Ever since I’ve read Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson – the only book ever during which I laughed out loud while reading – I wanted to hitch-hike in Japan. Ferguson describes the behaviour of the overly polite Japanese people in such a cute way, you just want to hug them all.
Let’s start with saying that hitch-hiking in Japan is not common, however, more and more mainly foreign backpackers try it to save some bucks on transportation which can be quite expensive. The journey from Fujikawaguchiko to Osaka on the superfast and notorious Shinkansen train costs about 113 Euro, while a bus would have set us back about 50 Euro. That’s 6-9 Ramen each!
It turned out, the guy working in the hostel where we stayed in Fujikawaguchiko is regularly helping out backpackers with the necessary tools and language skills for the various hitch-hiking signs. He equipped us with a cardboard, markers, and advised on the right amount of “cuteness” – think smileys and flags – that needed to be shown on the sign, to gain the trust of even the most sceptical Japanese.
So when we set out on our journey from Fujikawaguchiko to Osaka, a distance of 420 km, we were ready for some new experiences and a little bit of adventure, as we had no idea what to expect. I already got myself mentally prepared for a night between the shelves of Family Mart or 7-11.
A friendly man who has observed us for the last 15 minutes, told us we were standing on the wrong side of the road, facing the wrong traffic direction for the place we wanted to go, we switched sides. Beginner mistake. Fair. T left me to take some pictures of me posing, and 5 minutes later the first car stopped. Sure! While we were hoping for this to happen, we were still surprised someone was willing to actually take us .
1. The physiotherapist: Fujikawaguchiko -> Shizuoka, 82km
Still feeling a bit awkward in the car, and humbled by his kindness, I tried to ease the tension by making some small-talk, while T, famous for his shitty small-talk skills, was pretending to sleep in the back of the car. Thanks! However the guys loosened up a bit after some time, so not a bad strategy after all. Due to a huge language barrier we tried to communicate via Google Translate, which was a bit difficult, but fun as sometimes different messages came out in the other language.
The 39-year old Physiotherapist was on his way home from a weekend in Tokyo. He was very sweet and shy and friendly. So we had a great first ride and he took us to Shizuoka.
We arrived at around 3pm and after grabbing a meal, we felt we already accomplished a lot! We were quite exhausted after the whole excitement and went out for a nice dinner and stayed for the night in Shizuoka.
It was my birthday after all.
2. SRI LANKAn Business Man: Shizuoka -> Hamamatsu, 84km
Full of enthusiasm and in adventure spirit we left the hotel early (10am) to find a convenient spot on the entry of the highway for our second ride. We tried several spots and parking lots, which included a walk of at least 3km with our packed to the rim backpacks.
[T says: Only Eva’s backpack is packed to the rim].
But the sun was shining and we were hopeful to get to Osaka before nightfall. After about 1 hour and already checking train times as a backup plan, we got lucky and a business man from Sri Lanka offered to give us a ride to Hamamatsu which brought us about 1h closer to our final destination Osaka. His name was Premathilake, he has lived in Japan for the last 10 years and runs an export business. He was friendly and communication was easy. He left us all his contact details for Sri Lanka and Japan, just in case.
He also told us that when he first saw us, he drove past, then thought he should really help us, so he turned around and came back for us. That was useful information which helped us to understand that people needed a bit more time to think about the idea of picking us up. From then on we only positioned ourselves around a parking lot rather than on the side of the street, as there we didn’t leave the drivers much time to decide if to stop or not.
3. The Shy Guy: Hamamatsu -> Highway Service Station, 20km
After a quick bite at McDonald’s – by now it was 2pm – we positioned ourselves in what we thought was a good spot on the lead up to a highway. It was quite confusing to know, if we were standing on the right side of the road, with cars running in the right direction, due to all these looping flight-overs and all street signs in Japanese characters. That’s probably also what The Shy Guy thought, our next driver who offered to bring us to a service station on the actual highway. He was just a few minutes away from his home in Hamamatsu, so we appreciated his ride even more. Had we asked, he would have driven us all the way to Osaka, but we really didn’t want to take advantage of the Japanese politeness. So we were grateful for the short ride and he was happy to practice his English. Our short interaction ended with a very awkward hug and some blushing on his side.
4. Obama, The Trucker: Hamamatsu -> Kameyama, 160km
After an entertaining wait of about half an hour, a truck driver picked us up. Every time it took longer than half an hour for someone to give us a ride we became insecure and impatient. Not good. From what I’ve read in the Hitch Wiki many people were waiting for a full afternoon, so we were actually pretty lucky. T and me are just two very impatient human beings.
Officially it was forbidden to take 2 people with him in the truck, so T had to hide behind a curtain in Obama’s bed (!). It was messy and dirty and we didn’t dare to take a closer look.
Anyway, “Unbelievable Obama”, that’s how he introduced himself, was like the antidote to the traditional Japanese person. He was loud, cursed, laughed so openly and loudly, and even though he only knew a few words in English, we were talking the entire way. Mainly in one to two-word phrases. Obama is driving daily from Osaka to Tokyo and back, so the highway is his home and we happened to be a nice change to his routine. And he was to ours.
He got several calls on which he proudly told people about his German passengers and laughed a lot. Most of the time he was pointing out places we passed. Most of them were ‘Number 1 famous in Japan’. For example, the Toyota factory, which we learned is in Toyota, the city (we had no idea Toyota was a name of a city), was “Number 1 famous in Japan”. A huge port in Nagoya was ‘Number 1 famous in Japan’, we also passed a “Number 1 famous”- Bridge, a Number 1 entertainment park and the Iga Forest which is known to have been a training ground for Ninjas. Number 1 famous training ground of course.
One great thing was that Obama explicitly stopped to show us a Foot Onsen at a Service Station. It’s a mineral bath in which tired drivers hang their feet, and so did we. It was incredibly hot but so nice after what was then 9 hours on the road.
We had some good laughs with Obama and saw some incredible sunset views. Before he dropped us at a Service Station in Kameyama where he turned South heading home, he wrote us a new sign, “Osaka” in Japanese characters and included something like “Nice German people, don’t worry” on the sign.
5. College Student Couple: Kameyama -> Osaka, 122km
While it didn’t take long to get this ride, we weren’t very confident, as by now it was dark, it was freezing cold and the people we approached directly were not very receptive. If you don’t really know the culture, it’s a bit difficult to know what the right approach is. After trying a few times I felt asking directly is too much for the Japanese to handle if they can’t or don’t want to give you a ride. The angry faces I sometimes got wasn’t too encouraging. But hey, we kept on smiling. Due to the cold we took turns staying outside, while the other one of us was sitting in a diner warming up with a hot miso soup.
However, after an hour or so, a young couple, both 20, was happy to take us to Osaka. They were on their way home from a camping trip to Mt Fuji, celebrating the girl’s birthday. Funnily enough hers was on the same day as mine.
While she was driving, her boyfriend was talking to us. Each time he wanted to say something, he typed the Japanese phrase into his translation app, silently read the translation in his mind, closed the app, looked out of the window for a minute while memorising whatever he had read, and then turned around and saying the phrase out loud in what seemed perfect English. Cute!
This behaviour shows the strive for perfection in the Japanese culture.
It was a relaxed last ride. Squeezed in between our backpacks on the back seats, we were beaming at each other. We couldn’t believe that we hitch-hiked for free to Osaka!