbourne I decided to embark on a short trip around Indonesia and Japan before heading to Taiwan for 6 months to a year on a working holiday visa. With limited funds and wanting to experience travel in a different way I decided to traverse across Japan by hitchhiking, relying on the kindness of strangers to get me from point A to point B.


You hitchhike throughout Japan, can you talk about your first time trying to get a lift?

My first time trying to get a lift was from Ashigara Service Area in Shizuoka, attempting to get as far as Nagoya that night. After consulting with a Japanese friend who regularly hitchhikes in Japan during his free time, I was told that the easiest way to flag down a car was to wait at said parking or service areas on the highway and try and get a lift from there. That day I had been hanging out with a friend in Shizuoka until quite late into the night so by the time I arrived at the service area, after taking the last train halfway there and walking the remaining 5km, it was around 1:30am – not a great time to start. Not many cars were passing by, the few truck drivers I asked told me that they couldn’t take me due to company policy, the few individual drivers I asked seemed to think I was a little sketchy asking for a ride at such an odd time and turned me down. Finally a Japanese-Brazilian picked me up. He couldn’t speak Japanese so well but we still exchanged small chat for a few hours. His destination was Anjo in the east of Aichi prefecture but he actually drove me all the way to my friend’s house in Handa, a good fifty minutes out of his way. Can’t really think of a much better first hitchhiking experience.


Can you go through a step by step process about what you do when asking for a ride?

As mentioned earlier, if there is a parking area or service area in the general vicinity of where I end up staying for the night, I walk there and approach individual car drivers, asking them directly for a lift. In this way, to a certain extent it is not the drivers choosing to pick me up but rather myself choosing the driver and if I’m lucky catching a lift with them. Waiting on the shoulder of the highway with a sign to your desired destination does also inevitably work, however in these cases it is ultimately the driver choosing you and the success rate is much less, maybe 1 in 300 cars will pick you up, compared to 1 in 5 if you ask drivers directly. After a while you begin to realise what kind of people are more likely to give you a lift. In general, men aged around 25-50 driving alone was my easiest demographic. They’re generally bored and just wanting someone to talk to in order to kill the time and prevent drowsiness. Curiosity to chat with a foreigner is also likely a considerable factor.


simon 6What’s the longest distance you’ve ever been driven?

I suppose the longest distance I’ve ever been driven by a single driver is either from Osaka to Takamatsu in one trip or from Kagoshima to Fukuoka. I guess the former is a little over 200km whilst the latter is a little under 300km. In terms of travel time however they are quite similar, around 3 hours.


Can you talk about the most awkward moment you faced while hitching a ride?

I didn’t really have many awkward moments when hitching a ride, I mean I met lots of different people of different ages and from different backgrounds, some people were very talkative, others barely talked at all. During these times I just kind of dozed off. I guess the most “awkward” moments were when the driver’s had a really strong local dialect which I couldn’t understand fully, however this didn’t really pose any major communication problems.


What’s been the most memorable moment?

I think every single ride was memorable and I’m thankful to every single person who picked me up no matter how short or long the distance. If I was to just choose one experience however, there was one night when I couldn’t find accommodation and slept on the roadside in the mountains of Eya, Shikoku and after waking up early in the morning with nothing to do, a local woodcutter passing by in his car at around 6am just stopped and actually asked me without any precedent whether I wanted to go for a ride with him. Although I speak quite fluent Japanese he insisted on practising his English with me, which by Japanese standards was quite fluent. Kind of a funny experience. We drove up to a village full of really old traditional style housing on the top of a mountain which was on his way to work, he asked one of his friends in the village to give me a lift back to town, he happily obliged. Was quite a brief encounter but just kind of epitomised the funny kind of experiences you can gain as a hitchhiker in Japan.


What are some benefits, obvious and not so obvious, about hitchhiking?

Obvious benefits: cheap and can meet many different people. Not so obvious benefits are that often drivers feeling some pity for you will actually buy you a meal, or give you bread or fruit or something on saying goodbye. This makes traveling cheaper again.


You’ve probably seen a different side of Japan that others won’t see from taking the Shinkansen or flying, what’s surprised you the most?

I suppose the passenger seat of a car really is the best spot to see the surrounding scenery, Japan’s countryside really is absolutely beautiful and often very diverse and it would be difficult to see such scenery from a train or plane. The Shinkansen only really passes through major cities so it’s quite hard to really break away and see the breathtaking views of the country.


simon 3What advice would you give to someone who wants to hitch hike for their first time?

It’s not so much advice however I think if you are thinking of hitchhiking you need to be prepared to fail because some days really are better than others and you end up nowhere near your desired location. If you can’t practice patience and be content with waiting around outside with often nothing at all to do then I guess hitchhiking probably just isn’t for you. It’s only really suitable if you have a pretty loose schedule and don’t mind things not going to plan. Otherwise frustration will probably overcome you at some point and you’ll just end up giving it all up and taking a train or bus.


simon 1Anything else you want to add?

During my hitchhiking I actually got sick twice, once with a common cold and once with pneumonia, so I think you really need to look after your health if you want to hitchhike. Some days I probably pushed myself too hard and didn’t rest enough when I needed it and this can really drain your energy. Especially during this season Japan can be really hot some days and really cold some nights. When you’re waiting outside all day in the sun and then not sleeping in a warm place at night it can be easy to be overcome by exhaustion and just collapse for a few days. I guess if you want to hitchhike you really need to be careful, not only to avoid riding with dangerous individuals, but to look after your own well-being as well.


Interview by Sean Mulvihill

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