For those planning a trip on a budget, hitchhiking can be a very appealing alternative transport method. But is it possible to hitchhike in Japan? What are the cultural and language barriers you may face? Can just anybody hitchhike, and is it safe?

Why hitchhike?

Because it’s cheap???….

The first thing that may pop into people’s heads when they think, “why hitchhike?” is saving money. In Japan where transport takes a hefty portion of your budget, hitchhiking may be especially appealing. However, hitchhiking is much more than just a way to save money, and we don’t recommend doing it solely for this reason.

Hitchhiking is a whole experience in itself. It takes patience, perseverance, and guts. You will need to put yourself out there in a country you don’t know, with a set of rules and cultural norms you don’t know, in a language you can’t speak. And you’ll be taking a risk to your safety.

View from a kei truck in Hokkaido | Photo by Eli Sooker

However, hitchhiking allows you to plunge beneath the surface of a country and interact with locals in ways you probably never would as a regular tourist. It can develop your character, and when the going gets tough, positive hitchhiking experiences can even restore your faith in humanity.

What is hitchhiking like in Japan compared to other countries?

Japan is not seen as a typical hitchhiking destination. That is because the general culture here is to refrain from bothering other people as much as possible, and keep to yourself. There are some young Japanese people who hitchhike, but generally it is rare. As a matter of fact, hitchhiking is close to unheard of in Japan. This means that as a hitchhiker, you will stick out like a sore thumb, and many people may view you as suspicious or odd.

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But don’t let that put you off. Hitchhiking is legal here, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and despite their reservedness, Japanese people are extremely kind and generous, making it a great place to hitchhike. However, since most Japanese people have either never heard of hitchhiking or only seen it in movies, you’ll need to be especially clever in howclever how you go about it.

Where To Hitch

Knowing where to hitch in Japan is an important first step for starting your hitchhiking journey.

Within Japan, Hokkaido has the most hitchhikers, which may make it easier to find rides.Smaller islands like Shikoku and Okinawa are also recommended. The main island Honshu isn’t impossible, but if you are aiming to go to particularly isolated areas, you may encounter challenges. These areas tend to have higher proportions of conservative, older folks, who are less likely to know about hitchhiking, let alone pick up a stranger.


Best Value Flights To Tokyo

Once you’ve picked the area you want to hitchhike, it’s important to understand the road systems. Japan basically has two kinds of road, toll-free highways (下道, shitamichi) and the toll roads (高速道路, kōsokudōro). Toll roads are significantly faster and ideal for long distances, although it’s certainly not impossible to travel by toll-free road, and sometimes this is the only option.

On both types of highway, there are rest stops designed specifically to serve drivers traveling long distances, which consist of toilets, restaurants, convenience stores and local souvenirs. The ones on toll roads are divided into the larger SAs (service areas / サービスエリア sābisu eria), or smaller, more basic PAs (parking areas / パーキングエリア pākingu eria) which only have toilets and vending machines. On toll-free highways, rest stops are called Michi no eki (“roadside station”). Any of these rest stops make an ideal place to hitch, although SAs and Michi no eki see more traffic than PAs as they have more facilities.

A Service Area in Hokkaido | Photo by Eli Sooker

You need to pass an interchange (IC) to enter the toll road, and it is illegal to walk there on foot. Sometimes, there are parking lots in front of IC gates where you can wave passing drivers down to a halt. However it is not ideal as staff managing the IC may question what you are doing (although this probably will be in a worried rather than aggressive manner). The best way to enter the toll road or to hitchhike on toll-free highways is to hitchhike at Michi no eki (“roadside stop”) or perhaps a crowded convenience store parking lot near the entrance to the toll road.

Technically speaking, you can hitch anywhere that’s safe for a driver to pull over, so major intersections with parking lots on the corners also work.

How to Hitchhike in Japan

When most of us think of hitchhiking, we envisage someone standing on the side of the road with their thumb out, trying to catch the eye of passing drivers.

However in a country where hitchhiking is virtually unknown, these kinds of universal hand signals do not apply. Not even local hitchhikers use these.

Instead, those with a command of the Japanese language will go around asking in areas with high concentrations of car travelers such as the aforementioned SAs and PAs. However this isn’t the easiest option for those with limited language ability, and may be uncomfortable for those who don’t want to come across as pushy.

This is where my biggest recommendation for hitchhiking in Japan comes in: using a sign.

Signage is essential | Photo by Eli Sooker

This is probably the number one ingredient to getting a ride in Japan. Try laminating a large piece of fluoro poster paper and using it as a whiteboard with whiteboard markers and an eraser. Or you could actually buy a whiteboard, although these are smaller, heavier and more expensive.

If you haven’t guessed already, the point of having a sign is so you can write your intended destination on it and hold it up for drivers to see. The advantages of a sign include increased visibility, saving time by advertising yourself instead of asking around, and easing language or cultural barriers.

Even with limited Japanese, it’s easy to look up the Japanese name of your destination and copy the kanji onto your sign. You’re encouraged to also write “日本語できます” (“I can speak Japanese”) on your sign, even if you can only speak a few sentences. Most people in Japan speak next to no English (though their reading ability might be better) and tending to be on the shy side, they are more likely to approach you if they think they can communicate, or know that you are at least open to trying to communicate in Japanese.

A gift from a driver | Photo by Eli Sooker

Drivers also tend to be impressed by foreigners who can speak even the most basic expression, so don’t worry too much if this is all you have. More complicated matters can be translated through an app if necessary. Besides, you’ll be surprised how much can be communicated without language. Don’t let limited language skills put you off.

When writing your destination, write the place name + “まで” (“to (place name)”). It pays to add “か次のSA/PA” (“or the next SA/PA”) if you’re on a toll road, or “か次の道の駅” (“or the next Michi no eki”) if you’re on a toll-free road. This means drivers who can’t take you all the way, but can take you to the next SA/PA/Michi no eki may offer you a lift. Especially if you’re planning on going far, the odds of finding a driver headed to your exact destination may be slim, so it’s better to first aim for SAs, PAs, and Michi no eki along the way, until you get closer to where you want to go and are more likely to find drivers heading there.

Hitchhiking out of Tokyo

Hitchhiking out of major cities, especially Tokyo, can prove more difficult than hitching in rural areas due to the lack of Michi no eki and difficulty in finding a traveling driver amidst large hordes of people.

We recommend trying convenience stores close to ICs. However, if you want to save yourself a lot of time and trouble, asking a taxi to take you to the closest SA or PA on the highway is just as good of an option. Taxis may be expensive, but compared to what you’ll save hitchhiking the rest of the country, it’s a bargain to say the worst. The taxi driver may be surprised to hear your final destination is an SA/PA, but letting them know you are confident in hitchhiking from there, or alternatively assuring them by telling them a friend will meet you there, should curb any concerns or questions they may have.

Getting on the road from Tokyo can be challenging | Photo by Gregory Lane

Taking one of the many highway buses connecting Japan’s cities and airports is another way to get a ride to an SA, as they often stop there to give passengers and the driver a short break. However unless you explain carefully to the bus driver why you will not be continuing on to the final destination, you may have a very concerned bus driver searching the SA to find you, assuming something is wrong. Perhaps unlike your home country and the transportation services you are accustomed to, highway bus drivers in Japan, like taxi drivers, are highly concerned for the care of their customers, so it would be a bad idea, and inconsiderate, to depart without saying anything. Try telling the driver a friend will pick you up at the SA to avoid any misunderstanding.

Basic language knowledge

As mentioned earlier, you don’t need to be good at Japanese, but making the effort to learn at least a little goes a long way.

Useful phrases:

General:
すみませんSumimasen. Sorry/Excuse me.
ありがとうございますArigatou gozaimasu. Thank you.
こんにちはKonnichiwa Hello
日本Nihon/Nippon Japan
もう一度お願いしますMou ichidou onegaishimasu. One more time please. (if you didn’t catch what they said)
すみません、ゆっくり言ってくださいSumimasen, yukkuri itte kudasai. Excuse me, please say it slowly.

Hitchhiking related:
どこまで行きますか Doko made ikimasu ka / Till where are you going?
()に行きたいです (Place name) ni ikitai desu / I want to go to (place name).
どこですか Doko desu ka? / Where?
高速道路 Kōsokudōro / Expressway (toll road)
パーキング Pākingu / Parking
サービスエリア/パーキングエリア SA/PA (Service Area/Parking Area). Literally say SA/PA or sabisu ēria/pākingu ēria if they’re not familiar with the abbreviation
道の駅 michi no eki / Roadside station
コンビニ konbini / Convenience store
高速道路に入りたいです kōsokudōro ni hairitai desu. I want to go on the Expressway.
つぎのSA/PAでも大丈夫です tsugi no SA/PA demo daijoubu desu / (Taking me to) the next SA/PA is okay too.
つぎの道の駅でも大丈夫です tsugi no michi no eki demo daijoubu desu / (Taking me to) the next roadside station is okay too.
つぎのSA/PAに連れて行けますか tsugi no SA/PA ni tsurete ikemasu ka? / Can you give me a ride to the next SA/PA?
連れて行けますか tsurete ikemasu ka? / Can you give me a ride?
ヒッチハイク hicchihaiku / Hitchhiking
ヒッチハイしています hicchihaiku shiteimasu / I’m hitchhiking.
こちら kochira/kocchi / This way
あちら achira/acchi / That way

This writer studied Japanese for four years before starting their hitchhiking journey. While they were low on speaking practice and developed most of their fluency on the road (another plus to hitchhiking in Japan), having a grasp of the language made a huge difference.

As mentioned above, most Japanese people will be impressed and grateful even if you speak just a little, and you can get by on this okay. But if you have none and aren’t willing to learn any basics, we wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking in Japan, both for logistic and etiquette reasons.

Safety

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. This writer never felt unsafe hitching in Japan, but with that being said it always pays to be cautious no matter which part of the world you’re in. Trust your gut. If you do get a bad vibe from someone, don’t be afraid to turn them down. If you’re worried about seeming rude, just remember that your safety and comfort comes first. It may help to have a list of excuses in mind for such situations.

Solo or Group Traveler/s? Male/Female?

Like most countries, hitchhiking alone is easiest, and going above two people isn’t recommended. There’s little chance of finding car space for three people and luggage, and three strangers may be overwhelming for a driver, especially if you’re all foreigners. They may feel they’re unable to accommodate you appropriately and avoid offering you a ride because of this.

Getting a ride in a beekeeper’s truck is relatively safe | Photo by Eli Sooker

Couples and females tend to appear less threatening, increasing the chances of being picked up (although for couples the issue of car space may be a problem). According to a single female hitchhiker’s experience, 90% of the time it took 5 minutes or less to secure a ride, and they never experienced feeling unsafe—although this isn’t to say there is zero risk, and you should always put your safety first.

For men, you will probably only be picked up by male or coupled drivers, so it may take a little longer to find a ride. Maintaining a clean appearance and being clean shaven may help your chances.

Etiquette Tips

  • Make sure you have a map or navigation app which includes Japanese. Especially if your Japanese isn’t great, it really pays, and saves the driver time and trouble, to have a map to demonstrate exactly where you want to go.
  • As the driver is offering you a ride and letting you in their car, according to Japanese culture, you are considered their guest. Unlike hitching in other countries where offering to pay a share of the petrol or shouting the driver a drink may be common, these things are not expected of you in Japan. On the other hand, the driver who is “hosting” you, the guest, feels responsible for your comfort and may very well offer to buy you a treat or even a meal along the road. Though the idea of accepting treats from people already doing you a favour may be uncomfortable, in most cases, it`s more polite to accept, especially if it`s only a small treat.
  • In the case of being offered entire meals, it may be wise to check if they really want to pay by making a move to prepare your own money. If they indicate you don’t need to pay, you can say something like, “Hontou desu ka” (Really/Are you sure?). If they assert that they’re sure, simply thank them with “Arigatou gozaimasu”.
  • If you are in a situation where, for some reason (maybe you have special dietary requirements), you want to avoid having food bought for you, you could tell them you just ate.
  • Offers of treats or gas money to the driver will almost always be refused. Asking once or twice is fine, but insisting may become offensive. They would feel like they haven’t been a good host and may attempt to do more for you. However, an often eagerly accepted treat is “omiyage”, Japanese regional snacks and sweets. Omiyage come in all kinds and are available in the stores at Michi no eki and SAs, so it`s easy to buy a pack, carry it with you and offer to share with the driver. Omiyage are a typical gift in Japan and Japanese people love them, so you`re likely to get an enthusiastic reception to that offer.
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