Notes from Japan: Hitchhiking Thru the Storm to Hokkaido

Iwate Province, Japan. Hitchhiking in Japan can be an adventure; with two companions and three backpacks in pouring rain it is that and much more.   Leaving the village of Tanohata under gloomy skies, two other students and l began hitchhiking north.   Our destination: Sapporo.


We had hoped to make it to the northern tip of Honshu, wrangle our way onto a fishing trawler, cross the straits of Tsugaru to Hokkaido and then press on to that island’s capital, Sapporo.

But horrid weather foiled these optimistic plans.   Although we didn’t know it sat the time, a typhoon lurked off the eastern shore, causing it to rain for the full ten days of our summer vacation.   Our hopes of cheerful campfires on the beach were thus dampened, spirits were not. Undaunted, we trudged down the road.


Three rides later, we arrived in Kugi, population 41,000.   In this seaside community, we met two Waseda students home from Tokyo for vacation.   These students, after stumbling across our wet bodies and discovering our bleak prospects, invited us into their family’s restaurant for the night.   Although we spoke little of their language and they not much of ours, we seemed to have hit it off well from the start.   After a hearty meal of raw tuna, sea urchin and squid, we all fell contentedly asleep on soft dry tatami mats.


It did not take us long during this trip to discover the dichotomy or ’yin and ”˜yang’ of Japanese style hitchhiking.   We learned quickly that hitchhiking in Japan is both challenging and rewarding.   It is unlike hitchhiking elsewhere for several reasons.   For one thing, the Japanese themselves do not hitchhike.   Perhaps because public transportation here is so well developed, this mode of travel, common in the West, is completely foreign to Nippon.

Thus it seems the Japanese are; surprised, if not shocked, to see any hitchhiker, much less a foreign one, airing his or her thumb along the side of the road. The three of us felt safer accepting rides here, however, than stateside or in Europe, as this Asian nation’s crime rate is among the lowest in the world.   Although they might find you outlandish, a Japanese would rarely if ever harm you or steal from you.

Another major difference in hitchhiking is that it is a custom here to repay favors with symbolic gifts (omiagi). Hitchhikers in Japan therefore must remember to pack a generous supply of omiagi, or token presents, to give for each ride.   These are not necessarily expensive, but serve only to remind the recipients of friendly past encounters.   Such small tokens as a tea bowl, a set of chopsticks, or perhaps even something little from America all make fine reminders of such subarashi (wonderful) times gone by.

After presenting omiagi and saying sayonara we left our new friends in Kugi and headed north through the cold rain once again.   Soon we arrived in another large city, Hachinohae, where we found a charming, Japanese-style inn on Tanesashi Beach.   There, overlooking the by-this-time wild Pacific, we found our room to be warm and cozy.   Although we could hear the angry waves through our rice paper windows, we felt snug in our little hideaway.


Sipping green tea as we huddled beneath our blankets, the three of us contemplated the ocean crossing that would lie ahead if we pushed on to Hokkaido.   Uneasily aware of the furor outside, we decided to hole up in our new abode and wait it out.   The typhoon, however, had more patience than we.   Our vacation regretfully ended before it did.

As we sloshed and hitched our way back south to Morioka, however, we warmed our spirits with memories of the many wonderful people we had met during this thwarted northern adventure.   We especially remembered the kindness of our college aged hosts in Kugi and the fantastic feast which they had prepared for us.

As we traveled back we also discussed another attempt at Sapporo.   Because Hokkaido is world renowned for its winter splendor, we contemplated another trip in a few months.   But for the time being we were content just to hitchhike back to Morioka, our home-away from home, very far away from home, here in the friendly and fascinating land of Japan.

Originally published in The Voice, College of Wooster, October 10, 1980.

Read other stories by Jim Luce on Japan:


NYC’s Japan American Association Funds Haitian Students Dream of International Study


Yoko Ono Supports Mayor Akiba and Nuclear Disarmament at John Catsimatidis’ Home


2,870 Mayors for Peace: Does Yours Belong?


Japan’s PIKADON Project & Hiroshima Yes! Campaign in New York City


Keiko Tsuyama: Japanese Woman of the World



Park Avenue’s Nichibei Exchange – and the Japanese Flute


Notes From Japan: From Harajuku to Waseda


Notes from Japan: Shinomori – Mediating in the Woods


Notes from Japan: A Rural Village in Iwate Province


Notes from Japan: Hitchhiking Through the Storm to Hokkaido


Notes from Japan: Japanese and English Language Very Far Apart


Notes from Japan: Living with a Former Samurai Family


Notes from Japan: Fat American (Me!) Races 500 Junior High Students


Notes from Japan: From Zen Life in the Country to Tokyo – Help!



For the complete listing of thematic stories, see Jim Luce Writes.

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation ( There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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