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Without a Hitch!Edit
Challenge 1: OitaEdit
This was the easy one. The rules for the Golden Week Charity Hitchhiking tournament stated you could start at any point in your own ken, and so Mike and I began our adventure in that most typical of Japanese ways; naked and surrounded by strangers.
We located the onsen nearest the expressway, and discovered an interesting fact about the Japanese psyche; communal nudity is fully acceptable, as long as you don’t ask someone to take your photograph. If it wasn’t for the automatic timer on my digicamera, we would never have got the bonus points we were sure to receive for the “Funniest Photo” section of the challenge; the two intrepid adventurers at an onsen in nothing but the 100¥ luminous yellow aprons and curly wigs they had decided to wear throughout the challenge, just to make their week-long tour of Kyushu even more difficult.
At 1pm, clothed and refreshed, I was standing in the sun with a smile and a sign, and after 20minutes had hitched my first ever hike, as Teshima-san from Fukuoka pulled over with his Phillipino "girlfriend", and I was headed to my next destination...
Challenge 2: FukuokaEdit
As expected, my ride refused to accept any cash for the tolls or petrol, but mysteriously wouldn't accept my comedy omiyage thank you gifts either. The ride to Dazaifu had been quick and pleasant, and whatever their situation, he and Aya had been happier than most Japanese couples I've ever met. As we parted company, he commented how many gaijin there were around today, and I turned to see Nakatsue Dave, the organizer of the entire event, strolling nonchalantly into the car-park of organizer Kanzeonji temple, our second checkpoint.
The disappointment of the oldest temple bell in Kyushu, (or was it Japan? or the world?), was made up for by visiting the gorgeous Tenmangu Shrine down the road, and after a brief beer in the sun, Dave and I went our separate ways.
Challenge 3: SagaEdit
After a refreshing night at a friend's house, I hitched a short ride to the expressway entrance. The fact that my driver got lost on the way should have set off alarm bells, but still I waited an hour with my sign before a passer-by informed me that my destination was in the opposite direction. Having packed slightly excessively, with the romantic idea of being taken directly from destination to destination, I had time, during the 45-minute walk to the correct entrance, to ponder the true meaning of the word “trudge”, a blend of the words ‘trek’ and ‘sludge’ invented by either Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll, as most words were. After a mammoth 55 minute wait, I was finally picked up by Brother/Professor Okubo, who told me that he wasn't at work because he was "sick in bed"! This was the surrealist trip of all, riding with a Buddhist monk and Professor of Reliogious Theology, (or was it Theological Religion?), who became gradually stranger as the ride wore on and the medication wore off. He told me about his diabetes, his recent surgery, his inability to see in tunnels, and he got lost every 5 minutes on a straight road. I should have seen the signs when I first got in the car and he started reciting Sanskrit at me, while a tape played at double speed in his cassette player. I had become an extra in an episode of Twin Peaks, and was more than a little relieved when we finally arrived at Niji no Matsubara pine forest on the North coast of Kyushu, a national treasure which went straight into my diary as "just a load of trees". Nine minutes later, I was off to my next stop.
Challenge 4: NagasakiEdit
This one took two trips, but my second ride were a sweet retired couple from Nagasaki City, who asked me if I knew Thompson-san who had done some business in the town twenty years ago. After disappointing them with a negative answer, we chatted happily all the way to the city on the far west coast of Kyushu, (and Japan), famous for being the point of arrival of foreign ships at various times throughout history and for truly giant bowls of noodles. At the central station, I finally teamed up again with my hitching partner, Ajimu Mike, who had failed to get time off school. He had also failed to bring the tent he'd promised, so that night we discovered the joys of Nagasaki’s finest capsule hotels, and Mike discovered the joys of carrying my now-redundant sleeping-bag for the rest of the week.
After 36 hours, we were already half-finished, having completed 3 challenges and been to 4 prefectures. I'd been picked up by a Gloria and a Cedric, but they were both cars, (from the phase Japanese car manufacturers went through of naming their products after people chosen at random from bad 1930's English novels). I had ridden with 10 total strangers in 7 different vehicles, and had spoken more Japanese than in 18 months living in Oita. I was eager to see what the rest of the week had in store.
Challenge 4: NagasakiEdit
Saturday morning, we broke the habit of a lifetime and woke early to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, a smaller and less overpowering version of its Hiroshima equivalent which is nonetheless effective and thought-provoking, and after viewing the statues in the international Peace Park Zone, we dusted off our thumbs for the most difficult leg of our journey.
Nagasaki City is on the West coast of what is geographically known as a nobbly bit sticking off the bottom of the mainland, and a hitch to our next stop would have involved a long trip up followed by an even longer trip down to Kumamoto. Taking into account the age-old proverb I had just made up that hitching is 20% thumbs and 90% brains, we caught a ride directly East to the ferry port and, blurring the thin line between "ingenuity" and "cheating", hitched a ride from the ferry car-park onto the ferry itself.
People understandably thought we were recently escaped lunatics, but luckily enough the two ladies whom we eventually persuaded to drive us the 25 metres onto the ferry were headed even further South than we were, and were happy to have us along for comic relief. Thus it was that we were driven across three ken to arrive in the impressively cosmopolitan Kagoshima City, at midnight on our third day of travel.
Challenge 5: KagoshimaEdit
After a night exploring the Osake-esque delights of Kagoshima city centre, we tore ourselves away from the 24-hour Star Trek channel in yet another capsule hotel to take the short ferry to Sakurajima, one of Japan's most volatile active volcanoes. The highlight for me was the ancient torii, (shrine gate), which had been buried under a flow of lava and only the top of which remains, poking up at ankle-level. Before we could even warm our thumbs up, we were accosted by a Kumamoto ALT pulling out of a car-park and asking us where we were heading. Since she was aimlessly driving for Golden Week, we enlisted her to our cause and managed to persuade her that what was really missing in her life was a visit to Miyazaki-ken - even though she'd been there the day before!
Challenge 6: NagasakiEdit
Hyuuga beach is famous throughout Kyushu as being a surfer's paradise, but not managing to bring even a tent let alone a surfboard we headed straight to the peninsula and the impressive Umagase cliffs, the location of challenge number 6. An ice-cream and the obligatory photo later, our hitchy feet had led us into the luxurious Mazda MPV of the Nakatas, (though unsurprisingly not the same couple who had driven me from Saga to Nagasaki!). As had happened before, they told us they were just out for a drive and had no plans, but that still didn't quite explain why they drove us all the way to Aso-san, our final challenge, apart from the obvious reason that they were simply outrageously nice!
This last leg of our trip provided the most spectacular scenery yet, gliding high above tiny rural villages in the Miyazaki countryside and stopping for refreshments in the gorgeous village of Takachiho, the place where, according to legend, the Japanese god of gods is said to have descended to Earth to create Japan. Looking around, it was easy to believe.
Challenge 7: KumamotoEdit
Making a note to come back as soon as possible and spend a weekend camping there, we said goodbye to the gorges and statues of Takachiho and were dropped at the cable-car ticket office, ready to ascend Mt.Aso, which we'd carefully chosen as our last challenge in order to provide a symbolic finale to our quest; the arduous yet spiritually rewarding trek to the summit being an obvious reflection of our journey as a whole. It was therefore somehow fitting that, after a round-trip of a mere 4 days, 2 hours and 32 minutes, we ended our challenge with a 4 minute cable-car journey to a barren, rocky landscape where we couldn’t see anything for mist.
Though the challenge was officially over, Mike and I used our new-found skills to hitch-hike back to Oita in our first and last k-car, (luckily, given Mike's not inconsiderable leg-length!), and finally with a guy who had travelled all the way from Kagoshima just to have an onsen in Beppu. Mike and I had bonded over those little things you learn about people during road-trips, like a mutual hatred of those showers whose handles you have to constantly push to keep them running, and the importance of never forgetting a tent. I can safely say I won't be taking a bus or train again anytime soon.
TOTAL DISTANCE COVERED: approx 1123 km
TOTAL CARS TRAVELED WITH: 14
AVERAGE TIME WAITING FOR A LIFE: 5mins
MOST COMMON NAME OF DRIVER: Nakata
MOST COMMON CAR MAKER: Honda