I've made it to Tokyo, and am currently sitting in the lobby of the prestigious Ours Hankyuu Inn in Oimachi, where I have come to steal the internets. It was thirteen days of traveling, eleven days of hitch-hiking, and loads of sights seen, though not necessarily the ones that I had planned.
Since The Yo-ji is geared towards learning language and culture (and not just bragging about how cool your trip was), I thought I'd intersperse my bragging with tips that you might be able to get something out of and perhaps apply to your own adventures one day.
(I'll make the brief disclaimer that my experience is a unique and personal one. I'll be making broad generalizations based on my very narrow experience, so take my advice with a pound of salt.)
1. Learn to Speak Japanese:
I would hate to discourage anyone from pursuing an adventure or style of travel for any reason, so let me start by saying that I believe that it would be possible to successfully hitch-hike Japan without speaking a word of Japanese. But it really depends on what your goals are. If you're looking for transportation, you'll find it. I wanted to meet people, make friends, see the country, and learn a lot. Without conversational Japanese ability, I don't think hitch-hiking would have been fun at all, for me or for the people who picked me up. At least 30% of the drivers who gave me a lift made mention of the fact that they would've been at a loss if I hadn't been able to speak Japanese. And about 40% offered to give me a lift a little ways, and then after three or four minutes of conversation offered to drive me further down the road. Being able to talk lets your personality come out, puts people at ease, and is your best asset on this kind of a trip. For
those of you who do speak Japanese, I'll give this piece of advice a sub-header: Make SURE you know your KEIGO. It behooves you to be extremely grateful to anyone who offers you anything, so you should be using polite forms of speech at all times.
してくれる should be used a lot when referring to anything that they did for you. Even if your keigo isn't perfect (mine fails me frequently), the fact that you're trying will earn you big points.
And if you're good at it, but your formality level slips from time time, Japanese people might even find that funny. I would be saying, 想像できないぐらい、親切していただいています to desribe how kind people had been on my trip, and that next sentence I would replace my だから本当に感謝しています with だっけんホンマニ感謝しているよ。Even though my formality level was atrocious and I was mixing two different local dialects, people were amused and impressed by my range of knowledge, if not with my application.
2. Pack well:
Bring everything you need for every situation. Waterproof gear, hiking shoes, tent, sleeping bag, changes of clothes, something you can offer potential drivers to eat or drink (or smoke; I bought cigarettes to offer the drivers after I figured out that they almost ALL smoked), MAPS, rain jacket, dictionary, notebook, umbrella, reading material, music, flashlight, batteries, toiletries... a towel.
As for your hitch-hiking sign, I reccommend a foldable whiteboard plus marker, reusable and easy to carry.
On top of that, I brought a camera, chopsticks, a fan, a hat, and my eyeglasses. I tied my waterproofbag to my sleeping bag and could throw hang those around the tent so it would attach to my backpack, leaving my hands free to hold my sign.
3. Don't Be Afraid to Turn Down Rides... for any reason:
As safe as Japan is compared to the rest of the world, there are still risks attached to hitch-hiking. If a car or driver doesn't feel right, say you're sorry and let it pass on by. I never had to do that. I did however turn down a few cars because they wanted to take me in the wrong direction (usually back in the direction I had come) or to a bus station. Once a taxi driver even stopped and said "I'll take you," but when I asked "ただで？" he laughed at me. I was glad I double-checked, before I got in.
4. Walk While You Wait:
Unless you're waiting near a highway on-ramp or at highway parking area, whenever your traveling by 下の道, I suggest holding your sign so that it faces back behind you, and walking in the direction that you want to go. I believe this is better for a number of reasons.
First of all, it keeps you from getting frustrated at the amount of time you have to wait. Whenever I was just standing for long periods, all I would think about was the amount of time I had been standing there, and how no one was stopping to pick me up. When I was walking, I felt like I was still making progress. As one driver who gave me a lift put it, 「一歩でも、前に進んだ方がいい。」 Even if it's just one step, it's best to move forward.
The second reason is that it's good exercise; when you're hitch-hiking, there's a chance that you're going to be sitting in cars for the majority of your day, and there's no guarantee that you'll be eating well. By the same token, I tried to do some calisthenics, crunches, back-raises, and push-ups every morning before I set out. Long hours of immobility doesn't just make you fat, it makes your back and your legs and your bones hurt... even just walking when you have the opportunity lets you stretch out. Trust me, it feels good.
5. Once You're In the Car, Accept Everything You're Offered:
Again, feel free to use your best judgement here. If somebody offers you a moustache ride, or to let you drive... anything you're not comfortable with, yes, you should turn it down. But what I'm referencing with this tip are the things you're more likely to be offered: snacks, drinks, lunch, dinner, a local tour, or lodgings for the night.
Remember, the point of hitch-hiking is not to get a cheap ride from one place to another. It's to have a crazy experience. And there's a very good chance that the driver, once they get to know you, will want to play guide, and to have their own crazy experience from their side of things. You really are in their debt, and it's your job, to A: show how grateful you are, and B: do everything you can to give them a good Guide experience. Even if you don't chew gum, take the gum. Even if you don't drink coffee, drink the coffee. While I was in the bathroom at a rest stop, a truck driver named Sone-san bought me lunch, or to be more specific, TWO lunches. It was hard to eat it all, but Japan is a country that's big on gratitude, gift-giving, and doing things you don't want to do out of politeness.
If they buy you something to eat, EAT it.
It was delicious. Seriously.
I was surprised by how many drivers not only took me to my destination but stayed to show me around. Teshima-san picked me up in Miyajima and drove me to Hiroshima, and then waited in his car with all of my bags to make sure that I got chance to see as much as I wanted of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and Musuem. He was extremely knowledgeable about the history, and pointed out places of interests, and then drove me to a public bath to get cleaned up while he found a place where we could get Okonomiyaki (Hiroshima-style) for lunch.
Azuki-zawa san took me to the famous shrine Izumo-Taisha, and it turned out that he had been raised in Izumo (and been married at the shrine). He gave me an extensive tour and bought me a lunch of Izumo-soba.
Uno-san and his mother spent two days giving me an extended tour of Okayama... mountains, waterfalls, monkeys, a nationally famous park, bridges... TONS of food (including the fish head above). Noticing a pattern?
6. Get Contact Information:
This is essential as part of showing your appreciation. You've been wined and dined and 大盤振る舞いed, and if you've been thankful and awestruck the whole way through, the person on the other end has their own story to tell about the foreigner they met randomly and all of the cool things they did together. You want to make sure that story ends well... or better yet, continues well, because to leave abruptly without any exchange of contact info or overtures to meet/speak again might be a bit cold, and leave the other party feeling used.I asked for addresses of everyone who gave me a lift, and will be sending them thank you cards and omiyage from America. With those people who I became especially close with, or went out of their way to treat me well, or give me a place to stay, I got phone numbers of keitai email addresses as well, and sent them updates throughout the trip. "Made it to Nagoya! Thanks again!" That kind of stuff.
And that was a smart move, as it turns out, because one of the truck drivers who picked me up early turned out to run a company in Takamatsu, so when I updated him with my location (near his home), I ended up with another ride and another place to stay, further down the line.
7. Be Ready for Change:While I had originally planned out a specific route of sights and locations I wanted to visit, I wasn't really strongly attached to any of them, and didn't have any rigid time line either. This was for the best, because a lot of people suggested I check out things that I would have missed otherwise.
Someone suggested I head to 日本海 before I set out for Sakaiminato, because if I did, I could hitch all along the seaside on my way.
To do that, though, I had to take an extra day, and ended up spending the night with a young couple who thought it would be nice for me to check out Izumo-Taisha, the shrine I mentioned above which is famous for housing the God of Binding Relationships; they suggested buying some Omamori for the sake of my future with my girlfriend.
And where I had planned on simply passing through Okayama prefecture, it turned out to be the highlight of my trip. Especially the 露天風呂、the outdoor stone hot springs bath in a town called Yubara, right in the middle of the Asahi-gawa (river). Uno-san and his mother declined to enter because they were driving and onsens make them sleepy, but he handed me a towel and said 「入って来て。」 Keeping in line with tip 5, there's not anything you can do in that situation but get naked and get in. And good GOD was it worth it.
8. Trust Maps and Your Own Experience Over Drivers
A number of times, the drivers, as well-meaning and nice as they all were, went out of their way to drop me off in a place that was "easier for cars to stop." And the reason it was easier for cars to stop there, was because cars were few and far between, and cars that were going in the direction that I had written on my sign were even fewer. In these cases, try waiting until the previous driver has left, consulting your map, and walking or hitching to a road that seem more likely to yield results.
Another thing that you should trust your map for, is letting you re-evaluate your destination goals. Even if a driver tells you that a lot of cars headed to Tokyo take this road, unless you're waiting at the entrance to a highway, it's pretty silly to just write Tokyo on your sign. If you're on a prefectural or national road, pick a destination 10-20 kilometers down the road, and write its name, along with 方面 (in the direction of). Then when people stop, you can talk about where you're actually going, and see how far you can get.
Another thing that almost everyone who gave me a ride told me, was that in that part of Japan, no one else would have stopped to give me a ride. This is simply not true, but again, it speaks to the issue of the DRIVER'S role as guide. It's more exciting for them to think that they're the only one who's having this kind of experience, so it's best to not disagree with them, or to talk to much about what other drivers have done for you. It takes away from their experience, and can sometimes even sour things. One man who had offered me a place to stay, changed his mood entirely after I got a call from Sone-san about my lodgings for the next night, and started talking casually about where would be best to let me off. I stayed quiet and polite and pleasant, and started asking questions about parks where I could pitch my tent. After another hour or so, he changed his mind back.
9. Stay Away From Cities:
I made it to Tokyo, and I passed through both Hiroshima and Nagoya on the way, so cities are doable for hitch-hikers. But they're miserable. Really, really miserable. The worst days that I had, the "Screw this, I'm buying a bus ticket," kind of days, were the days I was trying to hitch-hike OUT of cities. There are no good places to wait, there are no good places for cars to stop, and 90% of the traffic is probably local people going to/doing work. They're not going to pick you up. In my opinion, hitch-hiking is not the way to see and enjoy Japan's big city destinations.
10: Have a Way to Keep in Touch:
I probably annoyed Brett a bit more than I should have with keitai mail and phone calls ("This truck driver just asked me if we have MATH in America.") and was probably a little too overzealous to see Nicky New-job in Nagoya, but man. If you're a foreigner living in Japan, it's probably safe to assume that you have some foreign friends, and that you know the comforts of speaking your own language with other native speakers. This was the first time that I've spent this much time (almost 2 weeks) doing nothing but solid Japanese, and while I learned tons of cool new words, interesting phrases in different dialects, and felt pretty confident about my Japanese ability, there were times when I just HAD to talk to someone in English.
Keitai, and the occasional internet cafe stop over were my life-lines. Plus, if anything bad happened, people would know where I had been last, so that's good too.
Bonus Non-Tip: Getting People to Offer You a Place to Stay
I took my tent, but I only ended up camping twice. Every time I got in a car near the end of the day, I asked myself "What's the best way to get this person to offer me a futon?" I came up with no answers.
You can try letting them know that other people have offered you a place to stay before in casual conversation. Maybe they'll find it reassurring that there are people out there who survived spending a night with you. But you also run the risk of alienating them like in the circumstances I mentioned above.
Talking about the weather and how it sucks if it rains, cause all you have is this little tent and all... that comes across as obvious and is not likely to work.
It's best to mentally accept the fact that you're spending the night in a tent, and then to just be yourself. If they like you, and you get along well, then maybe something will come out of that.
So that's it. Expect some more phrases and vocab to trickle in from the experience, slowly. And if you have facebook, feel free to check out the albums I have up so far: Bobby Judo
As for me, I'm relaxing in Tokyo, eating some Burger King in preparation for heading back to the United States. Hitch-hiking left me pretty physically exhuasted, and I think it's worked itself out of my system... for the rest of this year at least. But I had an amazing time, and I think it's a fantastic way to see Japan.