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Hitchhiking in Japan is quite easy, and the key to true budget travel in the country and the way to escape the country's ruinously expensive domestic transport costs, where an hour on the Shinkansen can set you back ¥10,000. Coupled with camping, you can effectively cut down your daily budget to food and admission fees alone - although it is wise to allow for the occasional (literal) rainy day.
Where to hitch
It is almost impossible to hitch out of Tokyo or any large Japanese city by waving your thumb on the Ginza. Thus, to get out, you have to find the places where drivers going out congregate, which in practice means service areas (サービスエリア sābisu eria, SA) or parking areas (パーキングエリア pākingu eria, PA) on the large toll expressways (高速道路 kōsokudōro) connecting Japan's major cities. As you might guess, service areas are larger and better equipped than parking areas, but surprisingly few Japanese are familiar with the difference so it's easier to label them all service areas.
- Update 2010: I mostly hitched Japan hopping from Convenience Store (Lawson/7-Eleven) to the next one, and I absolutely think it's the best, especially for short-distance hitching or for getting started at the edge of a city (yes, even large ones). There is always enough space for cars to pull over next to Konbinis, and a decent parking lot; and there is always a trademark sign, meaning that Konbinis are meant to be easily spotted while people are driving, so be smart and use them to draw their attention to you too. The Japanese stop an insane number of times during a trip, and it's always at a Konbini, to buy food, drinks, take a leak (nearly all road Konbinis have a toilet), making a call, or even for nothing! If your driver is going to buy drink/food for himself, it's absolutely certain that you'll get some too. gutuater
- Update 2012: I can 100% confirm the above. I almost always got a ride, regardless of time, when standing in front of a 7-11. traceoftoxin
- Update 2018: Disagree on big cities being impossible. Tokyo might be impossible but everywhere else is plausible. Have hitched out of cities by waving my thumb, there's a longer wait though. Agree on the use of convenience stores. Alternatives, if necessary, include McDonald's with drive-throughs, restaurants with parking lots... You want a place where a driver can legally stop their car long enough for both of you to decide if you're going on their vehicle. snowballsakura
A useful rule of the thumb (pun intended) is that if you can get somewhere on a train for less than 2000 yen, hitchhiking the distance is unlikely to be worth the trouble. For destinations around Tokyo, such as for Mount Fuji, Hakone, Nikko, hitchhiking is unlikely to be worth the trouble... until you actually get there, that is. All three regions have expensive local transport but plenty of unhurried tourists driving about, always a good combination for the hitchhiker.
Getting on the expressway
Some SA/PAs can be accessed by cheap public transportation and then on foot. To see the map of all the SA/PA, you can use Nexco West or Nexco Central websites. Select one of the 3 mains areas on the top right of the website. Most Areas are also visible on Google Maps so you can easily try to get an itinerary to these. You can see on the map is there are stairs to access them.
Aside from SA/PAs, the second way to get on the expressway is to hitch outside an interchange. ICs do tend to be a bit closer to town, but in Tokyo they are usually in the middle of very heavy traffic and with few, if any, places where hitching is even remotely possible, so getting rides also takes considerably longer. It is generally preferably to sit on a local for an extra half an hour and maybe even pay a few yen for the privilege of not having to choke on exhaust for an hour.
The third method would be take a long-distance bus that uses the expressway and stops at a parking area along the way. However, cataloguing which routes go where on which roads and which service areas they stop at would be a fairly difficult enterprise, you'll also need to buy a rather expensive bus ticket just to get on the thing, and you'll probably freak out the bus attendants who will certainly notice if the only gaijin on the bus doesn't come back from the break.
Hitching on the expressway
At the SA/PA itself, the best place to hitch is near the offramp to the expressway, ideally so that you've visible from the buildings — this way drivers can see you as they go in and think about picking you up before they get in their car and make the choice. From a service area with decent traffic, you are very likely to get a ride within minutes.
- update 2018: There are now free, great quality maps available at most service areas. You can either find them in the nexco magazine or at the tourist information booths at larger service areas.
Once you've made it onto the expressway, it's easy to keep bouncing from one SA/PA to the next one, but a decent highway map is imperative so you know the best place to get off if your destination and your driver's path diverge. It's entirely possible to cover 500 kilometers or more in a single day by using expressways.
Note that it is illegal to stop a car or walk on foot anywhere on the expressway itself, including tollbooths, and you will be rapidly picked up by the highway police if you try. Do not allow your driver to drop you off outside a service area.
- Update 2018: Agree - expressways are excellent for covering long-distance in a single day. In August 2017 I left Aomori at 7am, got lost twice because I chose rides where the drivers were as clueless as I was, and I still arrived in Tochigi after 11pm on the same day. snowballsakura
- Update 2018: I'll second this advice. After a late start to the day (rain delay and lunch at a konbini :D), my first ride dropped me off at an SA. My second ride was with a truck driver, who approached me after a 30 minute wait. He offered to take me close to the my target destination for the day. That second ride was one of my longest rides during the trip and showed how much distance one can cover if one used an expressway. Getting into expressways can be difficult, because there may not be too many entrances  . But once you gain access, then you are good to go! I3ok3n
Outside the expressway system on ordinary toll-free national highways (国道 kokudō), there are also occasional service areas of a sort, known as Michi-no-Eki (道の駅), lit. "Road stations". These are excellent places to get dropped off, fuel up, consult maps and grab rides.
- Update 2018: There are lots of drivers who take regular, toll-free roads. These kokudo roads take a longer time. For example I hitched from Hakodate to Sapporo and back, and never got on the expressway. Kokudo roads can sometimes be easier to grab rides on than trying to get on the expressways. The first time I ever hitched in Japan actually, I was stranded in a situation where I had to move homes within the same city in the same day, but had no means of conveying my belongings over. I stood along a regular road with a sign in broken Japanese explaining my situation, waited an hour, and a pair of siblings came to help. snowballsakura
Other traditional favourites include the offramps of roadside gas stations and convenience stores. The keys are visibility and accessibility: drivers have to be able to spot you in advance, and they have to be able to stop and pick you up without endangering themselves or others.
Note that it is illegal to hitchhike near road crossings or from bus stops, although in rural areas where buses drop by just 2-3 times a day the latter is often tolerated. The very end of a merging lane after a crossing is also OK, as long as you are more than 5 meters away from the crossing itself. In general, hitchhiking is legal and Japanese police don't hassle hitchhikers, but they do have fairly wide-ranging powers to act on anything that disturbs or distracts traffic, so use common sense.
How to hitch
Except for the occasional impoverished student in the wide expanses of Hokkaido, there is very little tradition of hitchhiking in Japan, and you will more likely than not be the first hitchhiker that your driver has ever even seen, much less picked up. The key to hitchhiking is thus to assuage these fears and look as harmless and friendly as possible.
- Update 2018: I think times may have changed. It is true that hitch-hiking is still something most Japanese would not do, but I'm not sure if hitch-hiking is something people have never seen before. Some of the rides I took told me they've seen hitch-hikers before. The ones I have personally seen with my own eyes, coincidentally, were all Japanese, male, and seemed to be below 35 years old. Some alone, some in pairs. I live near a huge kokudo road, maybe that's why I spot some. But I have also talked to hitch hikers on normal occasions unrelated to travel. I've yet to chance upon a "foreign-looking" hitch hiker though. snowballsakura
I agree, in the spring of 2018 I hitched all the way from Tokyo to Kyusu and found it very easy, eventhough I'm a very tall strange looking European. Most people seem to know what hitching is, and their hospitality once in their vehicle is astounding. You will be offered food, candy, drinks. Even a place to stay at times. I also bet several other hitchhikers with similar experiences. By far one of the easiest countries to hitch in as long as you stay in the expressway system. yogibear
The top worries of a Japanese driver when they see a hitchhiking gaijin are: Can he communicate? Does he know how to behave? The quick way to answer those questions is with a sign: 日本語できる！ (Nihongo dekiru!), literally "Japanese can!", is just six characters and works like a charm. And you don't really need to know Japanese all that well to use such a sign, as long as you can communicate... somehow... Most people have smartphones now that are connected to the internet all the time and love to use translation apps on them. So it is pretty common to have entire conversations over a smart phone. Rdoc101 had a deep conversation about getting married to my travel partner entirely through a smartphone.
Second on the agenda is appearance. This is not the place for a mop of unruly hair, ripped jeans and sunglasses — foreigners are by default scary, and you need to do your best to look like you stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Neat trousers, clean shirt, a hat to protect you from the sun instead of sunglasses. If you have a huge rucksack, hide it off to the side.
- Comment: Not true, at least if you obviously look like a foreigner. That qualifies you as "special person", that should be forgiven if a) doesn't speak Japanese at looks at you like an amoeba b) look weird, but you know, it's the new fashion from the West! haven't heard of it yet?! c) doesn't know how to behave (concept encompassing various implications; strangely enough though, everybody will be astonished at the sight of you eating a) Japanese food and seem to like it, b) you're skilfully eating it with chopsticks!). That doesn't mean that communication is irrelevant though, although you might be able to get rides just as easily; but it does mean that everything coming from the West is "cool", so people are more likely to accept weird appearance/outfit of a Westerner rather than a local. gutuater
- Agreed, I sported a hefty beard and unkempt hair, wearing shorts and whatever t-shirt with a massive 40lb wilderness camping backpack. I often would lay my pack beside me and sit on it while I waited for traffic. I never once used a sign. traceoftoxin
- Japanese don't think that foreigners will misbehave. Maybe this is the case 30 years ago but not anymore. They are worried that their English isn't good enough and they might do you more harm than help e.g. get you lost or take you to the wrong place. As long as you can communicate with them somehow about important stuff like destination etc. it'll be okay.
- Clothes - Wear whatever you are comfortable with. For practical reasons, really, dress for comfort. I've talked to Japanese hitch-hikers, they wear normal clothes, may or may not have oddly sized baggage with them, they get their rides. I'm an Asian woman, black hair black eyes same skin tone as the Japanese. I wear a pair of bright shocking pink pants and always have my big backpack close enough for all to know it belongs to me. I get my rides.
- I think the most important is a genuine smile, being polite and having a positive attitude. I feel like a person who'd pick up a hitch-hiker would do so because they're interested in helping a person in need. Nationality is secondary, but seeming foreign helps because of Japanese 'omotenashi' where they feel like they want to provide some form of hospitality to a foreigner, in hopes that visitors will have a good time and good impression of Japan. snowballsakura
With these down pat, it's time to assume the pose and hitch. Hitchhiking being an unusual phenomenon, the best-recognized pose will be the classic Western style: left hand extended straight, thumb up, and a winning smile on your face. Try to look drivers in the eye as they approach and perhaps even make a small bow of appreciation, especially if they slow down to take a better look at you or, better yet, loop back for a second look. And persevere: you may get picked up by the first car, or you may have to wait a while, but you will be picked up sooner or later.
If you are going to use a sign at all, then it is enough to stick with the four directions: 北 (kita) for north, 南 (minami) for south, 西 (nishi) for west and 東 (higashi) for east. You can use these anywhere in the country and people always understand what you mean. On top of this, it makes them think you know some Japanese, which will make them more likely to pull over for you.
- comment. The directions works well. I also found the kanji 方面 (direction) very useful
Once the car does stop, a window will roll down and you will almost always be asked a simple question: Doko made? ("To where?") Do not make the mistake of giving your final destination, as the driver may assume that you will insist on going all the way. (This is also why it's usually not wise to use a destination sign.) Instead, pick the nearest major waypoint and state X no hō ("In the direction of X").
Having a map in Japanese to point to is very helpful. Especially if you can't pronounce names of towns correctly.
- Comment: I always went with "Doko demo kono dōro-jō", or, anywhere on this road. That often got me in the car, and as we talked we'd sort out where exactly they were willing to take me. I only got turned down once, and turned down a ride offer once. traceoftoxin
- Comment: Just assuming the pose was rarely enough in my experience. You have to be slightly aggressive and bluntly ask people where they are going - while making sure they've seen your pose. People that seem reluctant to take you with them can turn out to be very welcoming when they're simply asked, preferably in Japanese. Matsumoto Joe
- Comment 2018: Not sure how well the pose works, because when I'm not travelling, I've spoken to some Japanese that think that the pose is used to call a cab. That kind of explains why an actual taxi pulled over once while I did the pose without a sign. I almost always use a sign, and the locals seem to always use signs. One guy said that in a busy city, sticking your thumb out is the best way, but I think I'll stick to either signs only or pose+sign.
- For Japanese hitch-hikers, their signs are really specific. They get a ring notebook and write down every city they need to pass through on their route page by page. I've yet to try this and I'm not sure if I ever will. The North-South-East-West mentioned above worked really well for me. In addition I would also like to recommend two more things you can write on your sign: 上り (nobori, towards Tokyo) and 下り (kudari, away from Tokyo). Before going on the road, I ask someone at the hostel or any random person, "(destination) houmen wa, nobori desu ka? kudari desu ka?" (If I'm going towards (destination), is it the Nobori or Kudari route?). Their answer will be what I write on my sign. I also use these two words even when I'm on a toll-free road, because it helps give people a good idea of which route you want to get on. It's less vague than "east" or "west" without them worrying that they can't take you to your final destination. Another good question to ask is: "(destination) houmen wa, kaisoku doro desuka?" (Do most people take the expressway to get to (destination)?) - this gives you an idea of what kind of route you have better luck on.
- To add, I've yet to go up to people and ask for a ride. It feels unnecessary for me. I've made it clear I'm looking for a ride, in a specific direction without a specific destination. I stand in spots with the most optimal exposure to being seen by traffic. And I wear bright pink pants and have a huge backpack with me. Sometimes, random kind people who can't take me on their vehicles actually go around asking everyone and their dog at the PA/Michi-no-eki to take me on...and it's futile. A ride will come, I stand and wait with my sign patiently. Personally, I dislike asking around. If someone wants to take me, they will, if they can't, they can't. In fact, I've had people turn back after passing by because they were worried or curious or had second thoughts and decided to let me hitch. I never had to approach anyone. In Japanese culture they often say 'no' in vague/confusing ways, plus, constant rejection might be a blow to your mood or attitude for the day. Hitch-hiking works a little differently for everyone. What I read on this guide is useful before I started, but I think it's alright to change your ways and means as you like. snowballsakura
When to hitch
Like other tourism in Japan, the best times of year are spring and fall, when it's not too hot and not too cold. Hitching in the summer risks sunburn and dehydration, while winter is simply too cold.
- Comment: I am not sure what "too cold" means. Even in Southern/Western Japan, it can be freaking cold in the winter, but that's mainly because people don't really heat their homes, and most of the times you'll find it warmer outdoors than indoors... cars are definitely warm and comfortable, so unless you're standing in the middle of nowhere, you'll get your ride and a hot drink from your driver before you'll reach hypothermia.gutuater
Distasteful as it may be to get up at 06:00 on vacation, as a hitchhiker you must get an early start. Many of the longest rides are available early in the morning, and your hitchhiking day will come to an end when the sun goes down.
- Comment: The biggest thing I found wrong with the hitchhikers guide to Japan. I rarely got good rides in the morning, in fact, my ride/wait ratio was much worse with 20 minute waits for 20 minute rides in the mornings vs 30-40 minute waits at night for 2 hour rides. I would always use morning to walk around, explore my locale, then start hitching after noon. I got most of my best rides in the early afternoon and right around 17:00-18:00. Hitching after 20:00 takes a lot longer, but often you get really good rides out of it. I would not suggest waking up early for rides. traceoftoxin
If the weather is bad, it's best to give up hitchhiking for the day and figure out something else to do. A sodden figure standing forlornly in the rain with his thumb out is not a pitiful figure in Japan, he's a dangerous lunatic.
If hitching out of a tourist spot (Nikko for example where I hitched to Utsunomiya) you can still catch rides a little later on with the day tourists heading home. As long as it is still light you still have a fair chance of getting a lift later on in the day. The early morning rides I found were in a rush going to work etc so didn't have time to stop for me whereas the tourists are in no hurry.
Who to hitch with
In Japan, as everywhere else, your gender matters when hitchhiking. On an ascending scale of difficulty, the best combinations are:
- Girl alone (but see below)
- Two girls
- Boy and girl couple
- Boy alone
- Two boys
- Three or more people
While a single girl (or woman) is likely to get picked up very fast, this has its risks: Japan has its fair share of perverts and predators and a lone hitchhiker in a foreign country is a vulnerable target.
As for who will pick you up, the range of humanity you will encounter is surprising and, once you've crossed the threshold into their car, the generosity and trust will amaze you. You will be picked up by young couples, grizzled old farmers, families with small children, travelling salesmen, single women, yakuza mobsters, Buddhist monks... and, almost without exception, you will be offered drinks and snacks, bought lunch and quite possibly offered a tatami (floor) for the night. But try to distinguish between offers of genuine goodwill and interest and offers out of duty or perceived obligation, as your driver is likely to feel that he is a host and he must treat you as an honoured guest, despite any inconvenience or even financial expense that this might cause.
As a guest, you will not be expected (or allowed) to pay any expenses. Be thankful for this, as Japan's expressway tolls are extremely high: for example, the trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs around ¥8000 in tolls alone.
- Comment: I'm a lone girl hitch hiker. The longest I've waited to get picked up was 4 hours, shortest 5 minutes, and average/median feels like 30 to 45 minutes. If the others who wrote on this page, and the other first few results on google claim that they average at 15-20minutes, I'm not sure if lone girls should still top the list. I suspect that single, foreign-looking men may take the spot instead? Agree on quantity though - have had a few drivers tell me they've always wanted to let someone hitch a ride, but couldn't fit them because 2 was too many.
- I have taken only about 30+ different rides in total so far, most of them were really nice! Polite, friendly, showered me lots of care and concern. Two mediocre experienes: a guy that tried to emotionally possess me while I was around, and two guys who tricked me into signing up for some cult religion.
- Despite that, I still continue to hitch hike! I have taken rides with male drivers that had no other companions, and they were very respectful, polite, and didn't try to make me feel uncomfortable. Being friendly and sticking to 'safe' topics (Japanese culture, language-related talk, food and weather, places, questions about how Japanese feel about politics/culture) are a good way to be cautious but still offer good conversation. Additionally, don't always give your full real name, and if they offer to drive you all the way to your destination, pick some where a little far off. When I hitch my way home I tell them the name of a station 2 stops from my real place. If they ask for contact information, I usually give them an e-mail address I have that is unassociated with my other social media. I've yet to try this but a friend recommends wearing a ring on your ring finger to look "unavailable". The only time I'm super lax and off-guard are when I get picked up by families, with their kids in tow. snowballsakura
- Honshu - Kanto: Tokyo (東京), Shizuoka (静岡), Matsumoto (松本), Nagano (長野), Nagoya (名古屋市),Gifu (岐阜), shirakawa (白川), Kanazawa (金沢), Matsumoto (松本), Gotemba (御殿場)
- Honshu - Kansai: Kyoto (京都), Osaka (大阪), Kobe (神戸), Hiroshima (広島)
- Honshu - Tohoku: Akita (秋田), Aomori (青森)
- Kyushu: Nagasaki (長崎), Kagoshima (鹿児島), Fukuoka (福岡市), Beppu (別府), oita (大分),
- Shikoku: Takamatsu (高松), Tokushima (徳島), Kochi (高知), Matsuyama (松山)
- Hokkaido: Hakodate (函館), Sapporo (札幌), Wakkanai (稚内) , Asahikawa (旭川)
- Nexco take care of the highways and SA/PAs, they have multiple websites depending of the part of Japan you are in. But you can find the same maps which you can get inside the SA/PAs on the corresponding website. Nexco West Nexco Central
- Travelstory on Randomroads by gutuater about hitching Japan. Photo gallery here.
- Information, tips and personal experiences of hitch-hiking in Japan. A 2717 km journey on 58 vehicles (only in spanish)
- Tips for hitchhiking in Japan on Warmroads blog (2016).
- "While Preparing For Rain, All We Found Was Sunshine" blog post by Kerem (2016)
- Road Atlas Japan (ISBN 4-398-20104-1) — a hitchhiker's invaluable companion, listing pretty much every major road in the country in both English and Japanese. Difficult to find overseas but available in any larger Japanese bookstore (including Amazon.co.jp); look for the lurid orange cover.
- Bilingual Map of Japan (ISBN 978-4-398-83014-2) by Mapple - Perfect, compact, high quality map for just 1000 Yen. List all major routes and city names in phonetic English. Ideal when you are packing light and perfect for showing the driver if verbal communication proves difficult.
Will Ferguson has written a number of informative and entertaining books about hitchhiking in Japan. These include:
- Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan (ISBN 0-8048-2068-6) — practical guide to hitchhiking with a number of tested itineraries
- Hokkaido Highway Blues (ISBN 1-56947-234-3) — the story of an epic hitchhiking trip across the entire country