Assuming even a slight grasp of the language
, the best way to
is to hitchhike
. I've done this for years and gotten
dozens of rides, meeting wonderful people and covering thousands of kilometers, and have always
been pampered to an extent that would seem ludicrous
in the West:
drivers pay for my lunch
, show me the local sight
s, take detour
take me where I want to go, put me up for the night... and while
nearly everyone has fretted about my safety
, I've never felt in the
Dateline and the story so far
: May 2002, on a month-long circuit of
I'd hitched my way from Tokyo
down to Mt. Hiei
, pottered about
with a local friend, gone down to Kobe
, and gotten
for my trouble. After recuperating for a few days, I'd
taken a ferry across the Akashi Kaikyo Strait
to nearby Awaji Island
I spent the night in a cheap little onsen minshuku
spring water, and the next day started hitching south
I was soon picked up by a 61-year-old retired architect, whose hobbies
include copying Buddhist sutras (he had only a few days before
returned from a leg of the
88-temple circuit in Shikoku) and making
amazingly intricate paper dolls, some of which are
exhibited in museums around Kansai. He lives in Mihara-cho, in the
center of the island,
with his wife, dog and cat, and it being a quiet day he offered to
take me sightseeing around the island and invited me to stay the
Got that? Good, now erase every last bit of that mental image
you just formed. Reality was a 1.5-meter wiry little chain-smoking
hobbit of a
man with a leg broken in a traffic accident (or so he said?),
who called himself Occhan (おっちゃん) and whose gruff manner,
simple samue (working clothes) and downright incomprehensible
Kansai-ben dialectal Japanese fitted
his real former occupation -- a kanekashi money lender
affiliated with the yakuza -- to a T.
Needless to say, this was only revealed to me later. During the
day he played the host who took me to see the famed Naruto whirlpools,
caused by tides flowing between the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific,
and the Awaji Ningyo Joruri Museum, devoted to an amazingly
intricate predecessor of the bunraku puppet theater.
The first of several freaky moments came on our way back from
the whirlpools, when he drove off onto a tiny forest road and
started explain the phases of WW2 in these woods. Then he stopped
at a little opening featuring the ruins of an army barracks
(evidently once leading to underground caves if I understood him right)
and motioned me out of the car. I hesitated and complied... and Occhan promptly drove off! --
a few dozen meters to a better parking spot, but even that was
too much considered all my baggage was in his trunk.
Eventually, after treating me to lunch and himself to several
beers, he drove me back to his house and we started knocking back
the sake while waiting for his wife to come back. He talked a
lot about how wide-hearted she was, but perhaps long-suffering
might be a better word; most people wouldn't take quite so well
to getting back from a 12-hour working day only to find a stranger in
her house and her husband well on his way to inebriation. Dinner
was, of course, excellent, although I was still feeling the
aftereffects of food poisoning and wasn't terribly hungry.
Fortunately, his wife's Japanese was remarkably clear
hyoujungo ("standard Japanese") with only a few
Kansai-isms thrown in, and thanks to this the conversation started
to resemble interpretation with me constantly turning to her to
explain what on earth he was saying.
After several hours of this, however, the conversation gradually
degenerated first into an Occhan monologue
and then a (largely incomprehensible)
rant, mainly on the subject of the Japanese Spirit
(大和魂 yamatodamashi), how today's youth have lost their
purity and clarity of aim, yadda yadda. Eventually, he started
to take umbrage at a combination of me not understanding everything
he said and of confessing of being interested in photography
(the implication to him being that I wasn't interested in anything
else!), and then started first loudly, and then very loudly,
demanding my passport. I was understandably a bit hesitant,
but wife hinted that I'd better let him have his way,
so I did... and he crunched it up in his hand and started
walking away! I wrestled it away and okusan talked some sense
into him, after which he dropped to his knees, apologized
(extremely) formally, and then almost with tears flowing from
his eyes said that he would die in peace if I told him what I
really thought right now. (About what?) I thanked him
for his (previous...) kindness and shook his hand, and the
situation was defused.
Or so I thought. Okusan shuffled me off to bath and bed, and I
was looking forward to a well-slept night, a sober Occhan in
the morning and an escape from this madhouse. I'd just gotten
settled in bed, when pops trundles into my room and continues his
drunken monologue. I shuttled him out as gently as I could, and was
about to pull the paper door shut...
...but nobody gives the cold shoulder to Occhan. Reaching into an
unceremonious umbrella rack, he pulls out a katana and
starts waving it about! It was still sheathed, mind you, but
he was daring me to pull it out and this nutcase probably
takes the old bushido rule of not resheathing a sword until
it has tasted blood literally.
Fortunately, okusan heard the commotion
and saved the day, and after a few minutes I heard the extremely
welcome sound of Occhan snoring. I seriously considered getting the
hell out of there that very minute, but it was a long way to anywhere
and I didn't really even know where I was. All I could do was rotate
my futon so that my legs faced the door, but this wasn't much comfort
and I slept uneasily -- I kept
expecting to see a razor-sharp blade slice the paper in half.
At 6 in the morning I was
woken by a truly unearthly sound from the outside. At first I thought
it was hailing, but it turned out to be Occhan washing the car
with a high-pressure hose, half the spray hitting the corrugated
iron plates of the shed.
My nose and eyes were seriously acting up due to the cat, and
my stomach was doing backflips due to being stuffed full
of raw fish and alcohol the previous evening, so I was grateful
to find that breakfast was only a cup of coffee and raisin rolls.
Occhan was also suitably apologetic about yesterday's events,
although I was surprised to find him remarkably un-hungover --
had he started drinking again in the morning?
Using the convinient excuse of approaching rain, I managed to
get Occhan to take me to the expressway interchange tolerably
early, although his driving style (noticeably worse than yesterday, and
it was none too fine then)
increased my suspicions about his blood alcohol level. But we
got there in one piece, and
after the requisite handshakes and professions of
international friendship I even got him to stay on the other
side of the road while I hitched. One car stopped, but it was
going in the wrong direction, no worries...
but then Occhan, until then peacefully reclining in the grass and
chewing on a straw while staring at me, wanders over and starts jabbering
about the Japanese spirit again. I again respectfully ask him to bugger
off, so he wanders over the lane divider and starts clowning about
for a while... then a truck drives past without picking me up
and he returns.
お: おらあって下手んだ！ だれも乗せれられへん！
Occhan: You suck at hitching! Nobody's going to pick you up!
Yours truly: What?
お： 下手ゆうてるんの！ わし車止ませてやるな！
Occhan: I said you suck! I'll stop a car for ya!
(A few Japanese notes here: 下手 heta is one of those
words you never, ever call somebody else, and the word he used
to describe "giving" me a stopped car, やる yaru, is
used only to give something to someone much lower than you,
eg. food to an animal. In a nutshell, the above was really, really
And then he starts clowning about again, veering on and off the
entry lane, spinning in circles and sticking his hand out like
a policeman, this little pathetic shit who'd tried to
steal my passport, threatened me with a sword, drove drunk, and was
now totally destroying my chances of getting the fuck out
before the rain started! This was just too much, and in Japanese
I didn't even know I knew:
J: なんだ！ おめえよりよくヒッチできるんだ！
Yours truly: What!? Who the fuck are you to tell me how to hitch!
Get OUT! OUT!
And before he could recover from his shock I started physically
frog-marching him across the road. Well, you can probably
imagine what happens when you talk to an ex-Yak like that:
he turned red in the face and sputtered for the next few minutes
about how I dare treat him like this after all he'd done, etc,
all the while staring at me... from half a meter below.
Still, he did have a bit of a point there, so after he'd calmed
down a little I said "Sorry" and, as a last favor, asked him to just
go -- and he did, still all the time yelling that nobody would
ever pick me up. Some 30 seconds later, a car driven by a
young couple did pull over and offer me a ride to Shikoku...
and, like the fucking whack-a-mole, Occhan hobbles up the
car and starts jabbering at the driver! Less than discreetly,
I told them to ignore the crazy geezer and shoved my backpack
in the trunk. Amazingly, the couple didn't freak out, and
we were on our way...
And boom! I was in Shikoku!
I've gotten rides from Yakuza
at least 3 times before and after this incident, and they've always been the epitome
. But to all your hitchhiker
s out there, if you start getting creep vibes from a driver, just get the hell out while you still can... this little incident was mostly funny even while it happened, but a non-drunk, non-lame and non-hobbity version of Occhan would not
have been a joke.