Hitchhiking in Kyushu

Courtesy of Jupiter Images

My experience in the realm of hitchhiking for long distance travel has been rather limited. During the summer I spent working at a fishing lodge in Alaska, my life blood was clean unmarked pieces of cardboard, on which I would inscribe my destination in thick black letters for the benefit of the drivers. Sometimes to Soldotna, 46 miles to the west. Occasionally to Seward, a great distance to the east. But perhaps most often to Anchorage, the goliath (in Alaskan terms) of a city to the north.

In Japan, however, I’ve had no real reason to experiment with this particular form of travel. With trains running everywhere (and always on time), buses relatively cheap, and a country built around railroad tracks rather than koku michi (国道, country roads), why hitchhike?

I received an answer to that question on my return from the Nagasaki Bayside Marathon, having exactly ¥4800 at my disposal (to last me three days), and eight hours to return to Kagoshima. 難しい、ですね?

The plan? Not much of one. Stay alive, eat little, and try not to get hit by cars.

First mistake – fall asleep instantly on the train out of Nagasaki, intending to stop at a point where the rail runs adjacent to the main highway. The result? ¥2350 fare adjustment, and not much distance to show for it.

Fortunately, there are positive signs. I am in a small town on the main road to Omuta (大牟田), a hitchhiker’s bread and butter.

A businessman steps off a shuttle bus in front of the one-man station, and beckons me with "hello", eagerly extending his hand. I am such a celebrity in Japan. So why don’t I get endorsements like Brad Pitt? I could sell those watches better…

Anyway, it’s not too much time for me sticking out my thumb and walking backwards like a desperate fool, when a man about my age slowly swerves his white car towards the siderail.

Hiroyuki-san was 31, a native of Saga, and his wife had just had a baby boy two months prior. He tends to take a lot of business trips around Nagasaki-ken (returning from one then), and was more than happy to have me on board.

Sidenote in the present: before I continue, all should know it truly is a different world over here: the generosity, the kindness is what one should expect from other human beings, but we’ve been adapted by each of our respective cultures to think differently. What is and what is not "required" to others. There is still hatred, fear, and plenty of crime, but weekends like this one tend to drain all of my negative feelings through a sieve, leaving only the optimistic side. Tired as my legs are, hungry as I am, the fact remains I am sitting on a train right now with a ticket that another soul paid for to improve the quality of my journey home. I want to give back everything that has been given, but I fear such opportunities may not reach me again.

Case in point – Hiroyuki and I were discussing my travels, girls, and even the war – didn’t get very far there – when I told him my planned route along Highway 3 (between Fukuoka and Kagoshima).

This man lived in Saga. His wife was waiting for him in Saga. He was used to returning home to Saga. Instead, he took time from his schedule and family to see me deposited safely in Kurume (久留米), along Highway 3. I refused at first, telling him Saga was fine, but I think he knew how much time was a factor for me.

Easing his car over in front of a gas station, just as dusk was beginning to fall, we exchanged a series of goodbyes, took a picture together… he gave me a small gift of senbei to take to my office.

Looking back on it, he must have either been impressed by my adventurous spirit, or thought I was out of my mind… maybe a little of both. Half marathons and hitchhiking do not go hand-in-hand. I think the only things to follow a long distance race should be: food, and lots of it; a nice relaxing soak in a sulfuric onsen; sleep, and more of it; a steak dinner with a beautiful redhead; again, still working on that last one.

Hitchhiking at night, regardless of the country, is a tad risky. Nor will it necessarily bear any fruit. Some Japanese, particularly families, might pick up a foreigner midmorning, as a novelty or a free English lesson, but darkness changes the equation.

However, after 45 minutes, give or take, a middle-aged couple cleared the convenience store bags out of their back seat and bid me welcome. The driver was retired, and tended to speak a little fast for me. His wife spoke excellent English (I didn’t subject her to that), and was a little shy. We did have quite a fluid conversation, however, and they offered me a drink when we stopped at a 7-11 for a rest. I even managed to rest my eyes once we were satisfied as to the other’s personality and goings-on.

Back in Kumamoto at 8:45. Decisions, decisions. Just like in the morning’s race, my sanity was wearing thin. Not helping in the matter was a Japanese Mormon, accosting me a mere thirty seconds after I was dropped off. 200 kilometers to Kagoshima. I was in the middle of the city, not far from the castle. A poor choice, a poor place. Even assuming I acquired a ride at that instant, it was at least 2-2.5 hours back to Deer Child Island (鹿児島, nice kanji).

I did think about hitchhiking all night, or sleeping outside and waiting for commuters to start their journey south. Not an option, though – I had work at 8:30 AM on Monday, and had already taken two "unauthorized" days to see my cousin’s wedding. I am such a tool. Must go… must… but can’t.

In the middle of the city, lugging a backpack, a gym bag, the senbei, and sporting my new race shirt. I haven’t eaten dinner. My quads and calves are still sending messages of sharp pain to my brain. The lack of movement due to sitting in cars for the past few hours is setting me up to walk like Frankenstein.

I reach an offramp where a couple had been waiting for me. They assumed I was just headed to Kumamoto Station, which wasn’t too much of a leap (foreigner, lost in a new city, has to travel by train). When I explained that in fact I had 196 km and a long night ahead of me, they were quite simply… flabbergasted. What kind of man risks his job and well-being for a weekend trip? And who hitchhikes such a long distance so late at night? Can’t say I blame them for reacting in such a way.

Had I continued to pass from car to car that night, I honestly believe one of two things would have given – my will or my legs. But this couple, this married couple from Kumamoto to whom I had been talking to in fractured Nihongo for less than ten minutes, offered to drive me to the station and pay for a shinkansen ticket to Kagoshima. I was shocked enough that I don’t believe I thanked them as well as I should have (ten "domo arigatou gozaimasu"’s isn’t sufficient, right?)

The most expensive kind of train ticket. To a silly foreigner. To a stranger. To a creature passing in the night, easily overlooked or passed without second thought. It is good to be seen.

And so I sit now listening to tunnels whizzing by at 200 kph, my city approaching momentarily. My face is still salty from sweat, my calves aching for relief, my stomach punishing my internal organs for the lack of nourishment…

But I feel light, floating above this car and out into the moonlight, seeing those flickers of light in the distance, each a car, a house, with individuals who help, who care. Three of those lights will always be in my memories, and I will look through the glare and find them again… find the places where such kindnesses exist, and learn from them, let their actions and feelings become engrained in my life. But, of course, they really already have.