Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Traveling in Japan - On The Road
Joe Sinclair gives hitch-hiking in Hokkaido the thumbs up.
"Japanese people won't give you lifts," said the Japanese man who had just stopped to give us a lift. But he wasn't the only exception to this supposed rule. During the month I spent hitchhiking around Hokkaido with two friends the people I met were usually a little surprised about our chosen method of transport, but more often than not they were happy to stop and pick us up.
In the summer Hokkaido's rugged mountains and vast wilderness make it an ideal place for hiking and camping. But slow and infrequent public transport often means that getting to these remoter areas is time-consuming, expensive and inconvenient. Hitchhiking is fast, fun and free - a great alternative.
If you pick a good place to thumb you should be able to catch a lift within 15 minutes. The best place to stand is where the road leads to your destination, for example at the turnoff to the expressway. Paradoxically, lots of traffic isn't always best people are more inclined to help you out when they think you're stranded.
With this in mind, it can be difficult to hitch out of big cities, such as Sapporo, Asahikawa and Obihiro, where getting to a good spot can involve more hiking than hitching. We tried hitching out of Sapporo, walking a few kilometers away from the city centre and thumbing from the side of a main road. Some drivers waved and laughed, others tried to ignore us, but no-one stopped to offer us a lift.
A small boy and his sister beckoned us to cross the road. The first thing he said was, "It's because we're Japanese. It's different here". Even this six year old boy was trying to tell us that Japanese people don't pick up hitchhikers.
Just then, as if to prove the boy wrong, an excited young man appeared in a nearby doorway. He had just finished his gym class, where he had been watching our predicament from the window, and would be happy to drop us at the turnoff to the expressway on his way home. In fact, he lived in the opposite direction, but like many Japanese people, he was willing to go out of his way to help out a needy stranger.
He showed his excitement by somersaulting in the middle of the road before getting into his car. There are various reasons someone might offer you a lift. This chap was clearly excited just to meet some westerners and take part in a small adventure. Other than the native English teacher at his secondary school, we were the first English speakers he had met. Often people will be pleased to have somebody to talk to, or they might have ideas about practising their English conversation a national obsession in Japan.
The Japanese will also be genuinely concerned for your welfare. It's a reflection on the Japanese culture of social responsibility that so many people are prepared to stop. You may be offered food or even a place to stay for the night. But you're not necessarily getting preferential treatment because you're a westerner. The one (and only) Japanese hitchhiker whom I met assured me that wherever he was heading he never failed to get a lift.
Our gymnastic driver drove us all the way to the expressway and up the on-ramp towards the toll-booth. Cars in Japan have to pay steep tolls on expressways. It's good manners to offer to pay something towards the expense, but your driver will always turn the offer down. Thankfully, Hokkaido has many good roads which aren't expressways and, unlike other areas of Japan, you can drive for miles without seeing a single traffic light.
After pulling over across the inside lane, our driver got out and started trying to flag down traffic, flapping his hands as the cars swerved around him. Helping you to catch another lift is possibly the least helpful thing your previous driver can do for you.
We also had the inclination that hitching lifts on the expressway might be illegal. Sure enough, the first car we managed to stop was a police car. Luckily, the policeman was very friendly. He agreed that this might be a good place to catch a lift but suggested we returned to the bottom of the on-ramp, where we managed to catch a lift within five minutes.
Hitching is a great way to meet Japanese people from different walks of life. We met an officer from Japan's Self Defence Force, car salesmen, salary men, fishermen and holiday makers. Most of the drivers were single males and the fact that we were three large westerners with three large rucksacks didn't seem to put anybody off.
Japan is a relatively safe country where the drivers who pick you won't be worried about being robbed or attacked. It's a refreshingly trusting society and you can almost always trust your driver as well. That said, it's probably best for women not to hitch rides alone.
On the ferry back to Tokyo I decided to try and find one more free ride. I pulled out a map and arranged my face in a confused expression. Sure enough, within minutes somebody had come over to offer assistance and soon I had arranged a lift back to my home town. Proof that in Japan there's always somebody willing to help you out, especially if you look lost.
Also by Joe Sinclair
Interview with a Kabuki Actor
Accommodation in Japan