Want to see the real Japan? Try hitchhiking
Can’t afford the oil surcharge for the flight to Hokkaido? Having trouble getting to know the locals? Feel like you don’t know the real Japan? Try hitchhiking.
I first hitched alone when I was 17 during a summer trip around Europe. Although I visited a few museums and famous landmarks, what I mostly did was see the country and get to know the people. Because hitchhiking is illegal, and dangerous on major motorways, I crisscrossed Western Europe on the back roads that passed through small villages and countryside that most people don’t get to see. I got hooked. I traveled through eight countries in two months and only paid for transportation twice. Spending money on rides, I came to believe, was for chumps.
In Japan, I first hitchhiked on a whim. My then girlfriend and I had missed the last bus from Mt Mitake to the train station, and it was a long walk to town. So we stuck out our thumbs. We were picked up within minutes — and a whole new Japan opened up to me.
We got our second ride in Tohoku, where an elderly couple in their 70s picked us up on a small, dusty road in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t believe it. The last thing my grandparents would do if they saw a foreigner sticking his thumb out at the side of the road would be to stop and give him a ride. I figured elderly Japanese would be even more averse to the idea, but I was wrong. It reminded me of the couple in Germany who picked me up, fed me, went out of their way so I would be heading in the right direction, and then dropped me off with a warning that I should stop hitchhiking — instead of being the scary foreigner at the side of the road, I became their adopted grandchild.
The most hitchhiking I’ve ever done in Japan was during a trip to Hokkaido. Two friends and I spent a week hitching from campground to campground. When we started, I thought there was no way we would get anywhere fast. Most cars simply don’t have enough room for three extra passengers and their bags, so I figured that the number of people both willing and able to pick us up would be impossibly small. But, again, I was wrong.
The drivers who gave us rides weren’t in a hurry. They were taking their time and were willing to share that time with us. Although they were a surprisingly diverse group — young, old, men, women, singles, couples, families — they were similar in important ways: they were kind, generous and curious about people. We shared our stories with them and they shared theirs with us. We got to know what it was like to live in Hokkaido from the locals, but we also met people from all over Japan who were drawn to the island’s clean, cool air and abundant natural beauty. We came to appreciate the kindness and generosity of the people we met, and felt more connected to the country.
Of course, hitchhikers also encounter the worst in people. It can be dangerous, and hitchers should always be cautious when accepting rides. The very vulnerability that makes it dangerous, however, also creates a space for strangers to demonstrate a remarkable capacity for goodness. I’ve always been lucky in this regard. I’ve hitchhiked in many places, and each time I have rediscovered my faith in humanity. This is certainly true of my hitchhiking experience in Japan.
In Hokkaido, one of the last rides we got was from a young man who was going to the same campground we were. He was meeting his family, his whole family: parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews. They invited us to join them and, unexpectedly and to our delight, we spent the night eating, drinking and laughing with the whole clan. When we left the next morning, the man who picked us up gave me a keychain and a photo of us all together. I still have them today, six years later.
That was my first summer in Japan, and the first time I really had the opportunity to talk to people who weren’t paying to see me. I was still struggling with the language, but it didn’t matter. Before that trip, it seemed like I might never get beyond the isolated lifestyle of expats living among expats, but hitchhiking changed it all. The wall between “me” and “them” began to crumble, and I felt that at last I was finally communing with Japan and its people.
Chris McCormack is a Canadian writer waiting to be picked up. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).