Japan: Hitchhiking the Shinkansen

After the previous day’s adventures, I woke up early for my second day of hitchhiking in Japan; it was to be one of the greatest days of my life.


I woke up there, the city famed for its beef – you know the one where they massage the cows and give them beer and stuff and it makes them delicious and expensive to eat. I didn’t bother trying any, as it would have set me back around a hundred quid for one hundred grams. A quid a gram. Incredible price for yayo, bad price for beef. I took the signs the hostel staff had helped me write in Japanese, and wandered over to a lane that looked like it might merge with the motorway. I was stood for about four minutes before I got picked up. Hitchhiking in Japan, man… wow. What an amazing place.

The driver was a 61 year old man named Hideki Onodera, and I wouldn’t normally use somebody’s surname but he was such a wonderful human being that, god dammit, the world needs to know. His car was immaculate, and I felt like a stain upon it with my knackered Converse and threadbare clothing. He spoke a little English and I asked about his life. Hideki organises the Mrs Japan competition, and he showed me videos explaining how the whole thing works. Of course, I’m not the biggest advocate for ‘Miss Universe’-esque competitions, but I nodded along politely, wondering if he spent his days oiling up scantily clad ladies and wheeling them out onto a gilded stage.

In Japan, however, it seems the competition is far less ‘get yer baps out’ and far more ‘be a nice person and help sick children and dress in a lovely kimono and be generally elegant and benevolent and intelligent’. Far nicer – like a lot of things on this side of the Atlantic. Hideki agreed to take me as far as Himeji, from where I planned to hitchhike once more to Okayama, then if time allowed, on to Hiroshima. As we approached Himeji, Hideki said he was hungry. We pulled over to a service station and entered the restaurant, and Hideki offered to buy me something to eat. I politely declined, but he insisted, and bought me a Japanese curry. We ate together and he told me more about his life, and drove on.

When we arrived in Himeji, Hideki offered to take me to the castle there, Himeji-jo. He paid for my ticket, and together we walked the grounds and watched some people training a hawk to fly across the fields and land on their arms. The castle was beautiful and it was perfectly sunny, and after exploring for a while we sat in an old fashioned café and Hideki bought me a Japanese tea that he taught me to drink with both hands, as well as a squashy odd green thing that looked a little like marzipan and burst with joyful sweetness when I bit into it. I tried to even out the generosity by offering to buy him a drink, but he declined, then bought me one instead.

“I’m an old man,” he chuckled. “You are young. I am your Japanese father, I will pay.”

When we were on the motorway he told me that I was lucky to have so many years ahead of me. He told me he didn’t have much time left – not much further to go on his journey, as he put it. I told him he had plenty of his own journey left as well, and besides – nobody knows how long they’re here for. It’s perfectly possible that Hideki outlives me by thirty years.

As I prepared to part with him in Hideki, we drove through the city once more. Hideki told me that he enjoyed talking to young people as he never had any children of his own, and rarely gets chance to speak with anybody much younger. It was his day off from work, and he’d picked me up on a whim, because he thought it would bring an adventure. He had been heading over to another city to spend the day, but had decided to help me out instead. We were nearing the end of our trip together, and I was preparing myself mentally to continue my Japanese hitchhiking adventure, whatever it may bring. However, as we entered the city centre, he told me he had an idea. He parked the car and told me to grab my bags and come with him. I asked him where we were going, but he told me not to worry; it was a surprise.

We entered the train station and he told me to wait near the entrance. He went away for a moment, and returned holding a small golden ticket that he handed to me. It read ‘Shinkansen’; the bullet train. The Shinkansen costs a small fortune; I’d long ago given up on any hope of travelling on it in Japan. Hideki handed me the ticket with two hands and gave a small bow. I hugged him and hugged him – I didn’t realise that bowing is considered more polite, but hopefully the gratitude was conveyed by my flabbergasted expression and inarticulate stammering. He took me to the gate, told me which platform I should head to, and said goodbye with one last bow. I hugged him again, thanked him in Japanese and English as best I could, and wished him well. He waved me goodbye as I went through the ticket barrier, then with a smile he turned and left the station.

I stood still for about a minute, laughing to myself, shaking my head in disbelief, staring down at the small golden ticket in my hands. I didn’t know such generosity existed between strangers. I didn’t know how to react at all; I felt guilty, as if I’d somehow fooled him into thinking I was a half-decent human being and worthy of such enormous kindness.

I stood on the sunny platform, still disbelieving of my luck. Two days spent stood by various service stations holding a crappy cardboard sign and wearing a desperately friendly smile had somehow gifted me two of the most blissful days I’ve had travelling, ever. The bullet train is astounding when it passes through the station at full speed, it rips the air in half, blasts you in the face, and roars down upon you in an instant without warning. I tried to video it but every time I wasn’t fast enough with my camera – from first spotting the train on the horizon to raising my camera for a photo, it had passed by. It is the fastest thing I have ever seen on the earth.

Riding the train I continued laughing to myself, feeling the acceleration pin me to my seat; it’s the same feeling as an aeroplane during take-off. The country flitted by the window, buildings whizzing past so fast that they look lopsided; telephone poles at 45 degree angles. Most travellers were businessmen, busy doing business on their phones and laptops. My face was glued to the window for the duration of the journey – 240 kilometres covered in less than an hour. It seemed almost comical; we left Himeji, fifteen minutes passed, and we passed through Okayama. That would have taken me half a day via any other method of transport.

I found my hostel in Hiroshima based on the recommendation of an old friend who’d passed through Japan a couple of months earlier. It was called Santiago, a name that was, ironically, based on the name of the lead character of The Alchemist, the omen-touting book that I read back in India and came to loathe. I made friends with a couple of German guys and three giddy English girls on a gap year, and we drank on the rooftop until the sun came up.

Despite some teething problems on the first day, hitchhiking in Japan was a dream come true. I took Hideki’s contact details before we parted ways in the train station, and I dropped him a message when I arrived in Hiroshima. I thanked him once more, and he replied with these words:

‘The accidental encounter with you was a very fun time.

I would be pleased if you remember today’s memories as one of my memories.

And please build up your wonderful future.’

I promised Hideki that I’d pay his kindness forward into the world. And, one way or another, I will.

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