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Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Road

Hitchhiking Japan – Hitting the Tokaido Road

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.

But that's where the fun lays: being the one with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Click To Tweet

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.


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

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) has so many names it’s best to keep it simple. Translated as Temple of the Silver Pavilion, it makes more sense once you know its official name: Jishō-ji (慈照寺) or the Temple of Shining Mercy. Because for one, where’s this so-called Ginkaku-ji – The Silver Pavilion? you may wonder to yourself as you stroll through the serpentine garden pathways. The two-story building located at the far end of the labrynth dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese version of the East Asian deity of mercy, …well, looks brown to me…but maybe it’s one big zen koan–find the silver lining within, not without, right?.

Located off the Philosopher’s Path in the Sakyō ward of Kyōto, it remains one of the best examples of harmonious confluence of natural and manmade elements. It didn’t start out with much harmony though, for although Higashiyama culture begins wafting the essence of wabi-sabi throughout the country during the Ashikaga reign of the late 15th and 16th centuries, developing chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), noh drama, and sumi-e ink painting, this era is also known as the Sengoku Jidai — the Warring States Period — of the Muromachi era. And while this pristine sanctuary was being constructed on the still hot ashes of another garden villa, all hell was breaking loose outside.

The Ōnin war

'Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk', Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

‘Squirrel on a Bamboo Stalk’, Bearing the Signature & Seal of Sôami

Coming after the powerful Kamakura and preceding the Ieyasu ruling clans, the Ashikaga clan was the middle child of the Shogun rulers in medieval Japan, ruling from roughly the 14th – 16th centuries. Throughout the 250-year reign of the 15 shogun, the rulers depended more on the loyalty of the local lords than on military power, and thus were soon exposed as a kind of paper tiger that could not do much if you, say, didn’t pay your taxes. The first hundred years or so see the flowering of Kyōto amidst the rise of the Samurai and the Rinzai form of Zen Buddhism. It is during this time of general peace (and approaching discord) that much of the system of art that Japan is so well-known for was formalized.

The Ōnin War (1467–1477), a dispute brought on by the question of who would succeed the aging Yoshimasa, was most actively waged by the Hosokawa family and its allies, who favored Yoshimasa’s brother Yoshimi, against the Yamana family, who supported the current shogun’s suddenly-born male heir. Sounds like a goddamned soap opera, but unlike good melodrama, where are all the women? There had to have been a few devious and deadly femme fatalia pulling the strings behind the screen. Nothing here but rich old cranks who dig getting high on green tea and raking rocks and completely ignoring the thousands dying all around. Although fighting in Kyōto lasted for only 11 years, the conflict, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Kyōto, ruined the Ashikaga clan, and ignited the slow-burning and widespread revolt which would spread to outlying provinces, lasting for a hundred years, eventually bringing about Oda Nobunaga’s brutal unification.

Portrait of an Escapist

While others in Kyōto mastered Soba and the city burned, Yoshimasa practiced the fine art of tea ceremony, continuing plans for creating a retirement villa and gardens. So enamored was he of his grandfather’s Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and the gardens of Saiho-ji (Koke-dera) designed by Musō Soseki, Yoshimasa made the garden landscape of the grounds a priority above all else. He commissioned the artist Sōami to design the Ginsadan, the Sea of Silver Sand, the rock garden, with its now infamous cone of sand which is said to symbolize Mount Fuji. Nōami, the grandfather of Sōami, imparted his knowledge of the fledgling Zen priest practice of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony to Murata Jukō. Murata is alleged to have been under the employ of Yoshimasa around this time. When finished around 1490, this villa would eventually be built on the remains of his brother Yoshimi’s temple-residence Jodai-ji. Except for his desire that Ginkaku-ji become a Buddhist temple associated with the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen on his death, Yoshimasa was completely oblivious to all except for simplistic beauty of rocks and tea.

But the war had its annoyances as well. Despite his intention to cover the main structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, the way his grandfather had done with gold leaf on the nearby Ginkaku-ji, the war delayed the work so long that Yoshimasa died before its realization. Amidst political intrigue, of course. The current brown facade of the structure is likely to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Despite his initial desires to beautify it with silver leaf, he probably came to the realization that such decadence in war time was not just wasteful, but unwise, with a secondary benefit of being “unfinished”, illustrating one of the aspects of wabi-sabi perfectly if not a bit ironically.

Ginkaku-ji - The Silver PavilionDespite the temple remaining quite unfinished, in 1485 Yoshimasa became a Buddhist monk and took the name Jishō. It is said that he passed his days sitting in contemplation in the Dojinsai tea room in his Hall of the Eastern Quest (Tōgudō), taking tea with the key figures in the development of tea culture. Situated as it is at the far end of the Hōjō, it demands perhaps the most excellent view of the garden path, the various waterways and the growing moss that must have reminded him of better, more peaceful days, even as the war waged on around him, and enveloped more and more of Japan. During his reign as Shogun, Yoshimasa may have funded and formalized a large part of the traditional culture by which Japan came to fame, yet he was an administrative nightmare.

Nightmare perhaps, but fascinating to live in such a fiery time, and to be at the center of it all, yet instead of addressing it head on and jumping into the war, Yoshimasa got Zen and zoned out. Maybe somewhere in all of the daily manicuring of those beautifully raked rocks he knew that his legacy would outlive him–that despite the fragmented and bloody society that threatened to tear itself apart before his eyes, Japan would survive, and thrive even, and in that new land of the rising sun, would find hidden strength in the quietude and solemn ritual of the simple, imperfect art of brewing, serving, and enjoying tea within the confines of perhaps one of the most perfectly polished contemplative rock gardens ever conceived.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

The former villa of the silent actor Denjirō Ōkōchi (大河内 傳次郎 — 1896-1962)–most famous for starring in Akira Kurosawa`s Sanshiro Sugata, among many others and at his peak, was one of the top jidaigeki stars–lies lost in the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. Called Ōkōchi Sansō (meaning Ōkōchi mountain villa) Ōkōchi’s estate consists of several ornate gardens, living quarters and tea houses, all lost along a narrow path that winds circuitously through natural settings that appear wild, yet are meticulously kept by a regular team of professional landscapers. This is near the apex of the Japanese gardener trope–the private sector of gardening versus the Emperor’s gardeners… If you`re looking for an escape from the masses of tourists wandering around the backstreets of Tenryuji Zen Buddhist Shrine, the villa`s immaculately manicured gardens could be the middle way for you.

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform Overlooking Kyoto

On humid summer days when the crowds are at a maximum and every corner of the shaded bamboo path are fraught with screams, follow the call of the cicada up the wide path into the deeper shade. It looks private on purpose, to drive away the tourist hordes. There always seems to be a work truck parked out front and the confusing entrance (located around a bend) is not altogether inviting. The 1000 cost of admission is high enough to keep the kids out and allows for the expanse of Mt. Ogura to open up and swallow you whole. Just behind Tenryūji Temple and Sagano Chikurin Komichi bamboo groves in Ukyō-ku, Kyoto, wandering through the ornate gardens will provide snatches of Mt. Hiei and the Hozu River gorge. Taking a moment out at the Okochi Sanso Villa Observation Platform overlooking the hustle of downtown Kyoto gives one perspective on the tranquility of the scene. Taking your time and strolling without desire increases the profound sense of benevolence that shrouds you in. Relaxing in the lower garden with the matcha and a sweet snack, done properly, will perhaps provide a memory of meditating monks from the collective unconscious to arise and permeate the day.

The Japanese government declared Daijōkaku (the main house), the Jibutsudō (a Buddhist shrine), the Chashitsu (tea house), and the Chūmon (the middle gate) as tangible cultural properties (tōroku yūkei bunkazai) in 2003. A particular highlight is getting there via the special Sagano Scenic Railway at Torokko Arashima Station. Although the closest station is Arashiyama on the Keifuku Electric Railroad Arashiyama Main Line, this sojourn is not about convenience or getting in and out. It is about the journey itself.

The 1000 yen admission includes matcha green tea and an odd little snack. Open from 9:00 to 17:00.

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