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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan

Book Review

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan

By Will Ferguson

Most people who dream of going to Japan only consider visiting the big cities like Tōkyō, Ōsaka or Nagoya. However, those are just the cities that the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan warns that one should avoid at all costs! Will Ferguson, has other ideas. But little information is given about him in this book. It is only said that he lives now in New Brunswick, Canada and writes a newspaper column about Japanese culture called “East Meets West” that he syndicates himself. In addition, he has written two other books, “Sukiyaki Highway” and “Why I Hate Comedians.” So one might wonder what his qualifications are for writing this book. Nonetheless, the premise is valid and he fleshes out the concept in this 398 page book with an impressive array of data.

In the past, young people in America would backpack all over Europe. Perhaps some still do. It is a romantic idea and thought to be valuable for the cultural experience that would be gained. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan takes that concept to the limit and applies it to Japan, a place where few would consider hitchhiking as a way of travel… not even the Japanese themselves! In fact, it is so unusual that Ferguson spends much time explaining the cultural differences between Japanese and Westerners, how they view the situation and the law in Japan as it relates to hitchhiking. Many Japanese will worry about a foreigner hitchhiking and the police might question the hitchhiker, not because they think that any laws might be broken but over concern about the hitchhiker’s safety.

The book is filled with practical advice:

As a hitchhiker, avoid the shimmering heat and unbearable humidity of July and August if at all possible, but more critically you do not want to hitchhike during any area’s rainy season. Japan is within the Temperate Monsoon Zone; with twice the average rainfall of the United States, and more rain per annum than England, tsuyu, a two-month rainy season, is not the time to travel. Unfortunately, standing alone in the rain does not increase your chances of getting a sympathy ride. In Japan, a foreigner hunched over in a downpour with his thumb out does not look sad and forlorn―he looks insane.

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Ferguson knows whereof he speaks. He has hitchhiked all over the country, one time traveling the entire length of the mainland of Honshū, taking 18 days to cover 3,000 kilometers. He was picked up by 48 drivers on that trip and says that:

Along the way, I was welcomed into homes and shown forgotten corners of Japan. I traveled through small villages and secluded hot spring resorts, and I met more people and made more friends than I ever would have had I followed the usual tourist beat―and I traveled for a third of the cost.

The book covers the subject of hitchhiking in Japan from every angle imaginable. It is divided into two parts. Part I describes the general matter of hitchhiking in the country and what one can expect when doing so. The geographical features and demographics of Japan are described in depth and advice is given about how to prepare oneself for whatever the circumstances may arise. This includes details about the expressway, highway and road system of Japan and where to get maps that can be invaluable in navigating around the country. One chapter is devoted to the law in Japan as it applies to hitchhikers. Another explains the best strategies for increasing the chances of getting rides. That includes how to dress:

In Japan, how you present yourself to the outside world, the care you take with appearance, is indicative of the type of person that you are. A man with a ponytail hitchhiking in cutoffs and a frayed jacket may seem the epitome of freedom in the West, but the Japanese will leave him standing by the road for a very long time. In Japan, you should strive to look like a Boy or Girl Scout who happens to be waiting cheerfully for some kind person to offer them a ride.

Hitchhiking etiquette (including bowing in a polite manner, the correct words to use when greeting a Japanese motorist who has stopped and when destination signs are effective and when not), budgeting and other money matters, such as where to change dollars into yen, etc., and where one can eat cheaply on the road are all examined thoroughly. One chapter deals with specific problems that may arise. And the chapter on “Accommodations” is filled with great advice.

[Camping] is the best-kept secret in Japan and the key to successful budget travel. There are more than 900 public and private campsites throughout Japan, and the number continues to grow. Unfortunately, few Western travelers are aware of this. Camping is the most overlooked form of Japanese lodging available. We don’t think of Japan as a “camping country.” Yet there is a whole network of well-kept, inexpensive, conveniently located campsites just waiting to be discovered.

Ferguson is so enamored of the hitchhiking lifestyle that he even advises to avoid arriving in Japan at any of the international airports such as Narita or Kansai. Instead he lists several regional airports that can be reached with a minimum of extra effort. He has the highest recommendation for the Fukuoka Airport, which serves daily flights arriving from Honolulu, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other major cities. One can take the subway from the airport for 500 yen and be on the open road in Kyūshū in less than an hour. Of course, it takes a hardcore hitchhiker like Ferguson to adopt such a travel strategy.

Part II offers specific hitchhiking itineraries. These include maps, descriptions of the major cities and towns in the area, places to stay, with addresses and telephone numbers, side trips and notable festivities or sightseeing spots. The areas covered are Hokkaidō, Tōhoku and the Niigata Coast, Shikoku and the Inland Sea, and Kyūshū. Unfortunately, the Tōhoku region in the northeast of Japan was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, so hitchhiking there today is out of the question, but the other itineraries are viable. And even if one does not intend to ever hitchhike in Japan, this book is valuable for its down-to-earth information about how everyday people live in Japan.

The book also has Appendixes containing “Essential Vocabulary” and “Important Phone Numbers and Addresses.” It has a comprehensive index as well.

Ferguson ends The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan on an optimistic note.

The biggest single advantage that hitchhikers have over other travelers is this: As a hitchhiker you have an ally―the driver. The Japanese are remarkably dependable once they have taken ad hoc responsibility for you. You can ask them to help you find the nearest campsite, or a cheap inn, or even ask them to phone hostels for you. Once you catch the first ride of the day, it becomes easier and easier. Learn to rely on the kindness of others. Ask for help. Ask for directions. Ask for advice. This is what makes hitchhiking Japan such a unique experience. Western individualism meets Japanese kindness, and together they travel down the road.

This book will expand one’s perception of Japan and the kind of mindset illustrated in the last quote makes it well worth reading.

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