I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now, and good heavens it has been wonderful. See, in India and Nepal there was a lot of soul searching and loneliness, there were a lot of challenging sights and situations, and there was a considerable amount of homesickness and general lamenting. That’s not to say India and Nepal weren’t fantastic, exhilarating experiences; they absolutely were, but alongside the majestic highs there was an equal number of explosive lows – especially in India. But Japan? Boy oh boy, Japan is golden.
I left Osaka after five days with the Russian girl, Ana, as we were both heading to Kyoto. We’d made friends and spent a few nights wandering the streets of Osaka with other backpackers, and I felt happy to have someone to travel with for a little while. A large percentage of solo travel is – for me at least – latching onto people you meet. We got a train to Kyoto in the afternoon, and lugged our bags through the city in the beaming sun.
We spent three nights in pretty Kyoto, and explored the Fushimi Inari shrine; thousands of beautiful orange gates which you pass beneath on your way to the top of Inari mountain – a mere 233 metres above sea level (the Himalayas have ruined mountains for me forever, it seems). It was very busy with tourists and I struggled to take a decent photograph of Fushimi’s gates that didn’t also contain fifteen other people struggling to take decent photographs of Fushimi’s gates.
That evening Ana found us a place to stay for free via the Couchsurfing website; we stayed with a sweet young Japanese girl named Asami. She was incredibly shy, and in my attempts to keep the conversation going I of course revealed far too much about my own life and made a fool of myself, as is the norm. We crashed on her floor – the open plan flat was only one little room; very kawaii indeed.
Next day we ate breakfast in a supermarket and hit up Kyoto’s bamboo forest, Arashiyama. Ana travels in a very different style to myself. She’s an artist, she busks and sleeps for free wherever she can, she hitchhikes, and she isn’t really in the habit of paying for things. On multiple occasions we’d walk out of a supermarket and I’d suddenly realise that as I paid for my breakfast I never saw her use the till. She’d just smile and shrug. She would hop through train ticket machines right behind me to dodge the fare. I used to tut at her for it, but I have to admit I find it kind of inspiring. If you’re willing to bend the rules a little, you really can travel the world for free.
In the forest we took in the beautiful views of nearby mountains and turquoise rivers, and wandered the endless bamboo. Tourists are kept on a strict track through the trees, but Ana being Ana, she hopped over a ‘Keep Out’ fence and I reluctantly followed so as not to be left bored on the path. We left the tourists behind and found ourselves isolated in the middle of the bamboo forest, leaves falling silently all around. It was so beautiful. I didn’t hang about long; I was worried about being screamed at in Japanese by some exasperated park warden.
We crashed at Asami’s place a second night, because we’d attempted to make plans to leave Kyoto but had failed to decide anything. The three of us cooked food and drank wine and watched Memoirs of a Geisha, which is set in Kyoto. The next morning, it was time to say goodbye. Ana had decided to return to Osaka, and I was set on hitchhiking to Hiroshima, inspired by Ana’s own tales of the exhilaration of hitching solo across Russia.
I hugged goodbye to Ana on the train, and the bold little Russian got off for her transfer. I continued on to some random station in the middle of nowhere and trekked a couple of miles in the heat to a motorway service station, wondering with every step of the way what the hell I was in for. Arriving at the station in the mid-afternoon, I got a bit giddy and took a leaf out of Ana’s book and pinched a sandwich, then ate it outside the shop I’d just nicked it from feeling very sorry and ashamed.
I asked a couple of Japanese guys to help me write a sign on a piece of cardboard I’d acquired, and they were happy to help. My said read, in characters, something like ‘Hiroshima. Now I am hitchhiking. Please let me ride in your car’. I added a love heart and smiley face to make it a little more cutesy, in the hope it’d appeal to Japanese people more. Holding my sign up and wearing my most affable smile, I stood and waited. And waited.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious with droves of people passing by, looking you up and down, muttering and continuing on past. But I persevered, tried a few different locations, and finally a stylish young man approached me tentatively. He didn’t speak a word of English, but I recognised the word Sennai, which was another motorway station half an hour down the road. It wasn’t very far, but it would do. I thanked him over and over, and hopped in his car, and was introduced to his jolly pregnant wife.
It is a very surreal feeling, suddenly finding yourself whisked away down the motorway in a foreign car in a foreign country. There’s no ceremony, no ticket to check, you just… climb in and go. I felt elated, and the most free I have done in years – maybe ever. I felt like a character from a Bob Dylan song, I felt like one of the Beats, I felt like old American hobos hopping trains with knapsacks, travelling the world on a currency of guile and charm and luck. I was proud of myself, giddy and alert and frothing with anticipation for the adventure ahead.
We flew down the motorway, the kindly couple using their phones to translate simple phrases and questions for me. The guy attempted to translate his profession for me, and Google offered up ‘misconduct’, which didn’t make much sense. His wife gave it a go instead, and this time the phone read ‘construction’. I told them I was a writer, and they got excited. Everybody gets excited when they hear that, and as my travels have gone on I’ve given up trying to explain what freelance content writing is, and just tell people I write books. I don’t mention that they’re unpublished. Fake it till you make it, dude.
They dropped me off at Sennai, and the lady bought me a Coke from a vending machine before they left. I bowed and thanked them profusely, then reassumed my position by the service station doors, holding my sign for Hiroshima. After 15 minutes of no luck, in which I was mostly ignored entirely but did get the occasional smile, a Japanese couple in motorcycle leathers approached me. The guy had a cig hanging out of his mouth and a smile on his face.
“Japanese people are very shy. You won’t get a lift if you just stand there like that. Come on, I’ll help you. You need to ask people.”
And so I was whisked away around the car park with the couple, with the man knocking on car windows, bowing politely, and asking the drivers where they were heading. We tried unsuccessfully for another fifteen minutes; it seemed everybody was a little stunned to see this blonde haired foreigner and two leather-clad bikers peering in through their car window. In the end, the biker dude wrote a new sign for me asking for Kobe instead of Hiroshima; a city some 200km nearer, which he told me would increase my chances of a lift – people might assume I wanted a lift all the way to my destination.
Once the bikers left, I caught my next ride within 10 minutes. This time around it was a lovely old couple, both English teachers, who were heading to Osaka and offered to bring me along. They quizzed me on my life in the car, and I watched Japanese suburbia flit by beyond the window. My heart was soaring higher with each mile that went by. All this time, all through our lives, we worry about money and travel and saving and career ladders, in that moment it was revealed to me the truth: that if you believe in people, and you are willing to take risks, everything in this world is free.
They turned off the motorway when we reached Osaka, which caused me mild alarm, but I felt so breezy and freewheeling I didn’t bother to question it. They dropped me off at a shopping centre, and said that many people from Kobe and surrounding areas shop there, so I was sure to find a lift. I thanked them, bowed and shook hands, and off I went alone ago, me and my bags and my cardboard sign.
I’ve never heard of anyone hitchhiking via shopping centre before, and I felt a bit goofy standing by the exit to the carpark, bearded and scruffy with my sign, watching the clean-smelling, perfectly-quaffed masses pass me by. But I persevered, and after a mere five minutes a very well-dressed and divinely-fragranced young couple stopped to chat. I told them of my quest, they spoke together briefly in Japanese, and with a shrug agreed to take me along. Their names were Suzuka and Genki, from Himeji, they worked in sales, and they drove a stunning white Audi with black leather seats and lots of expensive-looking gadgetry.
We made as much conversation as was possible with our limited knowledge of each other’s languages, and after 45 minutes arrived in Kobe, at around 6pm. I was keen to hop out and continue hitching – I was somewhat naively hoping to make it the 300km to Hiroshima all in one go – but instead the couple offered to show me the harbour. I felt rude saying no, and so we parked up and drifted around Kobe’s magnificent, very expensive-looking port. It looks a lot like Sydney’s Darling Harbour, all gleaming towers and tooting ferries and expensive restaurants.
We watched a busker for a while, and toured a few shops. The pair of cuties then insisted on paying me to go up the beachside tower, which offers views of the mountains, ocean and the sprawling wealth of the city. We got a photograph taken together, and when I mentioned that I’d decided to call it a day hitchhiking and find a hostel in Kobe, they took it upon themselves to find me a place. Suzuka and Genki fired up their phones and looked up an affordable place for me nearby, and then drove me there. I didn’t even try to say no, lest my interjection come across rude. I thought it more prudent to simply show my extreme gratitude over and over again.
They saw me right to the hostel door, and helped me book a room using their Japanese. We shook hands, bows were exchanged, and they carried on with their journey after their two hour diversion. The hostel staff were a delight as well; I was the only westerner in the place because apparently foreign tourists don’t really bother with Kobe as it doesn’t have much in the way of classic Japanese culture or history, compared with somewhere like Kyoto, Osaka or Hiroshima. I was treated to home-made spring rolls for free, and sat up late with a staff member called Toshi who helped me create new incremental hitchhiking signs for the next day’s journey.
I was wary of Japanese generosity and respectfulness at first – they are so lovely that I couldn’t help but assume the hospitality was fake. But it’s all completely real, it’s all genuine; the kindness, the effort that Japanese people put in to making everything perfect and memorable for you. That was one of the best days I’ve ever had travelling. And the next day was even better.