Assuming even a slight grasp of the language, the best way to see Japan is to hitchhike. I've done this for years and gotten dozens of rides, meeting wonderful people and covering thousands of kilometers, and have always been pampered to an extent that would seem ludicrous in the West: drivers pay for my lunch, show me the local sights, take detours to take me where I want to go, put me up for the night... and while nearly everyone has fretted about my safety, I've never felt in the least threatened.

Except once.

The Adventure

Dateline and the story so far: May 2002, on a month-long circuit of western Japan. I'd hitched my way from Tokyo down to Mt. Hiei, pottered about Osaka and Nara with a local friend, gone down to Kobe, and gotten food poisoning for my trouble. After recuperating for a few days, I'd taken a ferry across the Akashi Kaikyo Strait to nearby Awaji Island. I spent the night in a cheap little onsen minshuku with radioactive spring water, and the next day started hitching south towards Shikoku.

I was soon picked up by a 61-year-old retired architect, whose hobbies include copying Buddhist sutras (he had only a few days before returned from a leg of the 88-temple circuit in Shikoku) and making amazingly intricate paper dolls, some of which are exhibited in museums around Kansai. He lives in Mihara-cho, in the center of the island, with his wife, dog and cat, and it being a quiet day he offered to take me sightseeing around the island and invited me to stay the night.

Got that? Good, now erase every last bit of that mental image you just formed. Reality was a 1.5-meter wiry little chain-smoking hobbit of a man with a leg broken in a traffic accident (or so he said?), who called himself Occhan (おっちゃん) and whose gruff manner, simple samue (working clothes) and downright incomprehensible Kansai-ben dialectal Japanese fitted his real former occupation -- a kanekashi money lender affiliated with the yakuza -- to a T.

Needless to say, this was only revealed to me later. During the day he played the host who took me to see the famed Naruto whirlpools, caused by tides flowing between the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific, and the Awaji Ningyo Joruri Museum, devoted to an amazingly intricate predecessor of the bunraku puppet theater.

The first of several freaky moments came on our way back from the whirlpools, when he drove off onto a tiny forest road and started explain the phases of WW2 in these woods. Then he stopped at a little opening featuring the ruins of an army barracks (evidently once leading to underground caves if I understood him right) and motioned me out of the car. I hesitated and complied... and Occhan promptly drove off! -- a few dozen meters to a better parking spot, but even that was too much considered all my baggage was in his trunk.

Eventually, after treating me to lunch and himself to several beers, he drove me back to his house and we started knocking back the sake while waiting for his wife to come back. He talked a lot about how wide-hearted she was, but perhaps long-suffering might be a better word; most people wouldn't take quite so well to getting back from a 12-hour working day only to find a stranger in her house and her husband well on his way to inebriation. Dinner was, of course, excellent, although I was still feeling the aftereffects of food poisoning and wasn't terribly hungry. Fortunately, his wife's Japanese was remarkably clear hyoujungo ("standard Japanese") with only a few Kansai-isms thrown in, and thanks to this the conversation started to resemble interpretation with me constantly turning to her to explain what on earth he was saying.

After several hours of this, however, the conversation gradually degenerated first into an Occhan monologue and then a (largely incomprehensible) rant, mainly on the subject of the Japanese Spirit (大和魂 yamatodamashi), how today's youth have lost their purity and clarity of aim, yadda yadda. Eventually, he started to take umbrage at a combination of me not understanding everything he said and of confessing of being interested in photography (the implication to him being that I wasn't interested in anything else!), and then started first loudly, and then very loudly, demanding my passport. I was understandably a bit hesitant, but wife hinted that I'd better let him have his way, so I did... and he crunched it up in his hand and started walking away! I wrestled it away and okusan talked some sense into him, after which he dropped to his knees, apologized (extremely) formally, and then almost with tears flowing from his eyes said that he would die in peace if I told him what I really thought right now. (About what?) I thanked him for his (previous...) kindness and shook his hand, and the situation was defused.

Or so I thought. Okusan shuffled me off to bath and bed, and I was looking forward to a well-slept night, a sober Occhan in the morning and an escape from this madhouse. I'd just gotten settled in bed, when pops trundles into my room and continues his drunken monologue. I shuttled him out as gently as I could, and was about to pull the paper door shut...

...but nobody gives the cold shoulder to Occhan. Reaching into an unceremonious umbrella rack, he pulls out a katana and starts waving it about! It was still sheathed, mind you, but he was daring me to pull it out and this nutcase probably takes the old bushido rule of not resheathing a sword until it has tasted blood literally.

Fortunately, okusan heard the commotion and saved the day, and after a few minutes I heard the extremely welcome sound of Occhan snoring. I seriously considered getting the hell out of there that very minute, but it was a long way to anywhere and I didn't really even know where I was. All I could do was rotate my futon so that my legs faced the door, but this wasn't much comfort and I slept uneasily -- I kept expecting to see a razor-sharp blade slice the paper in half.

At 6 in the morning I was woken by a truly unearthly sound from the outside. At first I thought it was hailing, but it turned out to be Occhan washing the car with a high-pressure hose, half the spray hitting the corrugated iron plates of the shed. My nose and eyes were seriously acting up due to the cat, and my stomach was doing backflips due to being stuffed full of raw fish and alcohol the previous evening, so I was grateful to find that breakfast was only a cup of coffee and raisin rolls. Occhan was also suitably apologetic about yesterday's events, although I was surprised to find him remarkably un-hungover -- had he started drinking again in the morning?

Using the convinient excuse of approaching rain, I managed to get Occhan to take me to the expressway interchange tolerably early, although his driving style (noticeably worse than yesterday, and it was none too fine then) increased my suspicions about his blood alcohol level. But we got there in one piece, and after the requisite handshakes and professions of international friendship I even got him to stay on the other side of the road while I hitched. One car stopped, but it was going in the wrong direction, no worries... but then Occhan, until then peacefully reclining in the grass and chewing on a straw while staring at me, wanders over and starts jabbering about the Japanese spirit again. I again respectfully ask him to bugger off, so he wanders over the lane divider and starts clowning about for a while... then a truck drives past without picking me up and he returns.

お: おらあって下手んだ! だれも乗せれられへん!
Occhan: You suck at hitching! Nobody's going to pick you up!
J: え!?
Yours truly: What?
お: 下手ゆうてるんの! わし車止ませてやるな!
Occhan: I said you suck! I'll stop a car for ya!

(A few Japanese notes here: 下手 heta is one of those words you never, ever call somebody else, and the word he used to describe "giving" me a stopped car, やる yaru, is used only to give something to someone much lower than you, eg. food to an animal. In a nutshell, the above was really, really rude.)

And then he starts clowning about again, veering on and off the entry lane, spinning in circles and sticking his hand out like a policeman, this little pathetic shit who'd tried to steal my passport, threatened me with a sword, drove drunk, and was now totally destroying my chances of getting the fuck out before the rain started! This was just too much, and in Japanese I didn't even know I knew:

J: なんだ! おめえよりよくヒッチできるんだ! されー!
Yours truly: What!? Who the fuck are you to tell me how to hitch! Get OUT! OUT!

And before he could recover from his shock I started physically frog-marching him across the road. Well, you can probably imagine what happens when you talk to an ex-Yak like that: he turned red in the face and sputtered for the next few minutes about how I dare treat him like this after all he'd done, etc, all the while staring at me... from half a meter below.

Still, he did have a bit of a point there, so after he'd calmed down a little I said "Sorry" and, as a last favor, asked him to just go -- and he did, still all the time yelling that nobody would ever pick me up. Some 30 seconds later, a car driven by a young couple did pull over and offer me a ride to Shikoku... and, like the fucking whack-a-mole, Occhan hobbles up the car and starts jabbering at the driver! Less than discreetly, I told them to ignore the crazy geezer and shoved my backpack in the trunk. Amazingly, the couple didn't freak out, and we were on our way...

And boom! I was in Shikoku!


I've gotten rides from Yakuza at least 3 times before and after this incident, and they've always been the epitome of politeness. But to all your hitchhikers out there, if you start getting creep vibes from a driver, just get the hell out while you still can... this little incident was mostly funny even while it happened, but a non-drunk, non-lame and non-hobbity version of Occhan would not have been a joke.

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