by Alec Siegel
Hitchhiking in Japan is like trying to catch fish in the Dead Sea. That might be a tad dramatic, but it isn’t too far off.
So why did Michael and I engage in such a foolish endeavor? To save seven bucks. Bumming a ride instead of taking the city bus for all of eight miles would accomplish that.
Two months into a six-month trip through Japan will make you appreciate the value of yen a little bit more. $7 is dinner. $7 is a night at a cheap hotel.
It was early evening on a Saturday, about four o’clock, and we were returning from a day at the Saga International Hot Air Balloon Festival. The event was on the banks of the Kasase River in Saga, Fukuoka Prefecture, no more than eight miles from where we needed to be.
Our lodgings were just off route 422, a one-lane highway that cuts through a number of tiny farming hamlets across the river from Saga.
A 100 yen shuttle took us from the festival to the Saga train station, from which we were either going to walk the eight miles back to our Airbnb, or ideally, hitch a ride.
When we arrived at the Saga train station, I opened up my journal to a blank page, and scribbled the word “Okawa”, the name of the village we were headed toward.
10 minutes of walking backward with our thumbs out and our sign waving in the wind got us nowhere. A few bemused looks, but no ride.
A few minutes later, our prayers were answered, although in a different form than we anticipated.
Two kids in suits were on the sidewalk in front of us walking with their bicycles. They heard Michael and I speaking English to each other and turned around.
“Hey guys,” the one with the short cropped black hair and glasses said, “need some help?”
We stopped to chat, still holding our “Okawa” sign out for oncoming cars to see. The two kids were American, one from Idaho the other California, and they were in Japan as Mormon missionaries. Mormon freaking missionaries! On a sidewalk in a town of 200,000 in nowhere Japan. We’ve encountered some bizarre things in this country, but this was up there.
So while one offered to pay for our bus fare (we told him we were not broke, only cheap), concrete help-a ride-proved elusive. As we parted ways, I told them to send a prayer for us to the man up above. They said they would.
No more than two minutes later, a white van pulled up to the curb. A thick necked man leaned out the window and shouted “Okawa?!”
“Hai! Hai!” we replied (translation: “Yes! Yes!”).
We chucked our bags in the trunk, Michael took shotgun and I squeezed into the backseat, next to a dusty leaf blower, piles of toolboxes, and a pair of green and white basketball sneakers.
This was no limousine or even city bus, but it was a zero-cost ride. Besides, anyone with a leaf blower in the backseat has to be trustworthy.
The man’s name was Yusuke. He had two tins on his dash: one filled with toothpicks, the other with Q-tips. Another reason to feel safe. He cleans the nooks and crannies.
He found it hilarious that we asked him to take us somewhere a mere eight miles away, and he made a few phone calls to his friends to let them know how amusing this all was. He had a smoking voice on par with DMX.
“I have two Americans in the car!” I imagined him saying, “Should I take ‘em to the shed in the woods or to theunderground holding pen?”
He has a leaf blower and a jar of Q-tips, I reminded myself, we’ll be fine.
In a few minutes of small talk-very, very small talk-we learned that he was 38 years old, and according to Google Translate, worked in the “construction field”. His shoddy English and our shoddier Japanese hit a wall, so we sat in silence for the next few miles.
The sun was setting over the hills to our right, and fields of rice and edamame stretched out for miles to our left.
I pulled out my phone to check the map to make sure we were headed toward Okawa. I could see Michael doing the same in the front seat. It seemed like Yusuke’s route was taking us away from Okawa, on a highway that diverged to the north, when we needed to be going south. If he doesn’t turn right up ahead, I thought, we are taking off at the next light.
His purple striped socks and army camouflage croc slippers did not help my mass murder imaginings.
The turn was 100 meters ahead. Fifty, twenty-five. I clutched my phone until my knuckles turned white. Michael fingered the yarn on his backpack. Yusuke made the turn. I checked the map. We were on the right track.
With my senses out of crises mode, I noticed a radio set on his dash that looked like an XM unit.
“American music?” I asked, pointing at the radio. A nod.
“Wait a moment,” he said.
He dug into his sweatpants pocket and pulled out his phone. Seconds later, a live performance of “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo from YouTube began to play. He set the phone on the dash for all of us to watch.
He paid more attention to the video more than he did the road. It was terrifying.
Listening to Pitbull and Ne-Yo is not how I envisioned leaving this life, so I hatched a plan.
“Better American music,” I said, pointing to my phone. He shut the video off. I switched on “m.A.A.d. city” by Kendrick Lamar, followed by “So Fresh, So Clean” by OutKast. Both got a nod of approval and a thumb up from Yusuke.
We were almost in Okawa, our eight-mile journey coming to a conclusion. For most of the ride, I had been worried about this man’s intentions. Why would a 38 year old Japanese man with a leaf blower in his backseat pickup two Gaijin at 5 o’clock on aSaturday night? Why did he sound like DMX? Why did he wear purple socks? Were the construction tools a farce? The Japanese Mike Myers?
“Here OK” we said, and the car stopped just across the street from where our bicycles were parked. He sent us off with a toothy grin and a wave, lit up a cigarette, and drove off.
We were the oddballs, I realized as his car disappeared. Yusuke should have questioned our intentions. Instead he drove us eight miles, and saved us $7. Maybe he was an undercover Mormon agent, maybe those two kids paid him to scoop usup, I rationalized.
Or maybe he was simply a hygienic Pitbull fan with an open mind and a few open seats.