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Sunday, May 24, 2009
Hitching through Japan with friends at every turn
Special to The Japan Times
Second in a two-part series
Tottori, Yonago, Matsue, Izumo: I had passed through four cities in a flash and hitchhiking seemed even easier than I had imagined — until Izumo in Shimane Prefecture.
"Do you know a good place to get a ride around here?" I asked the kind old man who'd treated me to lunch once we were done eating.
Hitchhiking problem No. 4 (see last week's installment for Nos. 1, 2 and 3): People who don't hitchhike don't know what a "good place" looks like. The well-intentioned old guy let me off on a new bypass of Route 9 that goes around much of downtown Izumo.
In fairness, I didn't realize what a bad spot it was until I had waited for 10 minutes. Although there was a large lane for cars to pull over, traffic was dense and fast. To make matters worse, I was standing near an intersection, so cars bunched up and couldn't see past each other — let alone me. I was breaking the rules of Will Ferguson's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan": This road wasn't slow, quiet, or rural. After 25 minutes on my timer I gave up and started looking at my map.
I decided to go to the station and ride the train until I cleared Izumo's suburban sprawl. I got directions from a shop, but as I started walking another customer came out and stopped me: "Want a ride to the train station?" My shortest lift, less than 10 minutes, was one of my most welcome, as it saved me a 30-minute walk across town.
Two stations from Izumo and a whopping ¥190 later, I caught a lift from a convenience store forecourt. Two men in work coveralls waved me over to their company car in the parking lot and asked me my plans for the day. I had hoped to make it to Oda City in Shimane, location of the Iwami Silver Mine World Heritage site (see Weekend Scene, May 23, 2008), but it was close and still early in the day.
"Do you know Yunotsu Hot Spring?" asked one of the men, in between a long series of jokes. "We'll take you there."
After checking into a cheap inn, I climbed into a very ancient and crusty-looking hot-spring bath that scorched the dust and sweat of the day off of my body. While the local geezers and I were groaning like half-revived zombies in the hot water, I reviewed my day: 200 km in 6 hours, ¥190 for the train, ¥5,200 for the inn. The express trains would do it in 2 1/2 hours, for ¥6,390, so I had saved ¥1,000 for three extra travel hours. I would do better tomorrow, I vowed.
Would I ever. Despite trying to hitchhike on a busy, narrow road the next day, I was picked up after about 20 minutes by a young Filipino man living and working in the area. He was headed to work in nearby Goetsu and dropped me off at another convenience store after 20 minutes of blissfully easy, standard Japanese conversation.
I stood in the rain for five minutes until a man approached me from the store and asked me where I was going. He said he could take me as far as Hamada, the next big city, so within an hour of starting I had hopped two lengths of countryside.
During the previous day, whenever a large truck drove past I lowered my arm to give my shoulder a break. I figured their companies forbade passengers, so I didn't bother trying to flag them down. Because of this assumption, I was taken by surprise when a large freight truck screeched to a halt behind me. A scruffy- looking driver with wild, graying hair and a beard waved me in. "South? To Hagi? I'm headed to home, to Fukuoka," said the driver through a cloud of smoke and a thick Kyushu accent. "So I can drop you off there, no problem." He pushed a pile of ropes off the seat for me and put the rig into gear.
As we drove through the rain we covered nearly every topic of conversation that I had vocabulary to express, from Japanese politics to religion to explaining (after grumbling into his mobile phone) a recent argument he had with his wife. I rode with him for more than two hours, and the temptation to go all the way to Shimonoseki with him was great. Instead, though, I decided to check out the old castle town of Hagi.
Hagi is a quiet little place on a small peninsula, hemmed in by mountains. In its pre-Meiji Era heyday (before the Meiji Restoration of 1868) it was a fortified burg, but now only ruins, old temples and the traces of revolutionaries remain from that time. The best place to learn about its role in the restoration of Imperial rule and the modernization of Japan is at the Hagi Museum, where English guides are present to conduct exhaustive tours of the region's history.
Of most interest are the biographies of Shoin Yoshida and Shinsaku Takasugi. The former was one of Japan's first advocates of an international, democratic nation, a teacher whose failed attempts at revolution got him executed; the latter was one of his students who formed a militia with the support of Western weapons and fought against the Shogun's armies for the restoration of the Emperor.
After seeing some temples, poking around shops to see Hagi's famous pottery and visiting the museum, I decided to try to catch one more lift south. I hung out at a convenience store near the entrance to the highway until a police car parked there drove off, and then worked some thumb magic.
A man called Susumu pulled up and revealed the best ride of the trip: a big black scooter. I couldn't resist. "Sorry if you fall off, eh," said the young guy as I climbed on, backpack and all.
"I'm just going to pretend that I misheard that," I said to myself as we shot off. For the next two hours we whipped through mountain passes and tunnels, into sun, wind and a spattering of rain, past blooming cherry trees that looked like fuzzy pink clouds through my teary eyes. We shouted at each other about movies and life plans, or lapsed into silence as we admired the ocean views that opened up between the peaks.
Around 120 km later I arrived in Shimonoseki in southwestern Yamaguchi Prefecture, weak at the knees but elated. I had covered 260 km in six hours of hitchhiking and had only taken my wallet out for snacks. The 460-km trip had taken 13 hours of hitching, nine rides, and ¥5,290 for the train and a place to stay one night.
In comparison, the train on the same seaside route costs ¥9,960 and takes 7 1/2 hours, so for a slower pace I cut my costs in half and had a lot more fun.
As I wandered around Chofu, Shimonoseki's old samurai district, poking into Kozan-ji Temple (a National Treasure) and the Mori estate, where Emperor Meiji once stayed, I couldn't believe how easy hitchhiking had been, and how friendly my drivers were.
That evening, I boarded the ferry to Busan in South Korea. I was undoubtedly sad to go — but confident that I had ended my stay in Japan with an affirmation of everything I loved about the country. I would be back.