The seed was planted while reading the Japan Air Lines in-flight magazine article on hitchhiking. Some guy had hitchhiked and written about how easy and safe it was. And I picked up tips such as: “Carry a kanji sign showing where you want to go.”Hmmm…. I barely knew what a kanji was at the time. I was about to set foot in Japan for the first time ever in my life to teach English on the JET Program, and I had no idea what to expect. But something about that hitchhiking idea stuck in the back of my mind.

After a few months of getting the feel of things and picking up some basic phrases, I put forth the proposal to my friend Scott. The primary advantages associated with Scott were that he 1) was the kind of guy up for anything, and 2) knew more Japanese than I did. The proposal was: We have one week of winter vacation coming up. Let’s try hitchhiking and see how far south we can get from Nagoya. That was the plan.

Shiga-Kusatsu Kogen Route (c) Nagano Prefecture

This was 1992, before the internet and Google Maps, so we picked up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Japan travel guide which fortunately had advice on hitchhiking. It even told us what train station was closest to the tollbooth plaza. I still remember scrambling across the entrance ramp and up a steep slope amidst the maze of concrete pathways above before finally reaching the flat and windy tollbooth plaza. Cars pulled in and out, and Scott and I looked at each other and said, “What the hell are we doing here?”

Scott made up a kanji sign saying Kyoto (or that’s what he told me anyway.) And we proceeded to stand there like idiots, people giving us curious looks as they drove by. We noticed some of the toll takers and worried they might kick us off the plaza. After a few minutes, one worker did come over. But instead of kicking us off, he explained to us through broken English and gestures that we were facing the wrong direction and then helpfully led us over to a better position. “Only in Japan,” I thought.

After 25 minutes of standing in the cold and feeling ridiculous, just as our spirits began to wain, we came up with the rallying cry that would motivate us the rest of the trip: “It only takes one.”

And sure enough, in about 15 minutes an ojisan driving a ramen company car decided to pick us up and take us to Kyoto. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is that he brought us to one of his company’s ramen franchises and gave us free ramen. Again I thought, “Only in Japan do people give you a ride then buy you a meal.”

On our trip, we made it all the way down to Beppu, a city in Kyushu famous for its baths. And along the way we met such a wide variety of people. Later I would be asked, “Who was the typical person who picked you up?” There was no way to categorize it. There was a well-dressed couple on a night out, a Brazilian couple, a family with two children who wanted us to teach them English in the car and then bought us a steak dinner, a father and son on a fishing trip, a lonely young truck driver who had been raised by an English priest in Nagasaki.

Mud bath, Beppu Hot Springs, Oita Prefecture (c) JNTO

Holed up in a car for extended periods with random people.
Forcing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.
Standing in the rain with kanji signs (which, it turned out, we didn’t really need.)

This was how I came to know Japan. (And I saved a bundle too!)

Steven Horowitz
JETAA 1992-94
Kariya-shi, Aichi Prefecture