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How I Hitchhiked and Couch Surfed Through Japan

Updated on August 11, 2016
Jacqui Kirstein profile image

Jacqui Kirstein is a traveler from California who gives advice via personal anecdotes.

Budget Capsule Cabins in Tokyo

Source

Getting to Tokyo

My first week in Japan was spent in Tokyo. This was the week I spent the most money, and this was the week I didn't know anything about passes for trains, meeting locals, or anything like that. Coming from Europe, I was used to the simple public transit systems, but Tokyo had two types of train systems, the local and the JR, with so many different lines, and these confused me a whole lot. I looked up the directions from the airport to the hostel when I was back in Germany, but when I landed in Tokyo I was having a hard time. I finally figured it out.

For convenience, you should always get the card for public transit, rather than buying a ticket each time. It's 500 yen, and it's well worth it. If you're planning on being in Japan for a while, and taking trains everywhere, you should definitely invest in some kind of pass. This will save you a ton. If you're planning on hitchhiking, don't get a pass.

The next way to save money is to not buy a SIM card, unless you really want the comfort of having cellular data all the time. In Japan you can get WiFi at most of the train stations, and in a lot of cafes and restaurants. If you're American, you can make calls home via Google Hangouts for free.

The next way to save money is to stay at a hostel, not a hotel. Backpacking 101. You can even get a private room in a lot of hostels. To go even cheaper, you should just use the CouchSurfing website/app (I'll talk about this later).


Workaway

After I went to Tokyo, I worked in a guest house in Yugawara for three weeks. In this three weeks I did easy hospitality work, in exchange for free accommodation and meals. Yugawara was an extremely small town, with not much except the mountains, beach and onsen (hot springs), but in this time I got acquainted with the Japanese owner and our Japanese neighbors, and I became close friends with the other people I worked with. We all cooked lunch and dinner together for each other and the guests every day, and I learned how to make miso soup, yakisoba, sushi, and okinomiyaki, all traditional style Japanese dishes.

I find jobs like these through Workaway.info. This website is golden for backpackers or travelers who don't want to speed travel and who want to live more like locals. Anyone can use it, though, including couples or groups of friends. Most of the jobs are short term, for example, the guest house I mention above. Some people even find jobs for only a week. Most of the jobs are volunteer based, so you work a little and get free accommodation. It's a great way to get to know a place without spending extra money for the longer time spent there.


Yugawara Guest House

This is where I worked for three weeks.
This is where I worked for three weeks. | Source

Beginner Hitchhiker

While I was in Yugawara some of the other workers told me about a couple they met who had hitchhiked all through Japan. So I decided I'd try it. The first time I was so unsure of what I was doing that I almost gave up. I made a sign that said Shizuoka, Nagoya, and Osaka on it, basically meaning that I was traveling West, in the direction of those cities. I took the train to Atami, a more populated city than Yugawara, and found I had to walk over a mile to a destination that would actually be good to hitchhike from.

Exhausted, I finally got to a good spot, and it took no longer than 10 minutes to get picked up. I got picked up by an old dude in a big truck, just like all the creeps in movies. He didn't speak any English, and I didn't speak any Japanese. I was so excited after walking so long that I got in without asking any questions. I just said, "Shizuoka?" And he dropped my off somewhere along the way.

This place was easy to get a car from because it was a huge road heading to a highway. I got in the car with a businessman, this time a little more sure of myself. It took no longer than 5 minutes of waiting to get picked up by this guy. His English was slightly better than my previous driver, but not by much. He explained to me that he had to go to a meeting, that I should wait, and then he would be back. So he took me to a 7/11. He asked if I wanted to keep my backpack with me or leave it in the car. I trustingly said I'd leave it in the car, because I thought he would be parking there. So I got out of the car, but then he drove off. Then I immediately got paranoid. What did I just do? Did I just lose my entire bag that I've been living out of for four months? Did I just willingly let him rob me? Was this something this guy just did to rob people? But no, it was fine. After a few more cars I finally got to Nagoya.

CouchSurfing

In Nagoya I CouchSurfed for the first time in months. Since I was hitchhiking, I had to idea if I'd even make it to Nagoya, so I had no accommodation arranged, and I got there after 10 pm. I sat in a Starbucks for a while to use their WiFi, and messaged about 15 people on the CouchSurfing app.

CouchSurfing is the way to go if you want to spend time with a local and have them show you around. It's a completely different experience than a hostel, and it's free. Although I have to admit, it's hit or miss with the person a lot of times. Not for danger reasons, though. Being a girl, I'm warned that meeting people through CS can be dangerous or creepy, but in truth, everyone on CS has reviews, so if you're a creep or you get one bad review, you're pretty much screwed. So, as a result, most of the people on CS aren't creeps. The reason it's hit or miss just depends on how well you get along with the person and how much free time they have.

When you use CS, you should never just sent short copy&paste messages. A stranger is potentially opening up their home to you, so you should respect that and at least take the time to read their profile and write out a nice introductory message.

But in Nagoya, I was desperate. I sent a message saying something like, "Hey, I'm Jacqui. I just got here by hitchhiking and I have no accommodation, so I would GREATLY appreciate if you let me crash! I'll buy you some beers or something."

Luckily, someone nice responded and I got a place.

Sometimes you should pick when you want to CS, and when you want fork out a few extra bucks to stay in a hostel.

In Osaka one night I wanted to stay out late. I usually hang out with my CS host and do whatever he or she does, but this night my host said he wasn't going out and it was cool if I did. The trains in Japan stop at 12, so basically, when you go out, you have to decide whether you're going home at 11:30 or staying out til 6. So this night I decided I was staying out. I got tired of being out at around 4 am, though, and ended up sleeping in a park by a shrine for a couple hours, getting up to hop on a train at 6, and then going back to my CS host's house. But he had to go somewhere at 8 am, so I didn't bother sleeping more. I left and decided it was finally time to splash out and stay in a hostel.

By the way, you don't really need to stay out all night if you decide to not go home at 11:30. Taxis do exist, I'm just too cheap to pay for one. If you're in a group of people, though, it's probably worth getting one.


The Second Half of my Trip

After spending a week in Osaka and Kobe, I went to Otsu, where I stayed for three weeks to teach English. I taught conversational English to adults for 6-8 hours a week, in exchange for free accommodation and basic food. Another job I found through Workaway. This was ideal because I was able to travel to other cities like Kyoto (only a couple stops away), Hiroshima, Osaka (my favorite), Kobe and Nara when I had blocks of days off. I did a mix of hitchhiking and taking trains to and from these cities.

Japanese people probably provide the best hospitality in the whole world. Not because of their hotels, but because of how they treat you in their own home.

In Nara I stayed with a family. A couple, and their 4 year old son. I was so surprised that a family with a child so young would welcome me, a foreigner and stranger, into their home. It was a beautiful, modern Japanese style home. Wood walls, sliding doors and everything. When I got there, they picked me up from the train station, and they even paid for my bus tickets. We made sushi together, and went out for donuts. They showed me around the city and we went to a temple where there were deer everywhere. The next day, they helped me make a sign and find a good place to hitchhike back to Otsu from.

The thing about hitchhiking is you have to be comfortable being in someone else's car. I've met a lot of people who outright say they won't do it. It's something that's stigmatized as negative because of American (and probably other) films. And yeah, there probably are a ton of creepy truck drivers in America, and even in Japan, but Japan is also known for being extremely safe, and I actually happen to have a little faith in humanity and my own judgement.

When I hitchhiked from Otsu to Hiroshima and back I got in cars with: a family moving their son for work, a business woman, a mother moving her son to college, a business man who took me miles out of his way, three old guys, another old guy, and another business man.

When a car pulls over you often get so excited that you don't second guess what you're doing, because hey, you finally get to get a move on.

And pretty much every time I didn't really need to worry. All the people I met were so lovely. Some gave or bought me coffee or food even after I said I didn't need any. But when you're a guest in a Japanese person's car or home, you always get a gift in some form. Many drivers would pull over to input my address or destination into their GPS. They went above and beyond what I expected.

There was only one time I really questioned what I was doing. A van with three older men pulled over. My Japanese was good enough to communicate where I was going and answer a few questions. They shut the door, took a few minutes to clear some stuff, and then let me get in. So I got in and we started talking in Japanese about where I was from and what I was doing. Over and over from multiple groups I got, "shtori??" meaning, "alone??" People always were surprised I was traveling alone. I didn't know much other Japanese so the conversation faded and they started talking in Japanese to each other (they didn't speak any English at all). I observed the trash in this old van and these guys looked like the type to stay out late and gamble playing mah jong, or something. One had moved into the back part with no seats so that I could have a seat in the middle. I wondered where they were going, and a few times wondered if I was being kidnapped, although I knew I was being paranoid. They let me out a few service areas later, and it was fine. My faith in humanity was restored.


The Things You Don't Consider About Hitchhiking

By the end of my trip, I was happy I could speak enough Japanese to ask people where they were going, say where I was going, and say a few other random sentences. The language doesn't correspond to English at all whatsoever, so learning it was pretty hard at first. The best experiences were when I got a driver who could speak a bit of English, but not perfect English, so I could try Japanese and they could correct me, and vise versa. The Japanese people appreciated when I would try to speak Japanese. So many of them had never even talked to a foreigner before.

I would always wonder what type of person would pick up a tall tattooed foreigner off the side of the road. I think most of them were just curious, or wanted company on their long drives. I was always surprised when female drivers picked me up. One businessman who picked me up had already been driving 6 or so hours, and had about 6 left. This actually was the case a few times.

The people I met hitchhiking were people I would have never spent that much time with otherwise. When you're sitting in car together, one on one, you're forced to converse beyond just, "Hello, what's your name," and "Where are you from?" Even with the enormous language gap the drivers and I were able to communicate random things, and in my opinion, this was way better than sitting on a train alone. Of course, you no one is stopping you from talking to random people on a train, but it might seem weird, whereas in a car it's not. And people on a train or in public will often just respond with some form of "I can't understand," making the conversation not salvageable. In a car with someone, you find some way to communicate what you're saying, and when you finally get your point across and see that the other person understands, there's a certain excitement that you can't really get from anything else. And if you can't find the words to explain, that's fine too, because you both know there's a language barrier, and you're both trying your best.

I was also happy to tell people about my experience in America. I got questions like, "In America, does every person own a gun? Does everyone just have a gun at arms length in their house?" I laughed at this, but realized that this was kind of the way America was portrayed in films. A lot of people asked me about Donald Trump. I also learned that Leonardo DiCaprio was pretty much every Japanese person's favorite actor.

I recommend hitchhiking to everyone. You meet so many people from the country you're visiting, and you get to learn about mundane things that you can't find in travel books or the internet.

If you want to hitchhike, you should use Wikipedia to find the specific country you want to do it in, and find some tips there. The ones for Japan helped me a lot, and I probably wouldn't have been so successful if I didn't use them.

My experience in Japan was so unique in comparison to the other countries I've been to, and I'll never forget it. All I can say is the things I did to make my trip cheaper were actually the things that made it the best.


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