Throwing caution to the wind, I discover a trusting, inclusive, easy-going Japan just by sticking out my thumb.
14.06.2009 29 °C
Since I was a kid I have listened to my father’s tales of traveling the open Canadian road into Alaska. My father chose the most interesting way to travel: hitchhiking. When we were kids and taking road-trips across Canada, dad would always stop to pick up hitchhikers if we had room. He always said, “As long as they look like they could camp right where they stand then go ahead and pick them up. They are obviously out there for the experience of it, but if they are carrying a gym bag just pass them by." Well, I have always wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps and give hitchhiking a try and this month I finally had my chance.
I heard some other English teachers were organizing a charity hitchhike in Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island, during Golden Week. Golden Week is when three holiday days fall after a long weekend and if you take four days off work you can have as many at 11 days off. So I took the days off work and I jumped at the opportunity hitchhike in one of the safest countries in the world. Thankfully my best friend, Shane, was totally into it too.
We left Okayama on a night bus at 10pm and were dropped off on the side of the highway at 5am in Mojiko. After wandering around the middle of no where for a while we found a convenience store and bought a map of Kyushu to start making our plans. Once we had decided on our plan for the day, we got out on the road and stuck out our thumbs. It felt pretty weird to do it the first time but it only took about sixteen minutes before we were picked up by a lone guy named Junpei.
Junpei drove us for about an hour and dropped us off at a convenience store where we got our next ride from Hirutakasan who listened to the weirdest chipmunk music. The car smelled like B.O. but only when we were stopped. Took about an hour and a half and we were in Beppu where we found this statue at the station. Yes, that is a naked baby attached to that man's waistcoat.
We wandered over the beach and fell asleep.
After we rolled off the beach we wandered around Beppu for a while and had an onsen at the oldest onsen in Beppu, which incidentally is also the worst onsen in Beppu. I had a fight with a couple of ladies in there and eventually just through my town down and said, “Don’t worry. I’m leaving.” We waited for our new friend Doron who was in charge of the hitchhiking fundraiser, who had offered his place up for passers by who were in need of a place to crash. He fed us and took us out to an incredible hot spring in the mountains that night. It was just beautiful to look at the stars and sit in a natural hot spring. Thanks Doron!
We rolled out of bed the next morning to try one more of Beppu’s famous onsens: a hot sand onsen. It’s exactly like when your friends cover you with sand at the beach but the sand is hot and very heavy and you come out of it feeling like a million bucks.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the day before we were looking for something to do so we hitched out to a place called Monkey Mountain where we were surprised to find hundreds of wild monkeys living in a community near the highway.
We wandered around with monkeys running through our legs and tried not to kill the staff that were constantly nattering on into a loud speaker and taunting the monkeys with peanuts.
From Beppu it took us a couple of rides to get to the Stone Buddhas in Usuki.
Our driver, Aso-san, had picked us up an hour before and we were never sure if he was even heading in our direction. He decided to come with us to see the stone Buddhas and the forest walk.
After that he offered to keep driving us. We finally decided he would drop us off in the next town after we had spent more than four hours with him and we were convinced he was driving us to be nice. But, even when we got to the drop-off point he was still saying things like, “have you seen this…?” and “ have you seen that...?" The guy just didn’t want to let us go. Shane said later he was starting to prepare himself for a tuck-and-roll out of the car.
After holding up our sign that said “In the direction of Sumie (or maybe Nobeyoka)," we got a ride from a nice older couple who were just out for an afternoon drive.
They took us for ice cream.
They too took us out of their way right down to the beach in Sumie though they seemed a little peeved about it by the time they dropped us off. Sumie was a little harder to find than they anticipated I guess.
Well, I would have to say our time in Sumie at Sun Beach was the highlight of my trip.
The beach was so beautiful and quiet. We arrived there at 5 pm and all the little restaurants along the beach looked closed but the door to the last one was open and the man and woman there offered to cook for us. We sat around and drank a few glasses of wine before we discovered the man, Ryo, had spend some time in the States and could speak perfect English. Well, we finished that bottle of wine, and another one before Ryo tucked into his stash of sweet potato shochu (AKA: airplane fuel). We got good and drunk and discovered we all had music in common and it wasn’t but a few minutes later that we had been loaded into Ryo’s friend’s cab and were on our way into Nobeyoka to sing Karaoke at Ryo’s wife’s bar. Needless to say it was a very funny night and we slept like babies on the beach in our tent until dawn.
The next day was a lazy day of beaching and reading and just lounging about. We left in the afternoon to check out another beach we had heard about just five minutes up the road.
Kitaura had a rather large camping resort area with a big beach which we figured we could camp on. We were wrong. We inquired at the resort store with the woman working there if she knew of a good place we could camp for free. The manager of the resort basically told us to get lost but the woman took pity on us and told us we could stay at her house. We figured she would let us pitch our tent on her lawn. Without saying more than ten words to each other this woman walked us over the hill to a little fishing village hidden from the sight of the average passer by. The town looked old and worn out, a little like a slum. When we arrived at the woman’s house (we never did find out her name) she brought us into a little two room house and told us we could sleep there. So there we sat with out mouths dangling open at this woman’s trust and kindness and at our amazing luck to have been given a private house for the night. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. She even cooked us some fish and rice in the morning and served it up with a pot of tea. Fantastic! The only downside was that I suffered from allergies like I never have before in that house so it was a little bitter sweet for me.
We left Kitaura that morning with a guy we had met on the docks who noticed the sign Shane had made and offered us a ride with him. He and his mates had been sitting on the docks by the sea talking shit and joking about pig flu with us. They were a funny bunch. They reminded me of the folks my dad has coffee with every morning, just sitting around solving the world’s problems.
Our destination that day was the Takachiho Gorge, the birthplace of Japan.
It took two rides and about two hours to get out to the gorge. We had an idea we would look for a place to camp in the gorge near the water but there was nothing to be found. The whole place was very touristy and suffered from the same yelling-into-loud-speakers problem that Monkey Mountain had. I got to say though, the gorge was amazingly beautiful!
After a proper wander through the gorge with about three thousand other people we made our way out into the town to look for a place to stay. We attempted to look for a town park we could camp in and found nothing but a couple of overpriced ryokans (Japanese style hotels). After what seemed like and endless day of walking we went back to the gorge to find our bags where we had dropped them next to a restaurant. Shane started laying on the charm to one of the girls in the restaurant hoping we could get a ride. We didn’t get a ride but we did find out we would be able to camp at a highway rest stop on the outside of town. So, we did that. We camped on the smallest patch of grass right outside the restaurant window and when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night I realized the whole parking lot was full of people sleeping in their cars and four other tents had been set up on the same little patch of grass next to our tent. That was a freaking cold night. We woke in the morning with children playing around our tent and when I got out of the tent I found all fifty people sitting in the restaurant staring out at me like I was a monkey in a zoo. Nothing new.
Our next ride was a short twenty minutes with three guys Shane called "the boy band".
They were quite young and all had brightly colored shirts and crazy hair. They had plastic bags with heads in their trunk. Hilarious! The one guy was a hairdresser. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere at a grocery store. We were now in Kumamo, the old stomping grounds of my dear friend Krista from home (her stories have contributed greatly to my coming to Japan) and this time our sign read, “In the direction of Mount Aso,” the largest active volcano in Japan.
Aso was spectacular.
I wasn’t really keen on going there at first but it was one of the places Shane really wanted to see so I was happy to check it out too. I’m so glad I did. Though we only spent a little while at the top of the volcano it was one of the highlights of this trip. It was like being on the moon (with dozens of other tourists). The landscape was barren and covered with random rocks and black sand. Shane and I built this inukshuk to make sure everyone knew which way we would be going next.
This was the first inukshuk we had ever made and it looks pretty darn good doesn’t it?
By the time we were ready to make our way down Mnt. Aso it had started to rain. The traffic was crazy and we were hitching right by the edge of the parking lot so loads of people had to stop right beside us. We really got to have a look at the people who passed us by and we started to categorize them. There were the single women alone in there cars; they always pretended they didn’t see us at all. There were the people who were curious but once they saw us they would pretend they hadn’t. There the people who were very sorry that they couldn’t pick us up and would give us a sorry bow or shrug or even pull over to tell us they couldn’t give us a ride. Ha! Then there were those who would pass by waving their hands in front of their faces or nodding their heads side to side to make sure we understood as they drove past us that they wouldn’t be giving us a ride. We would have figured it out when they didn’t stop of course but I guess they just wanted to be clear. Finally a car with two guys pulled up and the one in the passenger seat was making strange faces at us and I was just about to give him the finger when they pulled over and offered us a ride. Lucky I didn’t quick draw the old middle finger. Those two guys were super cool. The one was a university student in Kumamoto and the other was his best friend visiting from Oita. They were great. We didn’t have much corresponding language but we were able to just relax with them and communicate quite freely. They took us into Kumamoto in a couple of hours, fighting traffic the whole way, and we all went to their favorite izakaiya restaurant where we had some of the best food in all of Kyushu.
After that those boys marched us all over downtown trying to help us find some cheep place to spend the night and finally set us down in an internet café. In Japan it is not unusual for people to rent an internet cubical for 12 hours or so and spend the whole night sleeping there. There is a shower and your cubical can have a couch or a floor mat or a chair.
It is very cheep and reasonably comfortable. Because it rained in Kumamoto the next day and we had not figured out what our next move was so we stayed two nights in that internet café. It definitely was a strange place. I woke up to go to the bathroom at 1:30 am and the entire lobby was full of people and I really couldn’t say what was going on.
While we were in Kumamoto trying to decide our next move we met Yukie, the girl at the information counter at the Kumamoto station. She spoke perfect English so for an hour I harassed her for phone numbers, addresses, opinions, and ferry schedules. She was great and really helped us figure out what to do next. When we were leaving the station Shane said it would be cool to hang out with her and I said let’s go back and invite her out. So that’s what we did. She didn’t know what to make of us but she took our number and said she would call after work. Then, as we were about to leave she said, “You’re not hitching me, are you?” Ha ha! So funny she thought we might be trying to hitch a ride off her by inviting her to come and have dinner with us. Anyway we met up with her again and had dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. It was great, the food and the company.
She was a free and easy conversationalist and she had spent some time in America as an exchange student so she felt pretty comfortable with us. She is getting married soon and will move to Tokyo so I will look her up the next time I am there.
Yukie told us the ferry from Kumamoto to Unzen was just an hour and only about eight dollars so we decided to go that way to get to Nagasaki. Shane had wanted to try the onsen in Obama town and we were both keen to take a ferry, so off we went. We caught a ride with a nice young couple to the pier and hopped on a ferry just a few minutes later. We were definitely the thing to watch on the ferry. Everyone seemed to be very curious about us and our sign. Once in Unzen we caught a ride to the middle of nowhere with another nice young couple. This couple had a little girl sleeping in the back seat. It was the first kid we had ridden with. It was also the first ride we had gotten where one of the drivers obviously picked us up to practice her English. We were expecting most of our rides would come from people wanting to practice their English but this was the first and maybe the only ride like that.
Shortly after that we were picked up out of that middle-of-nowhere spot by another lovely young couple. (It was the day of the lovely young couples.) They drove us the half hour to Obama town where Shane had heard you could try the hottest bathable onsen in the world. However when we got to Obama no one seemed to know what he was talking about. So, we stopped searching for it and decided just to have a regular old really hot onsen on the beach. The town had dozens of outdoor onsens on rooftops and near the beach but the one we went to was right on the beach. It was small and lovely and I had a nice bath while watching the waves roll up. However, our goal for the day was to get ourselves to Nagasaki before five o’clock so we couldn’t linger long in the very famous town of Obama where many signs and deserts have the face of Barack Obama planted on them. We did, however, find time to try the specialty dish of the prefecture, Champon. It was delicious, much like ramen but with more seafood and vegetables in it.
On our way out of Obama we caught a lift with two guys who had just been fishing all day. They moved their rods and tackle out of the way to make room in the car for Shane and me. They didn’t talk much (but at this point Shane and I weren’t very chatty either) and we rode along in their car watching the TV they had strapped to the dashboard. The two guys dropped us off twenty minutes later at a rest stop that had what Shane called a “fake church” in the parking lot. I have to admit it did look pretty fake, or perfect. Something about it was a little off. Anyway, a guy sporting a mesh vest picked us up a few minutes later. He told us that he made hats for a living so Shane called him the maddhatter after that. He said he would only take us part of the way to Nagasaki, but after a quick visit to his sister's house to drop off a gift, his mind was suddenly changed and he decided to take us all the way and visit his aunt in Nagasaki. So we sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed what we didn’t know would be our last hitch of the trip.
That night we bunked in a beautiful hostel in Nagasaki along a lovely river with stunning bridges. The whole feel of Nagasaki was quite different than other places I have visited in Japan.
The people didn’t seem so curious about our presence, the atmosphere was relaxed and laid back, and the buildings had character and vitality. The hostel was great and the two people who ran it where very helpful apart from one thing: they highly recommended we go to Ioujima Island. They said it was great. So we went, and it sucked. We showed up thinking we could camp somewhere on the island so we set off on foot to the beach the guy at the hostel had recommended. After passing a strange catholic resort we found that there was nothing else, just abandoned buildings. When we got to the beach it was unsightly. There was no toilet or shower nearby. There was a park and a community area but they were all overgrown and locked up. So we wandered back to the ferry port in the hopes of renting bikes and checking out the other side of the island. As we went around the island we started getting a kick out of calling it Abandoned Land. COME! See the empty buildings, enjoy our dirty beaches and even pull some weeds at ABANDONED LAND! It was a strange place and the Japanese people were flocking to this island all day like it was a freaking tropical island paradise. Not so! With that said though, we did get to rent bikes and go around the other side of the island. Some of the views there were spectacular but the bikes we rode were old as fire. It might have been easier to walk it. At least then would only have to push ourselves along. We headed back at the end of the day, resolved to enjoy another night in the comfortable hostel in Nagasaki.
That night we hooked up with some friends from Okayama who had gone out to Nagasaki to go camping for Golden Week. They wanted to go out for some drinks so we wandered around the bar area of town and eventually stumbled into a place that appealed to my friend Katie. It was a hit! The room was all velvet and red and in the corner there were racks of costumes. There was a Karaoke machine and there were plenty of English songs. We were in heaven! It was a really fun time.
The next day we took off for Fukuoka but not before visiting the A-Bomb museum and peace park.
I liked the peace park in Nagasaki better than the one in Hiroshima. It was more quiet and enclosed and there were many beautiful statues donated by various governments.
Once we were through at the peace park we headed up the road to try catch a hitch to Fukuoka about two hours away. There were two major problems. The first problem was that the holidays were over and there weren’t as many people using the highway and they were back to their nine-to-five mentality. The other problem was that the only way to get onto the highway was to take the center lane of traffic. Given that everyone heading to Fukuoka was in the centre lane of traffic and we were on the side of the road no one stopped for us. We tried everything from dancing and singing to pleading with drivers to take us with them. We tried hitching from further up the road in the hopes that someone may not yet have moved into the centre lane. After three hours we gave up and hopped a bus to Fukuoka. We were in a pretty cranky mood because we had hoped we could hitch all the way back to Okayama but our experience showed it might not be as easy as we thought.
So, we took the ride to Fukuoka and had a couple of hours there to kill before the night bus back to Okayama. We went and had the prefectural specialty tonkastu ramen in a crazy little restaurant where each person is separated into booths whether you like it or not. It is very private.
There is even a curtain separating you from the serving staff. It wasn’t the best ramen I have ever had but the experience was certainly interesting.
We hoped the bus from Fukuoka to Okayama at 10pm and after about 7 or 8 hours of sleep--thanks to the valium I bought in Thailand--we arrived at 7am sleepy-eyed and disoriented.
We were in a bit of a rush to get back to Okayama because we had a Saturday morning Rugby practice. We were quickly approaching our second annual rugby tournament in Shikoku. This was the highlight of my year last year and there was no way I was going to miss it. This year Okayama was able to put together two teams instead of one so a total of 25 people went out to Shikoku Island this year including five supporters.
The new team did a great job but our own team was not so fortunate. We were unlucky enough to have several bad refs. We played as well as we could but we really felt we were brought down by the reffing. Well, we all agreed the reason we went out there was to have fun and we absolutely did. We went swimming in the river and had a great BBQ in the most amazing campground with the most breathtaking mountains as a backdrop. Plus, I was able to spend some quality time with the many people who have become like family to me here.
The rugby games were just a spectacular bonus. We even got to see the traditional Maori dance, the haka, performed by the winning team. This picture doesn't to it any justice, but believe me, the haka is an absolutely electrifying dance that will make all the hairs on the back of your neck stand right up.
All and all another wonderful weekend.
Well, one month to go…Where should I go next?