Just over a week in Japan and I’d already spent nearly twice my allocated budget for the country. I’ve only been eating out of convenience stores which are everywhere and have decent ready made meals (mainly sushi and noodles). I want to see Mount Fuji but it’s over 700 km from Hiroshima, so I decide good old hitch-hiking is the best option. I can’t afford to blow more cash on long-distant bus or train journeys. Hitching isn’t that common here but I’ve been assured that it is possible. The problem is getting to a suitable place to hitch from near a highway. I get a train out of Hiroshima to a place on a map where I’ve been told is near a service station. I go there only to find that it’s a toll bridge but having come all this way am in no mood to turn back. I stand in between the tolls with my thumb out until I’m approached by a policeman and woman and told to follow them. Obviously hitching on a highway is illegal and this place counts as the highway. They take me to their police station beside the tolls (they must’ve seen me from their window) and copy my passport. They are very polite about it all though and one policeman has an app on his phone where he talks in Japanese and the English translation appears on the screen. I talk back to the phone and the Japanese appears. I ask if they know the nearest place I can hitch from and they tell me they’ll take me to a safe place in their car. They take me to a place 5 minutes away and wave cheerio.
It’s an hour before someone stops. He’s a businessman who has been to America and is going an hour down the road. He can leave me at a service station. I want to reach the city of Kobe by the evening and reckon if I’m lucky, someone will be going all the way there. I wait at the service station for another 45 minutes before I see another hitchhiker in the distance talking to motorists. He walks up to me and tells me that I can come with him as he’s just got a ride with a couple in a people carrier. Ko, an upbeat chap, is on his way to Tokyo, an ambitious destination to get to but then again he can speak Japanese and will get rides much quicker. He chats away to the young couple in the front and translates my story to them from what he can understand. The couple take me an hour and a half down the road to another service station and Ko continues on with them to a place where the road diverges at the city of Himeji where they’re from. Another hour later, another ride with an English speaker and a short train journey gets me to Kobe by 8pm. A long day and unfortunately I don’t see much of the city that has completely recovered since the devastating earthquake of 1995. It’s supposed to be a nice place but I don’t have much time and I’m off again the next morning.
I hit it lucky within the first hour of trying to find a way out of the city. The first person in a shop I ask happens to speak English. Another businessman, he’s going to Osaka and can leave me at a service station. He’s been to America too; a pattern is forming here. He laughs as I explain what I’m doing and where I’m going. I can’t tell if it’s nervous laughter, as in he’s thinking “what a crazy bastard” or if he genuinely finds it funny. At the next service station, I have the foreboding feeling that this day is going to drag. An hour and a half of waiting and nothing. I see a Zen monk approach the shop and perk up; surely a monk’ll take me a bit further. “Sumimasen” (“Excuse me”), I say but he doesn’t react. I say it again and he continues to blank me and walks on. I can’t fucking believe it; are all Zen monks in Japan charlatans? Another hour of waiting and it’s beginning to get a bit depressing but then a couple of young fellas in work clothes tell me they’re going to Nagoya in their van. They don’t have much English but we get along well and they’re curious to know what I’m up to. They stop along the way for lunch and insist on paying for mine. At a service station outside Nagoya I wait for an hour before an elderly couple tell me they can take me some of the way to Fuji. As soon as we get into their luxury car, they liven up and joke to each other about the novelty of giving a foreigner a lift. They phone their daughter who can speak English who translates what I already gathered from the information were attempting to convey. It’s getting late by the time they drop me a few of hours from my final destination. Another hour and another Japanese man whose been to America takes me further along the route. Before letting me off he announces he’s a Jehovah’s Witness and gives me a leaflet about the religion. It’s dark by this stage. I’m exhausted from a day of waiting and uncertainty and resign myself to spending a night in the service station. I phone the hostel I’ve booked a bed at and cancel the booking before getting a hot meal.
While eating I have my hitching sign propped up against my backpack in a vague hope someone might be going near Kawaguchiko at Fuji Five Lakes. A man in his late 50s informs me he’s going to Tokyo and can take me to the service station closest to the beginning of the smaller road to where I’m going. I thank him and gather my stuff. He’s been to England before and has a friend to used to play for Ipswich Town. His car looks very expensive…some sort of hybrid electrical contraption, which he calls ‘my toy’. He tells me about his life and his family. Near to where I’m due to get off he decides it’s too late for me hang around a service station and asks for the number of the hostel I’d booked with. He phones them to tell them I’m coming and drives me 45 minutes out of his way to leave me at its doorstep. Such is the unexpected generosity of strangers. I get a good night’s sleep and wake the next morning to find the views of Mount Fuji I’d been hoping for.
I stay a couple of days at Kawaguchiko. It’s no Slieve Gullion but Fuji offers endless joy for [aspiring] photographers like myself. In Spring it’s the cherry blossom that frames its iconic peak. Now it’s the red autumn maple and I don’t tire of trying to capture as many different images as I can.
If you lived in this area, the world famous Fuji would be like a faithful friend, always there offering something new but familiar each time. I almost envy the folk who live with it; it’s difficult to see how you’d get used to it or take it for granted. It’s the perfect image of a mountain. I only get to see one side of it but it’s enough; in the absence of people to deeply connect with, nature is capable of offering a good consolation.