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Hitchhiking in Japan
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Hitchhiking in Japan is the key to true budget travel in the country and the way to escape the country's ruinously expensive domestic transport costs, where an hour on the Shinkansen can set you back ¥10,000. Coupled with camping, you can effectively cut down your daily budget to food and admission fees alone — although it is wise to allow for the occasional (literal) rainy day.
Hitchhiking does present its own unique challenges, but the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that not only is hitching out possible, it's downright easy... once you know how.
Where to hitch
It is almost impossible to hitch out of Tokyo or any large Japanese city by waving your thumb on the Ginza. Thus, to get out, you have to find the places where drivers going out congregate, which in practice means service areas (??????? s?bisu eria, SA) or parking areas (PA) on the large toll expressways (???? k?sokud?ro) connecting Japan's major cities. As you might guess, service areas are larger and better equipped than parking areas, but surprisingly few Japanese are familiar with the difference so it's easier to label them all service areas.
A useful rule of the thumb (pun intended) is that if you can get somewhere on a train for less than 2000 yen, hitchhiking the distance is unlikely to be worth the trouble. For destinations around Tokyo, such as for Mount Fuji, Hakone, Nikko, hitchhiking is unlikely to be worth the trouble... until you actually get there, that is. All three regions have expensive local transport but plenty of unhurried tourists driving about, always a good combination for the hitchhiker.
Getting on the expressway
Due to a complex conspiracy, all SA/PAs are located as inconveniently as possible, and entrance to them from outside on foot is officially prohibited. However, the inconvenience is managable when you know the route (are you willing to sit on a local train for an hour to save 9000 yen?) and, as so often happens in Japan, official regulations go unenforced or downright ignored.
Aside from SA/PAs, the second way to get on the expressway is to hitch outside an interchange. ICs do tend to be a bit closer to town, but in Tokyo they are usually in the middle of very heavy traffic and with few, if any, places where hitching is even remotely possible, so getting rides also takes considerably longer. It is generally preferably to sit on a local for an extra half an hour and maybe even pay a few yen for the privilege of not having to choke on exhaust for an hour.
The third method would be take a long-distance bus that uses the expressway and stops at a parking area along the way. However, cataloguing which routes go where on which roads and which service areas they stop at would be a fairly difficult enterprise, you'll also need to buy a rather expensive bus ticket just to get on the thing, and you'll probably freak out the bus attendants who will certainly notice if the only gaijin on the bus doesn't come back from the break.
Hitching on the expressway
At the SA/PA itself, the best place to hitch is near the offramp to the expressway, ideally so that you've visible from the buildings — this way drivers can see you as they go in and think about picking you up before they get in their car and make the choice. From a service area with decent traffic, you are very likely to get a ride within minutes.
Once you've made it onto the expressway, it's easy to keep bouncing from one SA/PA to the next one, but a decent highway map is imperative so you know the best place to get off if your destination and your driver's path diverge. It's entirely possible to cover 500 kilometers or more in a single day by using expressways.
Note that it is illegal to stop a car or walk on foot anywhere on the expressway itself, including tollbooths, and you will be rapidly picked up by the highway police if you try. Do not allow your driver to drop you off outside a service area.
Outside the expressway system on ordinary toll-free national highways (?? kokud?), there are also occasional service areas of a sort, known as Michi-no-Eki (???), lit. "Road stations". These are excellent places to get dropped off, fuel up, consult maps and grab rides.
Other traditional favorites include the offramps of roadside gas stations and convenience stores. The keys are visibility and accessibility: drivers have to be able to spot you in advance, and they have to be able to stop and pick you up without endangering themselves or others.
Note that it is illegal to hitchhike near road crossings or from bus stops, although in rural areas where buses drop by just 2-3 times a day the latter is often tolerated. The very end of a merging lane after a crossing is also OK, as long as you are more than 5 meters away from the crossing itself. In general, hitchhiking is legal and Japanese police don't hassle hitchhikers, but they do have fairly wide-ranging powers to act on anything that disturbs or distracts traffic, so use common sense.
How to hitch
Except for the occasional impoverished student in the wide expanses of Hokkaido, there is very little tradition of hitchhiking in Japan, and you will more likely than not be the first hitchhiker that your driver has ever even seen, much less picked up. The key to hitchhiking is thus to assuage these fears and look as harmless and friendly as possible.
The top worries of a Japanese driver when they see a hitchhiking gaijin are: Can he communicate? Does he know how to behave? The quick way to answer those questions is with a sign: ??????? (Nihongo dekiru!), literally "Japanese can!", is just six characters and works like a charm. And you don't really need to know Japanese all that well to use such a sign, as long as you can communicate... somehow...
Second on the agenda is appearance. This is not the place for a mop of unruly hair, ripped jeans and sunglasses — foreigners are by default scary, and you need to do your best to look like you stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Neat trousers, clean shirt, a hat to protect you from the sun instead of sunglasses. If you have a huge rucksack, hide it off to the side.
With these down pat, it's time to assume the pose and hitch. Hitchhiking being an unusual phenomenon, the best-recognized pose will be the classic Western style: left hand extended straight, thumb up, and a winning smile on your face. Try to look drivers in the eye as they approach and perhaps even make a small bow of appreciation, especially if they slow down to take a better look at you or, better yet, loop back for a second look. And persevere: you may get picked up by the first car, or you may have to wait a while, but you will be picked up sooner or later.
Once the car does stop, a window will roll down and you will almost always be asked a simple question: Doko made? ("To where?") Do not make the mistake of giving your final destination, as the driver may assume that you will insist on going all the way. (This is also why it's usually not wise to use a destination sign.) Instead, pick the nearest major waypoint and state X no h? ("In the direction of X").
When to hitch
Like other tourism in Japan, the best times of year are spring and fall, when it's not too hot and not too cold. Hitching in the summer risks sunburn and dehydration, while winter is simply too cold.
Distasteful as it may be to get up at 6 AM on vacation, as a hitchhiker you must get an early start. Many of the longest rides are available early in the morning, and your hitchhiking day will come to an end when the sun goes down.
If the weather is bad, it's best to give up hitchhiking for the day and figure out something else to do. A sodden figure standing forlornly in the rain with his thumb out is not a pitiful figure in Japan, he's a dangerous lunatic.
Who to hitch with
In Japan, as everywhere else, your gender matters when hitchhiking. On an ascending scale of difficulty, the best combinations are:
While a single girl (or woman) is likely to get picked up very fast, this has its risks: Japan has its fair share of perverts and predators and a lone hitchhiker in a foreign country is a vulnerable target.
As for who will pick you up, the range of humanity you will encounter is surprising and, once you've crossed the threshold into their car, the generosity and trust will amaze you. You will be picked up by young couples, grizzled old farmers, families with small children, traveling salesmen, single women, yakuza mobsters, Buddhist monks... and, almost without exception, you will be offered drinks and snacks, bought lunch and quite possibly offered a tatami for the night. But try to distinguish between offers of genuine goodwill and interest and offers out of duty or perceived obligation, as your driver is likely to feel that he is a host and he must treat you as an honored guest, despite any inconvenience or even financial expense that this might cause.
As a guest, you will not allowed to pay any of the expenses, but an effort to contribute something for gas and toll fares will most likely be delightfully refused. Be thankful for this, as Japan's expressway tolls are extremely high: for example, the trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs around ¥8000 in tolls alone.
Japan is the country of gifts, and counter gifts called (okaeshi). It might be a good idea to carry some small souvenirs of your country or hometown, like a country pin, or cookie (wrapped of course), or airline bottle of liquor even. With this you will have really sealed a wonderful human interchange, and you may even make a friend for life (Why not give your email address too?).
How to get out of Tokyo
Lots of expressways radiate off Tokyo's local highway system (?? shuto). So what you want to do is pick a destination, match it to an expressway, and get to the closest PA/SA. Here's the list in clockwise order from west to east, you will probably find it useful to consult a 1:10000 Japanese map to get your bearings. Most English highway signs will not distinguish short and long vowels, but your driver will, so pronounce it right!
A preliminary notes about buses: in general, Tokyo's commuter bus system sucks. They run very infrequently (typically 1/hr in the boonies), have a lunch break of several hours, and stop running early. Try to get to the bus station before 11 in the morning, or you'll probably have to wait until 2 in the afternoon for the next one!
T?mei Expressway (??)
Directions: Go to T?kaichiba (????) station on the JR Yokohama line through any one of a number of connections (Shibuya to Nagatsuta via Tokyu Den-en-toshi, Shibuya to Shin-Yokohama via Tokyu Toyoko, Shinjuku to Machida via Odakyu, etc.) The train trip is only 30 minutes, but it's a few hilly kilometers to the PA, so consult an area map before you set off.
Ch?? Expressway (??)
For: Fujiyoshida, Lake Kawaguchi, Nagano, Gifu, Nagoya & western Japan (slow route)
Directions: Get to Kichijoji (???) via Keio Inokashira from Shibuya or JR Chuo from Shinjuku, switch to JR Chuo (preferably a kaisoku commuter express to Takao, otherwise you'll have to change trains a few times) and go to either Toyoda (??) or Hino (??). From Toyoda station (north exit), take Keio bus ?04 from platform 2 to Ishikawacho-higashi (????). They run from 7:35 to 18:15, usually at 35 past the hour, but there is no 12:35 bus. The same bus runs to Hino station so you can catch it from there too. The distance is about 3 km and the bus route is reasonably straightforward, so it is also walkable if you're in the mood.
Once at Ishikawach?-higashi, backtrack to the lights (I'm assuming you're coming from Toyoda), you'll see the highway on your left. Go to the highway, but not under it -- turn left, up the hill, then open the gate that you are not supposed to open, walk up to the SA fence and jump over the one-meter gate if it is locked. You're in!
Note: Chuo branches a few times, be sure you know what branch you want to go to and what branch your driver will go to. The first is Ootsuki Junction (??), where the road splits between the Nagano and Fujiyoshida branches; the last SA before the junction is Dang?zaka (???).
Kan'etsu Expressway (??)
For: Niigata, Sado Island, Japan Sea coast
Directions: Take the T?bu T?j? (????) line from Ikebukuro to Tsuruse station. From the station, take Raifu Basu #4 to the Sentoraru By?in (???????) stop, as usual it runs once per hour except during lunchtime. The bus will deposit you on the wrong side of the parking area, cross the bridge to get to the side going away from Tokyo. Alternatively, you can walk the 3 km or so from Fujimino station; there should also be a bus from Fujimino, but it didn't seem to exist...
T?hoku Expressway (??)
Directions: Go to Hasuda station on the JR Utsunomiya (???) line, starting from Shinjuku or Tokyo. Take the east exit and locate platform #3, take T?bu (??) bus #4 to Shiyakusho-mae (????). Right before the stop the bus actually goes under the expressway, return to the bridge (don't go under it!) and head a few hundred meters up the hill/to the north along the expressway until you reach the PA. The gate may be locked, but the fence is low and jumping over it is no problem.
J?ban Expressway (??)
For: Mito, Iwaki, Sendai (slow route)
This highway is the bane of the hitchhiker, as there appears to be no decent way of getting onto it. The nearest real service area, Moriya SA (??), is way out of town, at least 3 transfers plus a bus ride from the Yamanote. The IC and PA listed above are unexplored possibilities. One sure way: take a ¥2000 train to Mito and start there...
Warning: If you get on at Muk?jima IC, the road soon joins Shuto C2, after which C2 branches off again towards the T?hoku Expressway. Make sure you know where your driver is going!
Higashi-Kant? Expressway (???)
What, you're going to hitchhike to catch your flight!? Do yourself a favor and take the train, Keisei'll get you there for 1000 yen.?If you insist, you could try to catch the Expressway Bayshore Line (?????) from Odaiba or Shin-Kiba, which transforms into the Higashi-Kant?.
Getting off in Tokyo
95% of the time, once on the expressway, getting back to Tokyo is a piece of cake: your driver is also going to Tokyo, so he'll drop you off at the nearest train or subway station, and you can find your way home. Problems arise the other 5% of the time, when your driver is going either through Tokyo or to a part of Tokyo extremely far from your part of Tokyo. What to do?
Your driver may exit the expressway just so you can get off, but this is a waste of time and money for him, as he has to fight his way back and pay an extra toll, so don't count on it. The driver may also try to drop you off at a tollbooth or at an interchange, which will either get you in hot water from the authorities or dead from being hit by a car. The least of three evils is thus getting dropped off at a service area.
Moral of the story: when near a big city, feel free to reject rides that aren't going close enough. There will be more.
Shuto Service Areas
If the service area is one of those listed above, you know how to get back. If not, you have been left at a service area not listed for a good reason. Almost all the 15+ parking areas on the Shuto are tiny (space for around 20 cars max), suspended multiple stories above the earth with entrance/exit possible only through staff quarters, and inconviniently located to boot. However, as getting out is a lesser crime, you may be able to sweet-talk somebody into unlocking those staff-only doors and letting you out, as long as you promise not to come back in.
The Shuto network is an indecipherable tangle that looks vaguely similar to the Tokyo subway system, except that most stations are accessible only when going in one direction and you have 5 seconds to decide whether to exit. The parking areas are omitted from most maps, only specialty maps will usually show them. One convention worth learning quickly: all routes and lanes going towards the center are nobori (??, going up), whereas routes and lanes exiting Tokyo are kudari (??, going down). The majority of Shuto parking areas are nobori-only, a small saving grace for the hitchhiker coming in, but yet another reason why they're useless for exiting Tokyo.
At any rate, I've only ended up in this situation once so far, so here's the beginning of a new list, sorted by route number.
Shuto 3 (??3?)
Connecting to: T?mei
Shuto 4 (??4?)
Connecting to: Ch??
Eifuku PA (??)
Access: Nobori only
Small. Somewhat oddly located right next to a row of tollbooths and an exit (which thus cannot be used even illegally, since they'll spot you if you try to walk it!). If you do find your way out, Meidaimae station at the crossing of both Keio lines is nearby (ask for directions).
Yoyogi PA (???)
Access: Nobori only
A pathetic one-lane excuse for a parking area quite literally suspended three stories above the earth. Climbing over the fence would be easy if the drop weren't likely to kill you; there's also an expressway entrance nearby, but as noted earlier, walking on it is highly illegal and dangerous to boot. The third option was shown to me by a janitor to whom I pleaded my distress: at the furthestmost tip (from your arrival point) of the building is a door, which leads to a staircase, which leads outside. The doors along the route may, or may not, be locked. Once you do get out, one block straight and a few to the right will get you to Yoyogi station on the Yamanote/O-Edo lines. (Odakyu line Minami-Shinjuku station is also nearby.)
Note that it might theoretically even be possible to get into the PA this way, literally through the back door, but I wouldn't recommend it -- if the doors are locked you're out of luck, westbound is towards Tokyo, not out of it, the Shuto splits into about 17 different directions soon after the PA, and the PA deservedly gets little enough traffic as it is. And you'll annoy the friendly janitor.
Shuto 6 (??6?)
Connecting to: J?ban
Kahei PA (???
Access: Kudari only
Located inside a highway entrance spiral, this one may actually be accessible from the ground. Kita-Ayase (???) station on the Eidan Chiyoda subway line is about half a kilometer to the east along the large road that crosses under the highway between the entrances.
Connecting to: T?hoku, J?ban
Shuto S1 becomes C2 and merges briefly with 6 before splitting off again and heading off to Tokyo Bay. Confused? You will be.
Kawaguchi PA (???
Last verified: Never
Well, I can offer you the reassuring advice that it exists. And you even have a 50% chance of going in the right direction.
Tokyo Gaikan Expressway (????????)
Connecting to: Kan'etsu, T?hoku, J?ban
Niikura PA (???
Access: Both directions
Small. Close to Wak?-shi. Often omitted even from highway maps since it doesn't belong to either the kousokudouro or the shuto systems!
Will Ferguson has written a number of informative and entertaining books about hitchhiking in Japan. These include: