Asia reports main page
Southern India

Sri Lanka

Kuala Lumpur




Back to
Japan by Thumb

"They'll never pick you up."
A Turkish man said this, and I was thinking he might be right. I had waited a couple of hours outside Kyoto waiting for a ride, and all I had to show for it were dozens and dozens of drivers politely waving or slightly bowing their head to me with pleasant, serene smiles. This Turkish exchange student picked me up for a short ride to the nearest rest area/gas station along the highway, where I expected to perish. What was I thinking? I had read that most Japanese people didn't even understand the concept of hitchhiking, that they assumed such a traveler is lost and needs to be shepherded to the nearest train station. In preparation I had dressed as well as a backpacker could, learned how to ask in Japanese if a potential driver was going my way, and brought enough food and water to last a day of standing around.

I wondered if I was making a big mistake, but dutifully I walked to the entrance of the highway, plunked down my backpack and waited. I watched as cars in shapes I have never seen before paraded past. Tall, stubby cars with enormous side windows, stylish minivans with rear spoiler and front air dam, and petite, spotless trucks with four-wheel drive all distracted me from the matter at hand. Luckily, it was only a matter of minutes before a car responded to my outstretched thumb. With a hint of wariness the man rolled down the window.

"Ohayo gozaimasu! Gifu-ni ikimasu ka?" I enthusiastically blurted, saying good morning (never mind that it was well into the afternoon) and asking if he was going to Gifu, a town a couple hundred kilometers away. I had no intention of going to Gifu; I had no idea where I was going that day, just a vague sense of heading north.

I didn't quite understand where he was going, but I was ready to go anywhere he was and hopped in. I must have said my one Japanese phrase well because he was chagrined to realize I couldn't hold a conversation with him; nonetheless we were able to communicate. It turned out that he was a traveling toiletry salesman, and he gave me several bottles of shampoo and conditioner. It also turned out that he was going much farther up the northern coast near Niigata.

He was a wound-up, harried businessman, in a rush, full of anxiety. We made a lunch stop at his favorite rest area for soup and he attacked his food like it was a speed-eating contest. I didn't want to delay him so I tried to match his speed and at the end we furiously slurped our bowls in unison and then hustled quickly back to the car.

We later pulled over to another rest stop where he announced, "Rest!" He got out, briskly walked to a viewpoint behind the main building, stood for maybe 45 seconds, then noticed a cat and ran over for a quick pet, finally dashing back to the car. Even with a toilet visit thrown in the whole "rest" was less than 5 minutes.

I was caught off guard when he asked if I like the Carpenters, but it was relaxing to cruise the pristine farmlands of Central Japan to "We've Only Just Begun". Relaxing for me, anyway. He chewed gum voraciously, consuming several packs in one stretch.

A Carful of Gadgets

I didn't mind being cooped up in the car all afternoon. It was stuffed full of fascinating electronic gadgets. Somehow fit into the interior was a CD player, mini disk player, cassette player, ham radio, and something strange with two levers and radar with a thick tangle of cords. Most amazing was the Global Positioning System. I had heard about the GPS but never saw it in action. It has a flat, postcard-sized screen (which doubles as a TV!) with brilliant graphics illuminating his position on the highway or city or even in the rest area. It shows how many kilometers he is from the next three exits and what services the next rest area offers. It also demarcates rivers crossed and bridges passed. It not only maps where you are in relation to main roads but can also show where everything is in relation to the direction your car is pointing. It makes getting lost a challenge; it's genius.

At one point it began to rain, and the way water wicked off the windshield I am convinced there was some space age coating on his car. Equally impressive was how when we entered a tunnel the headlights would automatically come on. There never seemed to be an end to the surprises one found in his car. Driving seemed like a secondary activity, so much so I almost failed to notice that in some mountainous areas highways were built out of nothing at all, just a series of raised roads, bridges and tunnels.

I profusely thanked my driver and gave a postcard of San Francisco as he dropped me off outside Niigata at another rest stop. I made a phone call to a guesthouse and upon coming out of the booth a group of young schoolgirls in uniform was sitting around my bag. They nervously giggled and said hello. We tried to make small talk, but eventually I said I had to go, that I was hitchhiking, and the mention of hitchhiking brought instant applause. Other people were staring, wondering why a bunch of schoolgirls were clapping for a foreigner. I reached for my backpack and one girl stammered, "I want you". It sounded like it was the beginning of a longer sentence, but that was all she said. I tried to imagine what she might have meant to say as I walked to the highway entrance. I couldn't hide the perplexed look on my face--not a good hitchhiking expression-- and consequently I waited a while for a ride. The girls watched me hitchhike from a distance and if I glanced over they waved both their hands at me and cheered.

A young couple in a van picked me up, thrilled to discover I was American. They had traveled around America and loved it. They enthusiastically told of scams, rip-offs, bad service, and disagreeable people encountered on their trip, and the woman added with satisfaction, "I feel so free in America". They were going into town and took a keen interest in where I was staying, offering to go out of their way to drive me to the guesthouse. I gave them the address and phone number and they went to work. The GPS was turned on and I sat back and watched another stunning exhibition of navigation. The guy was driving but with remote control managed to shuffle through several screens of directories and area maps as he entered the address and determined the best route. I was flabbergasted. The woman got out their Snickers-sized fluorescent cell phone and called ahead to the guesthouse as they closed in. (Japanese addresses are never as simple as number and street name. Usually an address will put you on a particular block and then you have to start asking people for the specific place.) The conversation with the guesthouse manager continued until he appeared on the street, tiny cell phone in hand, and the transfer was made.

And that was typical of the next six weeks; the floodgates had been opened, and a new Japanese world engulfed me. I effortlessly hitchhiked up and down the country from the very top of northern Hokkaido to the very bottom of Kyushu in the south and back to Kyoto, rarely waiting long. I never ceased to be pleasantly surprised by the kindness, generosity, and ingenuity of the Japanese people.

Back to the top