Hitchhiking in Japan presents multiple advantages. First locals are very friendly and eager to help. Secondly, hitchhiking is a great way to meet locals, being inside their car would let you enjoy the opportunity to have a conversation together. Thirdly, Japan has one of the highest transportation cost in the world, therefore hitchhiking would allow you to do more and a lower budget.
Japan was one of the easiest countries I’ve ever hitchhiked in. It is legal everywhere in Japan, but common sense in order not to disturb the traffic applies.
Are you ready to give it a try ? Great, in this article I’ll share everything I know about hitchhiking in Japan !
Hitchhiking in Japan, how to do it ?
Start with finding a spot on the outskirts of the city
I’m gonna assume you have never hitchhiked before. First, what you need to do is to get out of the city, in order to find a spot where you can start hitchhiking. You can use public transport to reach that spot in order to save time.
I wrote a complete guide on hitchhiking, it goes more in-depth although it is not related specifically to Japan.
Use Hitchwiki (beginner to advanced level)
To find a good spot to hitchhike in the direction I’m planning to go, I usually use Hitchwiki. You can type the city you want to get out of in the search box, and fellow hitchhikers have already shared their best spots to start, and how to get there.
This, below, is an example on how it works to get out of Kyoto.
Luckily, it seems like there’s a great spot to get out of Kyoto (it’s not always the case!). The instructions are pretty clear, and the price to get there is already included. Therefore you can follow the directions and start to hitch in the “Otsu Service Area”.
Use Google Maps (intermediate to advanced level)
It’s easier to find a spot with Hitchwiki, but sooner or later you’ll come across a city without any tips on the website. In that kind of situation I’ll use Google Maps. The goal is to find the highway, then spot entrances (on-ramp) going in the desired direction. Have a look thanks to the street view to see if there’s enough space for cars to stop. Then you just need to take public transportation or walk to the spot you found.
In this example, when leaving Kyoto we used Google Maps. We were located very near an on-ramp, so we just had to walk for an hour (yes, just an hour is showing how extreme we can be sometimes). It worked well and we waited less than 30 minutes. Later on we just uploaded Hitchwiki and now you can see our contribution on the site.
Stick your thumb up, or ask people
Depending on the spot you chose, you’ll either have to stick your thumb up or talk to people to see if they are going in your direction. Raise your thumb if you are at an on-ramp or entrance of the highway. You can talk to people if you are already on a service area or near a konbini (convenience store).
Wait for someone willing to pick you up, make sure they are going in the same direction as you (not necessarily the same destination) and enjoy the ride !
The driver is not going to my destination, what to do?
In that situation, the best option is to ask the driver to drop you at a service area (SA) or a parking area (PA) located ON the highway before the driver exits the highway. You don’t need to memorize every service area, your driver will probably know it. They all have GPS in their car, and this is the kind of information you can find on it. In the section below, I added a link with every SA/PA in Japan.
Then once you are in the service area, you just need to talk to all the potential drivers and see if anyone can bring you farther, or even better, to your destination !
Repeat this step until you get to your destination.
If you miss the last service area or parking area before the driver exits, you’ll have to get out of the highway, and hitchhike at the interchange again.
Hitchhiking on the emergency lane or at a toll booth is strictly forbidden in Japan, and the highway police will be quick to come. (Yes, we experienced it)
Service Areas and Parking Areas (SA/PA)
Service areas (SA) are located about every 50 kilometers. They are equipped with petrol stations, restaurants and toilets. They are the best places to hitch a ride to your next destination due to the huge amount of drivers stopping there.
Parking areas (PA) are smaller than service areas. They are much more frequent though, about every 15 kilometers. There, you’ll find toilets and a few shops. There’s less traffic, but it is still a good place to hitch a ride.
Therefore if you have the choice, always ask to be dropped at a service area (SA).
You can find every SA/PA of Japan on these three links :
- Central Nippon Expressway (Fuji mt., Nagano, Tokyo South)
- West Nippon Expressway (Kyoto/Osaka, Kyushu, Shikoku)
- East Nippon Expressway (Hokkaido, Tokyo North)
Konbinis will be your friend
A konbini is a convenient store opened 24/7, such as Lawson, 7/11 or Family Mart. As their name indicates, it’s pretty convenient because you can find pretty much everything here. You can have a quick bite before/after hitchhiking for a cheap price. Their food is actually pretty decent and they have a bunch of unprocessed food options.
How is it related to hitchhiking? Well, Japanese love their konbinis! They will often stop there before entering the highway, therefore it could be a perfect hitchhiking spot to start the day. Most drivers usually stop in a konbini during their trip, sometimes just to smoke a cigarette or use the free toilets.
Tip #1 to save money : The ATMs at 7/11 are one of the few ATMs in the country that don’t charge any fees. If you want more tips I wrote a Budget Travel Guide specifically for Japan. It includes cheap options to eat or to sleep.
General tips on hitchhiking in Japan
Hitchhiking in Japan is not very common although it is getting more popular recently. Japanese do know what hitchhiking is. The word is Japanese is very similar to the English one, and is pronounced something like “hitchihaiku”. Locals (often young males) can be seen hitchhiking on the highway once in a while.
Japanese love foreigners, but they might turn down a ride because they can be scared of miscommunication. They prefer to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations.
As mentioned before, Japan is one of the easiest countries I’ve ever hitched in. Although I believe the highway system and getting out of cities are too complex and regulated to my taste.
I noticed an important thing while hitchhiking in Japan. Sometimes drivers will go in the same direction as you for several hundred kilometers and could help you tremendously, but they’ll refuse to pick you up if your destination is not the same as theirs. Therefore you need to make sure of one thing : The driver needs to understand that they are not compelled to leave you at your exact destination. Even bringing you a hundred kilometer closer to your destination is actually very helpful, but you’ll certainly be the first hitchhiker they’ll pick up in their whole life and they are unsure of the way it works.
English is not really understood in Japan, if you want to avoid any miscommunication, it might be better to have a translating app on your phone, or ask your friend to write a message in Japanese before. It’s important for the driver to know what to do with you, otherwise they’ll friendly smile at you and go away. I believe this phenomenon is related to the fear of facing uncomfortable situations or “losing face” (mentsu wo ushinau).
Safety in Japan
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. I highly doubt you’ll run into any trouble while hitchhiking. In terms of driving skills, I believe it is the best country I’ve ever been to in Asia. Regarding to driving, I felt much safer in Japan than in South Korea or China.
That being said, one of my friends was hitchhiking as a solo female recently and got an unwanted sex offer from a male driver. As always while hitchhiking, make sure the driver understands your intentions right from the beginning.
Spring and Fall are the best seasons to travel in Japan, but also the most touristic. It’s pretty hot and humid during the summer, while the winter ranges from freezing in Hokkaido, to chilly in Kyushu. Fukuoka, one of Kyushu’s main city, sees an average of 6°C in January.
The politeness of Japanese people
Japanese people are extremely polite, it happened to me a few times that, after being turned down by a Japanese, he would ask other drivers at the service area to pick us up. This situation happened often when we were hitchhiking in the countryside and we finally met an English-speaker. That person would feel compelled to help you, and if he’s going in another direction than yours, this is when he would start to ask around.
Also related to their politeness, we occasionally had locals driving us farther than they were going, in order to help you. The funniest is, if they don’t bring you to your destination, they will tell you how sorry they are. Cultural differences. Damn, I enjoyed hitchhiking in Japan.
Things to know
- While hitchhiking, people don’t expect you to chip in with gas money or pay toll.
- Hitchhiking in Japan is pretty similar as hitchhiking in Western Europe.
- Japanese prefers to stop when there is a clear and wide spot to stop.
- Problem is, it’s rare to find a clear and wide spot to stop.
- Try to make eye-contact with drivers and smile while waiting for a ride.
- Hitchhiking with or without a sign made no difference for us.
And you? Have you hitchhiked in Japan before? Feel free to share your experience, and we’ll update this guide !