While traveling in Japan we hitchhiked over 1.300 km around the country, got picked up by over 20 different cars and visited many cities. There is not too much information on internet about hitchhiking in Japan so we want to share our experiences and tips to other budget travelers.
We hope that this guide will be helpful. Our main source of information was Hitchwiki. The site contains great tips and detailed information about hitchhiking spots. Everyone who is considering hitchhiking in Japan should read Hitchwiki first.
We must say that the decision to hitchhike in Japan was great and we had a blast meeting all those interesting and friendly people! We feel like hitchhiking made half of our stay in Japan and allowed us to get to know the local culture deeper than we would otherwise have.
Additionally, we managed to save at least 500 dollars each by not using the traditional means of transport. With this money we will easily live a couple of months in South East Asia! We consider Japan as a very safe country and the people are extremely friendly and helpful.
Our hitchhiking route in Japan. In Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe) and inside the cities we traveled by train.
How to hitchhike in Japan?
We used the traditional hitchhiking method: we put a thumb up and showed a sign with the destination name. This worked fine and helped the people understand what we are actually doing.
Where to hitchhike in Japan?
We used Hitchwiki whenever there was some information about the city we currently were. When not, we checked potential spots on the map and tried to find convenience stores or service areas. You can find a list of big expressways in Japan here. Some expressways have English websites where the rest areas are listed. The best way to hitchhike is to hop from a convenience store or service area to the next one.
Service areas (SA) are good spots to hitchhike long distances and are very good hitchhiking spots because everyone is always going to the same direction. That means that every car can potentially give you a ride. There are also parking areas (PA) on expressways but they can be more silent and don’t have restaurants and shops like service areas.
The challenge with service and parking areas is that they are located outside the cities so you need more time and money to get to there. Be aware that you never know for sure whether the service station is accessible by foot or not. We found out that sometimes it is possible and sometimes not.
Use Google Streetview to check the locations beforehand. In Awaji we tried to get to a service station which turned out to be an impossible task. Finally we hitched a ride from toll road officers. Not the most common way but at least we got there…
If getting to a service station seems too complicated, highway ramps are a good option for hitchhiking.Find a big intersection that joins the highway and hitchhike before the ramp and highway start. We preferred roads with traffic lights because the cars had to slow down. Stopping car with a big speed is much more difficult.
Convenience stores (konbini in Jap.) like 7 Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart can be found everywhere in every city. Hitching a ride from a store sometimes works even inside the city center area and it can be a good way to get out from the city. Many people also stop by to buy snacks when they drive long distances.
Who will pick you up?
We got picked up basically by all kinds of people. Old and young couples, young ladies, guys traveling alone, truck drivers, a woman with a baby in the backseat, a family with many children… You will be surprised how friendly and open-minded many people are. Sometimes the car you considered as the most unlikely option will pull over.
Additionally, consider these tips that we learned and find useful to know:
Avoid hitchhiking in the dark. At least never try to hitchhike at the side of the road without daylight. If the sunset comes earlier than you thought, you can still hitchhike in front of convenience stores or service stations. Anyhow, it’s always better to start early in the morning because you never know how long it will take to get to your destination.
Never hitchhike on a highway. It is illegal and dangerous and you might end up paying a big fine.
Dress neatly and according to the weather. Normal clothes are fine but try not to look homeless at least. Japanese people pay a lot of attention to clothing and personal hygiene. Don’t wear sunglasses to keep your eyes visible.
Write a sign in Japanese. A hitchhiking sign is important in order to indicate where you want to go. We recommend writing the names in Japanese because it shows more respect and is easier to read for the drivers. If writing kanjis seems too difficult, just ask some local to write it down for you. If your destination is far away, writing the next city instead of the final destination might be a good idea. Sometimes we also used directions (north, west etc.) instead of city names.
Download a map on your phone. This helps you to keep track where you get dropped off and where to find the next hitchhiking spot. If you have a language barrier with the driver, pointing the map is always easy.
Learn some essential sentences in Japanese. Most people you will meet don’t speak English at all.
Hello – konnichiwa
Excuse me – sumimasen
Thank you – arigatou gozaimasu
Where are you going? – Doko ni ikimasu ka?
Service station – sabisu eria
convenience store – konbini
Remember to bow and smile. If you look friendly and innocent, the people are more likely to pick you up. We always smiled and waved back to all people who reacted to our hitchhiking attempts, even if they didn’t pull over. If you don’t manage to get a ride, at least you can make somebody’s day. Most people have never seen hitchhikers before so it’s a unique experience for them. In Japan a polite behavior is extremely important and by bowing you can show your respect to people.
Approach people directly and make eye contact. We noticed that sometimes we were waiting for a long time keeping our thumbs up but the people just tried to avoid eye contact and kept passing us. Go to ask the people directly where they are going and if you can go with them even a short distance. They feel more involved and are less likely to say no. With moving cars, try to get eye contact with the driver and he or she will pull over more probably.
Be ready to get weird looks and being laughed and stared at. Hitchhiking in Japan is not common and sometimes we felt like animals in the zoo. In bad days it felt very uncomfortable but most of the time we were just having fun. We were laughing back at the surprised and confused faces and just smiled to all people who looked at us.
Be prepared to tell about your country and culture. The people are very curious and want to know where you come from. They will ask you questions about your country and what you like in Japan (we talked a lot about food, saunas and Santa Claus). We had some pictures of Finland in our phones so it was easy to break the ice even with the people who didn’t speak English.
Consider traveling short distances by train. In Japan the metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Kansai are huge and the cities don’t basically end before the next one starts. If you can get to the next city relatively cheaply by local train, go for it. Probably you need to spend almost same amount of money to get to a good hitchhiking spot so it’s not worth the hassle. The train from Kyoto to Osaka costs only about 500 yen so in this kind of cases we decided to skip hitchhiking and treat ourselves with a certain and prompt ride. Our limit for paying for a train ticket was about 1.000 yen – if it cost more, we were ready to try hitchhiking and save money.
Remember that Japan is one of the safest countries to hitchhike and most of the people are nice to foreigners. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be careful at all. You have the right to decline a ride if the driver seems suspicious. From our experience, all the people were friendly and willing to help foreigners. Many people are eager to learn about your culture and practice their English.
We met one family who was extremely excited to meet hitchhikers. We had lots of fun together and still keep in touch with them. They even offered us a generous lunch at their favorite restaurant. This was one of the most amazing hitchhiking experiences we had! We also got help from many people on the way. Once a salesperson from 7 Eleven spent at least 15 minutes hitching a ride for us and didn’t give up before we got a ride. Many people drove extra 50 or even 100 kilometers just because they wanted to give us a ride. So cool!
Stay positive. Sometimes it takes a long time before you get a ride and everyone seems rude or ignores you. We kept repeating the sentence we read on Hitchwiki: “someone will pick you up sooner or later, but someone will always pick you up finally,” And it actually worked. We never stayed without a ride and always got where we wanted. You only need one nice person to pull over from all those cars.
Enjoy your journey! Hitchhiking is an adventure and you never know where you will find yourself. Hitchhiking is a great way to travel on a budget in Japan. These are the stories you will tell to your grandchildren 50 years later 🙂
If you want more detailed information about hitchhiking spots in the cities we visited, just drop us a question!