Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road is easier with cardboard signs

It has to be said that spring is one of the best times to travel in Japan. April and May when the trees are in bloom and the weather is fine, hitting the road is like a dream come true. Setting out on a trip, everyone has high hopes for what will come. Why else would you go? But hitchhiking is not your average trip. And as the sun so surely sets in the west, the most concrete of plans is sure to change. Truth is, like a Woody Allen comedy of errors, after a while you’re ready for the unexpected. Expectations lower as they are thwarted time and again by numerous unforeseen obstructions: the weather, foreign language mishaps, untimely construction delays. Once you step outside the strictly regulated system society has put in place in the best interest of all, you become an anomaly, a joke– a circus freak. On average you will be laughed, stared and pointed at, and arbitrarily discounted, turned away and possibly even injured at worst. Best case scenario — you get a ride from a kindly stranger for a little while. The unexpected becomes the norm, the best you can hope to expect. The person or people who help you along the way are the exception rather than the rule, and in doing so are themselves living vicariously through you. But that’s where the fun lays: being the one with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Day One:

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking is about resilience, resourcefulness and rebounding from failure

It starts with failure, quicker than usual. Woke up late…Missed the first train…Got off at the wrong stop…Couldn’t find the Parking Area…Wandered around a shitty little nowhere town in sweltering heat wasting the day. This time the attitude is wrong from the beginning and it’s easy to see early on that it’ll take a massive ego blow to balance the weight of immediate miscalculation. Worse even, this is hubris. Why am I missing the point of the trip – which is that The Trip is the Journey, not the Destination. This is whatever power that is – Siva comes to mind – laughing and smashing the D.I.Y. arrogance of malappropriate certitude. But at least this too, as with all things, will dull with time, albeit with a fatter asterisk than usual. It must be noted that, though it does count toward character building, this does not feel like an auspicious beginning. Thank the gods I am unemployed.

As it turned out, it was the wandering of the outskirts of a lonely little outlet mall (Japan, stop carbon-copying America!) in ex-urban Tokyo for two hours vainly trying to penetrate the military grade fencing surrounding the Highway Interchange onramp toll area, that convinced me I was actually on the right track. Maybe not literally the right road, but I had the right idea: I gave up. Giving up the physical reality of my psychological projections made me realize that my expectations needed to be adjusted way down. Why beat myself up myself over nothing? Why all the crazy made-up monologues in my head driving me onward? Empty the head and be free to get truly lost.

I turned and padded my way back the two kilometers to the train station in the late afternoon Saturday sunlight ignoring all the imaginary tssking from the indifferent drivers and their would be disappointment. Not this day. I decided that would punish myself by alternating exercise and beer until the next day’s dawn when I would drop the images of myself a fully fanned peacock, a stag in rut, a panther in the Jacaranda trees at sunrise, undeniable, ineffable, impeccable to the future, naysayers powerless to dissuade my mounting of the road, my hunt of covering more than the 1000 kilometers from Tokyo to Kyoto and from Kyoto to beyond, hopefully some of it actually along the old Tokaido road.

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Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Road

It is almost impossible to leave Tokyo – so brightly does the night sparkle with distractions

Pre-dawn Tokyo. The last shambles of drunk office workers fall out of shuttering bars in rumpled suits as the first trains of the day begin to rumble out of their caves. It is a magical gravity that keeps the bowlegged drunks from toppling from platform to tracks. Early as it is the Tokyu Den-en-toshi line from Shibuya is not so crowded and I find a seat as it rises southwesterly from the subterranean depths to run through the city surface. Movement makes the passing buildings more interesting, but the first smattering of light does little for the colorless avenues populated by more than the standard allotment of ill-lit grey Tokyo suburbia and banal corrugated office space. The dreary facades, like the ear-splitting mosquito buzz slicing apart the neon-tinged silence of the early morning, do serve a purpose, I still have no idea as to what.

As the crowd thins from business people and school children to shopping cart grannies and bored retirees a silence pervades and sleepy heads sway in time with the lurching of the train. I laugh to myself that the quickest way to hitchhike out of Tokyo is to take the train. The best place to catch a ride is where the drivers are, and that is Service Areas (サービスエリア, SA) or Parking Areas (PA) on the large toll expressways or Kōsokudōro (高速道路). As it is almost impossible to get a ride to these parking areas, so you take a train to the station closest to a PA, walk from the bustling station area along the busy streets which eventually give way to hills of suburban homes and flats of pastoral rice paddies. The walk–silently informing you on basic Japanese civic planning– is otherwise peaceful if you let it be. Pay no mind to the oversize vehicles speeding along undersize roadways, nor the huge electrical transformers overhead, they mean you no harm.

Transferring at Nagatsuta to the Yokohama line and arriving at Takaichiba Station, set out northeast and eventually you have to cross a river and go under the Tomei Expressway overpass. You will end up walking along the north side of the expressway which abuts a neighborhood that seems to come to a deadend just before reaching a pedestrian staircase that crosses over the expressway. Continuing in the same direction the road winds right as Kitahassaku Park rises along the rear parking / delivery area for the large Family Mart shopping / dining mall. Though there is a fence, there should be an gate, which if not open, is easily traversed and leads to the sidewalk toward the shopping center and voila you are on the PA!

Grab some goodies and supplies at the Family Mart (if you haven’t already brought enough to see you through) and start making your sign. Did you bring a your copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? What about a map? A big permanent marker? If not, buy one here and ask the clerk for a sizable piece of cardboard, which might draw questionable stares, but most will point you toward a large pile on the side of the store. Putting a far off final destination may land you a lucky ride but will more than likely exclude you from the majority of the drivers that are only going part of the way toward Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and beyond Kansai. Unless you are an expert in Japanese calligraphy, asking the convenience store clerk to aid you in kindly writing the kanji for your final destination will likely be the easiest way to accomplish the task of attracting attention to your journey’s desires. In order to get the highest number of rides possible (thus increasing opportunity for great experiences), it’s a good idea to write something like “日本語できます!” “Can Speak Japanese!” This will cause a lot of curious drivers to pull up and ask you where you’re going, as well as giving you an opportunity to approve the ride from outside the car. It’s a long ride to Kyoto, but if you start early, it can be fun to break up the day with multiple drivers. Keeping in mind that success is only partially measured in reaching the final destination, as well as how the ride goes along the way, can play a large part in determining where you land.

Resources:

Hitchwiki – International Hitchhiking Information Hub
Hyperdia – National Train Schedule
The Temple Guy’s Walk on the Tokaido

Part of the Hitchhiking Japan Series. Read more here:

Hitchhiking in Japan – Beautiful Strangers