|Kyushu Charity Hitchhike|
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Day 1: Oita -> Kumamoto -> Fukuoka -> SagaEdit
I woke up at 6am, because so did the sun, briefly wondering why I was in a tent instead of in bed. On a weeklong charity hitchhiking event where I planned to camp most nights, this shouldn't have been a surprise, except I was still in Taketa, a 10 minute walk from my apartment. Then I remembered my welcome enkai the night before, and how it had seemed a good idea when it ended at around 2am to start the event as I meant to go on, and camp in the small park in the centre of town. This was my 3rd year spending Golden Week hitchhiking around Kyushu, trying to reach each prefecture and undertake at least one of the cultural, sporting or digestive challenges which, as organiser of the event, I had chosen to represent the glory of Kyushu. Right now, it was a challenge just to stay conscious, and I staggered up to the main road with my tent, sleeping bag and bag of essentials, (3 T-shirts, a camera and a 100 yen whiteboard and whiteboard marker), praying that hitching would be as easy as it had been the other 2 years. It was. After a mere 15 minute wait, I was whisked to Kuju by the Shibata family out for a day-trip in two giant Daihatsu Delta Wagons, and from there, after a mere 3 minute wait, I was hurtling West with Yuichi, a very cool young Canon employee from Northern Oita in an amazingly cool hatchback Daihatsu Copec sports car. The top could only be down if I carried by luggage on my lap, as the top filled the tiny trunk, but with the sun out, it was worth the minor inconvenience. One short hitch later, and by 10.30am I was at my first destination - Kurokawa onsen, just over the border in Kumamoto ken. Having stashed my luggage in a locker, I strolled the gorgeous streets of this hot spring village, picked one at random and, paying the extremely reasonable 500yen which every onsen charges, picked up my first points for completing my first challenge, knowing that the other 12 pairs across Kyushu were probably well into their second or third challenges, my enkai having forced me to miss the first day of hitching, (I had been to the Trinita football match in Oita the previous day, but having driven there I wasn't sure I could justify claiming the points for that challenge). Relaxed, refreshed and already glad not to be carrying my three bags, I plunged straight into my next challenge, and this one lived up to its name - participants were invited to enjoy a culinary speciality from each ken, and Kumamoto's was brought to me on a tiny plate: basashi, or raw horse. It was a little stringy, but tasted of little more than the sauce which accompanied it, and I found my biggest concern was that I'd paid over 1,000yen for 8 small pieces, leaving my stomach rumbling for the 4 rides which took me back through Oita, past water-skiers zipping along on lakes below impressively high bridges, via Fukuoka ken and, finally, all the way to Imari, Saga ken. There, I met up with two fellow Oitian hitchers and together we enjoyed a dinner of famous Imari beef, although my Imari-gyuu curry left me wondering, not for the first time, if this particular local delicacy wasn't just the town hall choosing a local food, adding the word special to it and charging too much to gullible tourists. Like me. As we set up camp between a school and a small factory, it felt good to be back on the road after 2 years, especially as the hitching had gone so smoothly. As a further omen of good luck, no-one snored that night.
Day 2: Saga -> FukuokaEdit
Using the local Lawson as a bathroom, we were up and out by 0800, and picked up almost immediately by Nobu and Keiko whose Honda Airwave had the most amazing sunroof, even bigger than the roof itself. They were a middle-aged couple who had been friends since high school, and who endeared themselves to me by asking if I were a high school student, (I'd never thought to specify teacher on the meishi which I'd had made!). We crossed paths several times whilst strolling around the stalls of world-famous Imari porcelain for the rest of that morning. Call me a craft-goods heathen, who wouldn't know a kiln from some other pottery-related word beginning with K, but, as pretty as some of the things were, it didn't look like anything you couldn't buy in a 100 yen shop, and for around 49,900 yen less. Still, the weather was good, and it was a cute village in which to spend the morning, but 90minutes later, we were on our way to Nagasaki ken with the wonderful Ikedas, a family from Osaka who were back to attend the funeral of the driver's father, who was originally from Imari itself. They were the cheeriest mourners I'd ever met, and drove us all the way to our next challenge, the 99-Island ferry in Sasebo, leaving us with the best request we had all week - refusing our offers of petrol money, (as did every driver I've ever met whilst hitchhiking), he instead asked only that we all send him a postcard from wherever we went next in the world. The 50 minute boat tour of the series of small islands off the East coast of Nagasaki was slightly underwhelming for someone who had just come back from LIVING on an island in Thailand, but it was good to not be driving for once, and to enjoy a beer in the sun, which was soon replaced by drizzling rain when we returned to land. Our lunch was a Sasebo burger, which the Ikedas had told us all about, famous locally not just for being delicious, but for being giant, (translation for Westerners: normal sized). We had even passed the most famous burger shop in the area - Hikari, so popular that you have to wait TWO HOURS after ordering to be able to collect it! We made do with a fast food version, whilst playing with some adorable kids on holiday from Fukuoka, and then my temporary hitch companions and I parted company, (them quicker than me), as I had my longest wait of the week - 30 minutes, before I was picked up by two guys from Karatsu who were on their way to pick up burgers they'd ordered two hours ago from Hikari! What had they done in the meantime, I enquired. Gone to have some burgers, they replied. They took me as far as Karatsu, leaving me in the rain, under a bridge, with the parting comment that after being picked up by two young guys, I was probably hoping to be picked up by two young girls. Literally two minutes later, two young girls pulled over in a Suzuki Lapin. When I asked them why they had stopped, which I asked every driver, they replied that it was because there had been a space to stop. All of a sudden, 3 years of trying to get my high school students to understand the difference between a FACT and a REASON in debate class came rushing back to me. Despite getting lost a few times, they drove me to my Fukuokan friend's front door, and with the rain pouring down outside, I spent my first night under a roof at just the right time.
Day 3: FukuokaEdit
Having already completed most of the challenges on previous hitches, (I admit I had to recycle some previous options, either because they were too good to be missed or, in Saga's case, because there are only so many things to do there!), I was more interested in relaxing this time around, and so decided to spend 2 nights in Fukuoka. Initiating my friend Miyako into the joys of hitching, we were picked up within 30 seconds in a fittingly-named Suzuki Swift, two ad-agency workers driving us to their favourite Nagahama ramen restaurant in their lunch-break for us to complete the Fukuoka food challenge. We ate in a real working class, bustling, cram-em-in place with ramen so cheap that I made the typical gaijin error of ordering extra noodles and meat, which essentially constituted a second meal which I didn't need after the first one, (especially since it wasn't actually as good as other ramen I've had in Fukuoka). Miyako wanted to try her second ever hitchhike, and since it took Hiro and Shimizu 3 minutes to do a U-turn in their pimped up Toyota Celsior, she had to wait a grand total of 6 minutes for it, and they dropped us at the foot of the impressively glistening Fukuoka Tower, my 2nd of 3 challenges for the day. On the way, I had learned of a new job - snack bar and soapland journalist which, judging from their car, seemed to pay fairly well. The Tower was vaguely impressive, the internal design possibly more so than the view itself, although from the top we could see our next destination. Unfortunately it was within walking distance and we made a rare foot-powered journey to the Yahoo Dome. Being 3 hours early for that evening's baseball game, we decided to stop at the cinema, and see that it was the world premier of Spiderman 3. Which finished 3 minutes before the game started. Being the first of the month, it also happened to be the only day when going to the cinema doesn't cost the same as taking out a mortgage, so after catching up on the further trials of Peter Parker and MJ, we continued our roll of luck when a woman walked up to us at the baseball ticket office and just gave us a free ticket. We hadn't even had our thumbs out. Our luck rubbed off on the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, who won their 9th straight game, and we walked home again, (quicker than hitching, with thousands of fans all trying to drive home at the same time), for my last night indoors before hitting the road again.
Day 4: Fukuoka -> Kumamoto -> KagoshimaEdit
After a late start, I waited 20 minutes to be picked up by Mr. Nakashima, who drove me all the way to the Dazaifu Interchange. He had merely been out for a drive, (a common occurrence which makes Golden Week so perfect for hitchhiking, and which led to me learning a new Japanese term - Buratto, from fura fura, meaning to be doing nothing and essentially meaning "unbelievably free"), and after seeing me and calling his wife, she had insisted he U-turn and go back to help me. We chatted about his fascinating job on the way, as he was employed by mobile phone companies to test their reception in various locations across Kyushu, and I was intrigued to hear that the rumours were true: AU is far and away the best, whilst Softbank was embarrassingly bad. I felt a wave of pride for the AU phone nestled in my pocket. Mr. Nakamura, and his wife, were to prove so friendly that later that evening, he would call me to make sure I'd made it safely to my destination! 8 minutes after waving goodbye to him, I was picked up by the ride of the week - Takamoto-san, a Self Defence Forces Officer, stationed in Okinawa and back home in Kumamoto to visit his family for the holidays. He flew me halfway to Kagoshima in a gorgeous, left-hand drive Chevrolet Camaro, as we chatted about Naha, where my best friend lives and where his girlfriend, who he had just driven to the airport in Fukuoka, was waiting for him. We made plans to meet up next time I was down there, and he dropped me at a service station halfway through the longest stretch of my week's hitching, travelling most of the length of the island. Service stations are funny places. I'd always presumed they would be the easiest place to get picked up from, just chatting to people, or waiting by the lines of cars at the exits, but throughout the week the opposite appeared to be true - maybe it's the fact that you are too close, too in their faces at a service station, whereas on the road, drivers are more in control over whether they stop for you or not. Either way, it took another 30 minutes before I was picked up by a couple with a young child who, I thought at first, were extremely rude, not wanting to talk to me, or even saying hello. It's extremely rare to be picked up by rude people when hitchhiking, however. It is almost an automatic process of natural selection, since anyone who isn't willing to talk to you isn't very likely to stop for you in the first place, and it turned out that the Naganos were merely deaf - the first deaf people, I realised, I had ever met. The next 90 minutes were amazing kanji practice for me, as I exchanged notes with the husband, whilst he communicated with his driver wife through sign language. After a while, their 3 year old son woke up, and I found out the answer to a question I was wondering, but had felt too ignorant to ask; I knew enough genetics to know that if you chopped an arm off each parent, their child wouldn't grow up with one arm, but I couldn't figure out whether or not a child born to deaf parents would also be deaf. It turned out that, at least in this case, the answer was yes, and the whole experience was fascinating, although also a little scary at times, when your driver starts gesticulating wildly at 130km/h when she has something to say. When they dropped me off at Ebino, they not only refused any petrol money, but attempted to give me money for the rest of the journey! I refused politely, and pulled out my thumb to be picked up by an adorable pair of elderly ladies who, again, stopped because they felt I was kawaiisou, a common theme throughout the week, and one which made rain less of a negative event, since nothing makes you look as helpless as standing by the roadside whilst being rained on. Kanekura-san and Seki-san proceeded to offer me one of those tortuous decisions which hitchhikers everywhere dread - the chance to be dropped off halfway to my destination, Soginotaki Waterfall in Okuchi, possibly on a country road with no-one around, or to go all the way to a totally different location instead - Kirishima national park. They made the decision slightly easier by offering to drive me to Okuchi the next morning, when they weren't so busy. So it was that, at 1700, 5 hours after I'd left Fukuoka, and after several people had told me that it couldn't be done, that it was too far, or too expensive, I'd made it to Kagoshima, and was lounging outside my tent in the sunny breeze of my 1,000 yen campsite, with nothing better to do but drink the imo-jouchu potato alcohol which was that ken's challenge, take a long relaxing onsen and text message my jealous friends.
Day 5: Kagoshima -> MiyazakiEdit
I was up at 0900 for my second onsen at the camp, paying the 200 yen at the front desk before using the bathing facilities set off to one side. Whilst soaking, I asked myself why I had even bothered paying for the hot spring, when there was no-one checking tickets, and I made a realisation which had been growing ever since I started living in Japan: living here, in such a generally honest society, makes you into a more honest person. My baa-chans showed up at exactly 1100, as they had promised they would, and by 1200 we were at the waterfall, (it would have been earlier, but they had a strange habit of stopping to ask for directions every time they couldn't see a signpost for our destination, even though we were travelling on a straight road). The packed car-park left me confused as to how few people there were actually enjoying the not particularly high but beautiful, wide, sweeping waterfall, and I soon settled down in a shady park to eat the lunch which had been ridiculously kindly prepared for me. Having mentioned the day before that I didn't think I'd ever eaten take no ko bamboo shoots, my drivers had taken it upon themselves to make me some and enough food to go with it to feed two people. It was all delicious, especially the local specialty kurobuta, black pork, which may well take it's place as next year's challenge. When I returned to find my cooks, they expressed surprise that I'd finished everything; the bentos hadn't been meant for two people, but for one person, (me), for two meals. Well, I probably wasn't going to be needing dinner now, at any rate. At 1500, they dropped me at a local shop on route 221 which led straight to Miyazaki and I had a choice I didn't really want to make - where to aim for next. I simply wrote "Miyazaki" on my whiteboard, and decided to leave it up to my driver, full and happy in the knowledge that I had been to Okuchi - somewhere called, essentially, Big Mouth. Thirteen minutes later, and for the next 2 hours, I was in the company of Goto-san and Arita-san, who I feared at first may be members of a cult. It turned out they were actually just members of a business which sounded remarkably like a pyramid scheme, and after asking if I knew anyone in Hong Kong, (at first I thought they actually knew my friend Gav who is living over there, and had heard about me from him), I took some of their brochures and promised to send them to him and not, whatever happened, to offload them in the first bin I saw after they dropped me off in Miyazaki City, which somehow ended up happening after they had handed me off to friends who knew the city better, and who left me at the sumptuous, peaceful Miyazaki Marina yacht dock to spend the night. I settled down with a book on the beach, but unfortunately on my return to where I had left my tent and bag, the bento I'd bought that morning was strewn over the grass; thief, dog or strong wind, I'll never know, but I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat or drink. Three passing Miyazaki girls were sympathetic to my plight, driving me to the nearest conbini, (which wasn't particularly near) but not quite sympathetic enough to drive me back. Still, after Kenta, the shaven-headed, English-loving, kickboxing Lawson worker had helped me fix my broken torch, at least I had my book to read for the half hour walk back to the beach. After my event-filled day, I was looking forward to getting an early night, but as I was preparing to pitch my tent at 2100, an announcement chimed out across the park, and 10 minutes later, Matsuda-san, an 80-year old security guard, came by to make sure I'd understood that the park was closing. (I had, but had pretended I hadn't). I used my best puppy-dog eyes on him, and it worked; he said I could stay overnight, as I had nowhere else to go, and just when I was thanking whichever deity it was which gave the Japanese such a generous spirit, he warned me that he was just worried about me, as "bad kids" often broke into the park and night, and caused "trouble", hence the need for a security guard. Being Japanese, I didn't know if "bad kids" meant coke-snorting, mass-murdering yakuza, or teenagers who unrolled all the toilet-paper from the public lavatories for fun, (which was the example I think he gave), but either way it seemed I had talked my way into a night of being terrified by the sound of my own tent flaps. I was saved from this fate by the offer to let me camp next to his guardhouse and he even gave me a lift to it in my third unplanned hitch of the day. It wasn't quite a police car, fire-engine or ambulance, but it did have a flashing yellow light, so I gave myself the bonus points for riding in an emergency vehicle. There are, after all, some perks to organising this event! Around 11pm, I fell asleep to the best night's camping I'd had so far, with the sound of the waves against the yachts, and under the watchful eye of the oldest security guard I'd ever met. I was never worried about who would protect him if those "bad kids" broke in. After all, he had a flashing yellow light. And a torch.
Day 6: MiyazakiEdit
Well, it was the best night's camping until I was woken at around 4am by Goto-san and Arita-san, calling to make sure I'd arrived safely, (my second concerned drivers of the week), and promising to visit in Oita sometime. They had hung up by the time my brain realised who they were. When I woke up properly at 10:00, I realised that it had been my longest lie-in since I began camping, but unfortunately, this was due to the grey clouds which were gathering overhead, stopping the sun from waking me as usual. My first hitch of the day was a great one - being escorted to the main road by two Hirokis who had been interrupted in their coke-machine filling duties by my cheeky request for a lift up to the main road, and their surprising agreement. I had always wanted to ride in a truck, and it was well worth the wait, as they dropped me off at the Lawson I'd bought dinner from the previous night. Next came a fascinating couple - the 74-year old Yokoyamas, he a professional roadside grass trimmer and also founding member of a World Friendship Group, who drove me all the way to Nobeoka even though they'd picked me up right next to their home, once more the kawaiisou factor working in my favour in the rain. We discussed world politics along the way, as he has Chinese residents visit his hometown for three months of every year, completely free of charge as far as I could tell, since, as he put it so beautifully: people are people, not their governments. They even treated me to a lunch of tempura udon, their field of expertise apparently as they commented on the quality of every udon shop along the way, and after 2 hours, and approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes from where they actually lived, (they had discussed taking me all the way to my destination but I couldn't allow them to go so ridiculously far out of their way), they dropped me a mere 150 kms from where I live, and Mr.Yokoyama even pinch-hitched for me for 5 minutes whilst I went to relive myself by the roadside. Within one minute of taking my sign back, I was scooped up by two young Miyazakian guys in a Toyota Corolla Fielder, a snazzy, new sports car which looked nothing like the old-man Corolla which I used to drive. On all my travels around Japan, my favourite place is the one which was now only 45 kms from my new front door, and so it was fitting that, for one of my last challenges, and even though I'd been there on both of my previous hitchhikes, my final destination for the day was the gorgeous, myth-filled, mist-filled valley of Takachiho in far Northern Miyazaki. The torrential rain stopped for me as I joined the hordes of photographing tourists, not ashamed to join them for the amazing views which the hazy weather created in the craggy valley depths, and after a few hours I made my way to Takachiho Shrine to wait for Andy and Midori, my fellow Oitians who I had last seen in Sasebo, and who soon arrived with Mr. Todaka in tow, a young Airforce worker who maintained jet fighters and who made up for not being allowed to fly them by driving a sporty Subaru Imprezza. He stayed for the day's challenge, the night-time Yokagura traditional dance which was as fun as I'd remember it being 3 years before, and then he drove us half an hour away to his family home, insisting we couldn't possibly camp in the rain. There followed a crazy night of beer, babies, beer, cats, beer, unbelievable amounts of home-made food, and brandy when the beer ran out, all in one of those fantastic old, cobbled together houses with four generations springing out of various nooks and crannies. With the rain turning torrential, I was thankful that, after 3 years, I was experiencing my first stay with a driver, (although, technically, he wasn't my driver, but again, being hitchmeister has its perks, as I awarded myself the dubious bonus points), and we slept like 3 people who had camped for too long. At least until the cat somehow managed to open the door to our room, and sit on my face to wake me up the next morning.
Day 7: Miyazaki -> Kumamoto -> OitaEdit
It was hard to say goodbye to such spontaneous, heartfelt generosity, compounded at the door when the family offered 1,000 yen towards our charity, which after everything they'd done I was almost too embarrassed to accept, but we were driven back to Takachiho, from where, after a pit-stop to pick up some shouchu omiyage, we were back in a car after a mere minute's wait, and deposited within sight of our final challenge: the summit of Aso-san, Kumamoto ken. Twenty minutes later, we were riding with the Kawakitas from Nagasaki, on their way to Harmonyland amusement park in Oita, and passing through Taketa, my final destination, on the way. It was a dilemma, but with so much time left in the day, and so close to another challenge, we decided to leave the gorgeous twins, (who, after mistakenly referring to them in the masculine, we found out were twin girls), and we were soon in yet another car with the Watanabes to the entrance to the Aso-san ropeway. Having lost Andy to the bed which was calling him back to Hita, Midori and I were left to walk the final few hundred metres to the summit, but the Gods of hitchhiking seemed reluctant to leave us to our own devices, as a giant black Mercedes van pulled up beside us and my old friend, Motoshi leaned out of the window in disbelief that the two crazy people walking up to the summit in the rain, when everyone else was either driving or taking the ropeway, were his friends. Thus, we accidentally chalked up another ride, and saw the gorgeous, clear blue pools of water in the caldera of the volcano. Enough was enough, and back at the base of the mountain, in a light drizzle which made it difficult to keep the whiteboard dry, I wrote the two symbols which would take me back to my apartment: 竹田. This felt like the longest wait of all, as we jumped up and down at each license plate with 大分 written on it, but after eleven minutes of wondering if the people of my own ken were the most ungenerous, or perhaps just not going to Taketa, (on a road which went straight through it), we were finally picked up by Harada san who drove us the 45 minutes to my front door, and who I can only presume is wanted by the police for some reason, the only explanation I can think of for his insistence when I asked for the traditional photo that whatever we do, we don't post it on the internet. That night, I soothed my back pains with an onsen at nearby Naoiri, but as I was some 75 kms from Beppu, even I couldn't award myself the points for that particular challenge.
Day 8: OitaEdit
As it had begun, so it ended - cheating. As much as I had loved hitchhiking, the lure of my car, sitting neglected in my drive for a week, when coupled with the rain which was threatening, was too much, and I climbed into what had now become an unfamiliar seat in the car (the driver's) and drove back to Oita for yet another sports challenge; Trinita's final Golden Week football match. It ended for them as it had begun, too, with a loss, though I took advantage of the opportunity to tick off my fourth food and drink challenge, whilst simultaneously eating a rarity I'd never even heard of before, let alone seen - toriten curry. Whilst driving home alone that night I realised that this year, (luckily considering I'd already done most of them before), the challenges had been less interesting for me than the people who I'd been lucky enough to be picked up by along the way - from 18 to 80, from army officers to hedge-trimmers, I'd fallen in love with Japan and, more importantly, Japanese people one more time. Furthermore, American comedian Mitch Hedberg once said that he wants to have a world map on his wall, with pins in every place he's been to but first he'll have to travel to the top two corners of the world to keep it up. My map of Kyushu is safe.
Number of Cars Ridden in: 32
Most Popular Car Manufacturer: Toyota
Average Waiting Time: 6.3minutes
Meishi Collected: a pathetic 6
Meals Bought/Cooked by Drivers: 3
Doron, and 24 others, were hitchhiking to raise money for Oita's chosen charity, Room to Read, with the goal of building a school in Nepal. For further information on this or other charity events, please contact Doron at: firstname.lastname@example.org