If constantly being on the move was feasible, I would do it all the time. In the right mood and with the right people, what would have been a very boring car ride or flight can become the highlight of your day and lead to a new friendship or novel experience (and always a learning experience).
I had no idea what I was going to do once reaching Japan. I had sent about 20 CouchSurfing requests out to various people across three prefectures of Japan hoping someone would respond in time for me to figure out where to go. I was back to not wanting to stay in hostels and guesthouse a because 1) I had been waiting to learn Japanese culture and practice Japanese language for nearly 11 years now, and 2) accommodation in Japan is exceedingly more expensive than in other countries I’ve visited, rivaling the prices I saw in Norway and Iceland.
So on the morning of July 31, 2015, I took the skytrain out to Mo Chit (near a bus station) and caught the A1 bus directly to the Don Muang airport. The ride takes an hour, but it only costs 30 baht. The driver looked at me as I boarded like she wanted to eat me with her biceps and use me as glue for her eyebrows, but ended up being really nice to me during the ride.
The plane was pleasant enough until we started descending, and then my right ear felt like it was infected and immediately began to scream out in pain. The longer we descended, the more unbearable pain I experienced, holding my ear, sweating profusely, and trying really hard not to puke or cry. I can only imagine what it looked like to the people around me as this random bald grown man was rocking back and forth slowly, holding his ear and going, “Tssssssssssssssssss.”
Somehow I lived, and I was in Japan! But it was too late in the day, and everything was closed, so I had to spend the night in the Osaka Kansai international airport. I will say this: spending the night here was worse than spending a day in Shanghai Pudong airport. The people were incredibly friendly and I was already figuring out how to communicate pretty well, but there are speakers everywhere that play two loud BING sounds every five seconds or so to make people who are trying to sleep absolutely miserable. In addition to that, the TVs and other things come on at 4AM, meaning that if you’re still trying to fall asleep after a day of travel, it’s not going to happen. I think I may have gotten an hour of sleep total that night; nonetheless, I had to keep a good attitude to get through the next day.
I bought some sushi for breakfast (I’m hooked already), pooped like eight times to make sure my stomach wasn’t going to act up all day (forgot to mention my insides are still totally fucked for food poisoning or something), bought a SIM card for my phone (which refused to work, so as soon as I left the airport I was on my own completely), and after a lot of asking around, got a train ticket directly to Namba Station, a smaller city on the south side of Osaka.
Having come from chaotic Bangkok, the tidiness with which Japanese life functioned was hilarious. The second I left the train and exited the station to look for a highway on-ramp, I noticed three things:
1) Nearly everyone was silent, looking straight ahead and walking robotically towards their destination.
2) Everything is spotlessly clean and highly functional.
3) The sun is on a mission to burn everything in Japan to cinders, especially white people.
Many people on the street were willing to help me. There were some younger people standing around with signs, looking to sell things (or maybe promote a cause? They were more interested in asking me questions than telling me what they were doing there). I stopped inside a jazz bar to get a sign and markers, before my first attempt at getting someone to pick me up.
Twenty minutes of that, and I was dying of hunger, thirst, and heat exhaustion. I decided to give up for a bit and go inside for food, and I ended up being the only on there, so the waitress and cook came over to make friends.
The waitress was a punk rock singer and guitar and drum player, and showed me some music videos with her as the frontwoman and told me that she toured the U.S. a few years ago and would be going back soon. She took my sign and re-wrote it with bigger, neater letters (my handwriting sucks no matter what language I’m writing in, unfortunately). The guy didn’t talk much about himself other than saying he was Korean but only spoke Japanese, and wanted to travel the world in search of what he really wanted to do.
「私も」I said. “Me too.”
The food was amazing (soba– noodles with meat cuts and veggies in a soy broth for like $3), they gave me a bunch of free food and I tipped 300 yen ($2.50 or something), and she actually ran outside to give it back but I insisted she take it for her trouble, and she bowed so low I thought she was going to fall over forward. I did the same.
This time, the four people on the street trying to pass or flyers and sell things cheered me on, and only a few minutes went by before a middle-aged couple picked me up. As I was getting in the car, they all came up to high-five me and take photos. We stopped some traffic, but the relief of finding my first ride had me ignoring the honks.
The woman introduced herself as Kaoru and her husband as Yamato, and they were headed from Osaka, their home city, to Nagoya, a couple prefectures east, which meant 1/4 of my journey was knocked out with this one car. They were really pleasant and insisted on getting me snacks, and I was surprised to find my Japanese was legitimately communicable (for the most part, and with certain limitations on topics). Before I knew it, they were dropping me off at sunset in Nagoya at a service area (“saabisu eria” / service areas are the best places to hitchhike from in Japan).
Worried I wouldn’t get a ride after sun down, I pulled up my signs immediately and stood in front of the convenience store to get maximum publicity. Additionally,it gives people time to think about you while they’re shopping, and by the time they leave, they’re like, “Oh! Who are you, where are you going, what are you doing, and how to you know Japanese, hairy white man?”
A family with three little girls brought me out a coffee from inside the store and started talking to me, asking all these questions. When I told them I also spoke English, they egged he eldest daughter to start talking English because she’d been studying hard, but she was too shy to try. I thanked them for the coffee and they told me, “We want to take you, but we have a full car! Good luck!” As they drove away, two of the girls held up their iPads with the words, HAPPY and LUCK written on them.
It was just then that I got my second, and most lucky ride. It was a truck driver, shipping carts to Yokohama, which was only an hour from Tokyo by car!
I can’t remember his name; he used to be a fisherman, but moved with his wife to the city to get different work. We had slow conversation over the course of the six hours it took to get from Nagoya to Yokohama, but by the end it was like we were good friends, talking about the only things I knew how to say, “Where are the festivals? Why is the moon red? Do you want to travel the world?” Fireworks lit up the sky as we drove through mountains, flat land near the coast, and unfortunately it was too dark to see Mt. Fuji, but he told me where it would be if darkness hadn’t hidden it from us.
At midnight, he dropped me off at a service area in Yokohama and bought me another coffee (the people here know the way to my heart), and the vending machine actually had a screen that showed each step in the coffee making process. It played carnival music while doing so and this served as the most light-hearted introduction to a cultural phenomenon I was soon to become well-acquainted with.
“Surely it’s impossible to get a ride at midnight,” I thought. “But I’ll try until I get tired and maybe I’ll just sleep here.” There happened to be another hitchhiker, a Japanese man about my age, who had started in Nara that morning and was aiming for Tokyo as well. We talked a bit and I left for the bathroom, and he was gone by the time I came back. I stepped up my game by smiling wider, standing in the light that poured out of the pristine convenience store’s glass sliding door and bowed my head at everyone who passed. Eventually, a short guy in his 30s and his friend, at least two meters tall and two hundred pounds heavier, my age, greeted me and asked me what was going on.
“We’re going to Tokyo. Is that where you want to go?”
“I’m going to Funabashi-shi, it’s in Chiba-ken. Very close to Tokyo, so if I go to Tokyo it’s very good,” I said.
“Alright, you can come with us if you want.” Score! I was actually going to make it in one day!
This part took a little longer than I expected, because Tokyo traffic is crazy even at night, and especially around a great deal of construction. It gave us time to get to know each other. The short one (we’ll call him Mijikai- the Japanese word for ‘short’) had met the tall one (hereafter, Takai, for ‘tall’) through Twitter when looking for someone to share gas expenses with for going to a J Pop concert in Shizuoka, one of the cities I passed through. They had a little DVD player and screen installed in the dashboard and were re-watching one of the band’s older concerts on the way home.
“They’re very popular,” Mijikai explained. “There were like 50,000 people at the concert today. And at this concert on the screen, I think 60,000.” I watched for a few seconds– the group was made up of several young girls, between 18-22 maybe, dancing around like they were in a Barney episode and singing in unison without harmony. But they were charming and cute, which must go really far in a country like Japan.
“I think I might have heard this one,” I lied.
“It’s one of the best!” Takai exclaimed. “I’ve seen them three times now. I think they’re the most popular in Japan.” I had some catching up to do.
First, we drove through part of a suburb of Tokyo to drop Takai off. Then, Mijikai actually asked for the address I was going to and insisted on dropping me off there. I’ll spare the details, because this post is getting long, but it took another hour for us to reach my destination (bringing the total to 600km in just under 16 hours), and I had to wake Yuuki up with a call so he could meet me at the 7 Eleven nearest him and bring me back to his house.
I bought Mijikai some coffee for his journey home (pay it forward is literally the way you should live your life), and Yuuki and Kyouko welcomed me to their home with open arms. The three weeks I have in Japan– I will make them count.