The alarm sounded at what felt like an ungodly hour, 6am. Both of us felt like the dead as we tried to bring ourselves back to life after a day of frantic action. Aki had work today but wanted to take me to a good spot for hitchhiking before he went in. There was a place he had in mind just outside of Kushiro that was a pipeline for people heading to my waypoint, Obihiro. My final destination was still undecided but it was either going to be north back up into Daisetsuzan national park or down south to towns along the coast famous for breeding horses. But first things first I thought, get to Obihiro then make up my mind.
Let me say one thing, if a Japanese person says they know the perfect place for hitchhiking first check what the surroundings are like. Most people who pick you up want to drop you off someplace safe and warm, a place with a gas station, convenience store, and maybe even a public restroom. It’s an understandable sentiment but from my experience these warm and safe places are the worst places to try and get a ride, at least in Japan. Usually there are no convenient places for a car to pull over (and no they don’t think about the giant parking lot sitting behind you) other then the bus stop which is a no-no. The other factor is psychological. A passing car sees you standing next to a convenience store, gas station, and public restroom and their mind goes, ‘this person is safe and cozy, they don’t need my help.’ The ideal place is actually a few kilometers before or after these places where the road opens up and there is nothing around. Most drivers shun this idea because it feels like abandonment to them which leaves you to walk a kilometers to walk to a better spot. Not a complaint, just a fact.
So Aki and I said our goodbyes at a rest stop overlooking the ocean. This parting was a bit tougher then the previous because of how close we had gotten over the last couple of days. As he drove off back to Kushiro for his work I set my pack beside me and began mine. Forty minutes I waited as car after car after car passed me by without even a glance. I did get a wave from a couple truck drivers. Of all the people on the road they seem to be the most supportive, at least morally. It might be the free spirit that leads them to be truckers, who knows.
I finally threw in the towel for this ‘perfect’ location and walked about a kilometer down the road where it opened up into vast nothingness. Voila! Not ten minutes had passed when a van heading the whole 120km to my destination pulled over and invited me in.
Obihiro was pretty big and rather daunting for a guy who had spent the last week in the countryside. I found out it was also one of those towns that sprawls out leaving no space between it and the next city, one of the worst places for attempting to hitchhike. On the way in I had decided on the fly that I was going back north to see some more mountains rather then south for horses.
It was busy road after busy road with no a place to stick out my thumb. The first spot I came across and tried was on the major artery because it had a small place to pull in but after about 20 minutes I decided to walk up the road a bit more to look for a better place.
Two hundred meters forward was a giant bridge leading to more city but it had two other veins leading into it. I decided to give one a try but soon gave up after figuring out that main flow of traffic headed toward my destination (Nukabira hot spring), as led by road/highway signs, would not go by there.
I looked up at the sky and it was a rare dark blue. The clock on my cell phone read 11:30 and the early morning combined with the long hitch were clouding my head. I sat down next to the bridge on a nice patch of green. The sun beat down on me warming the clothes on my back. My eyes felt heavy so I stretched out and using my backpack as a pillow drifted off to sleep.
What felt like hours later I stretched my rested limbs and sat up. My head was much clearer but now my stomach began to complain. I pulled out a self heating lunch box containing one of the specialties of the town, roast pork rice bowl, that was a gift from the man who had given me a ride into town. I yanked the cord that removed the top and the chemical heater and waited.
Recharged I stood up and once again took stock of my situation. If I didn’t want to punish my body and look for a better place to try and hitchhike some unknown distance down the road I was going to have to brave the first place I tried and hope for the best. As I set up and tossed out my thumb I noticed with some amusement that right across from me was the main police station for the city. Police and hitchhiking don’t mix well but I was going to take my chances.
It was actually a surprise when only 15 or so minutes later a minivan pulled up and revealed a young couple (or so I thought until those details were cleared later…) They were headed in my direction (of course) and enjoying a bit of driving so it would be no problem to take me all the way. I settled in and we began the hour long drive.
Nukabira hot spring was a one road town with nothing but semi-expensive hotels and a few restaurants, none of them open. Even the tourist information center was closed. I took this in stride and told Keia and Mutsumi (I found out their names later) not to worry. They gave me a concerned look but smiled and shortly took off.
Food was my first concern and luckily there was a supply store open until nine-ish that held things like snacks and cup ramen, not my first choice but something I could survive on for a night. I was also informed there that the campground located just outside of town was still closed (no running water, staff, or need to pay J ) and no one else would be there. I shrugged with a smile. Bring it on.
After setting up my tent I headed back to town and to a hot spring. The bath itself was pretty standard but afforded a great view of the forest and occasional deer. I was a bit surprised when I heard a female voice emanating from the outdoor bath as I stripped but with a chuckle realized it must be a mixed bath (it was until 8:30pm when it became girls only until 10pm). Before entering I politely let them know I was coming and turning the corner I saw an older couple enjoying a good conversation.
It was still a bit early to head back to my tent for my evening routine so I settled into a deep leather recliner in the lobby of the hotel for a bit of time to do some writing and thinking. Of all the hotels and inns I’ve been to in this country I have to say this place takes the cake. Blues/jazz/instrumental playing on large speakers resting in one corner, a room full of deep brown leather chairs, wilderness paraphernalia draped about tastefully, a giant dog lounging about, a relaxing scent in the air, the perfect place to sit for a while.
Out of nowhere one of the staff (there were only a few) walked up to me and handed me a few rice balls. They knew that all the restaurants in town were closed and that I was staying alone in the campground and had decided to help out a bit. It’s moments like those that warm your heart but the brightest light in the dark was yet to come.
Before heading out into the lonely night I decided to look through their small gift/craft shop. Two older ladies were playing around with some juggling sacks so I decided to show them my skills. We all laughed and it turned out one of the ladies had a daughter married to an American in San Diego. We talked for a while and I discovered they were heading to Sapporo the next day (about 350km away) and if I wanted I could hitch a ride with them. I smiled, tucking that bit of information away, but let them know that my current plans involved going a bit further north to a famous gorge.
I finally dragged myself out of the warm embrace of the hotel and down to the campground. It was about that time and I was in the midst of my evening preparations when I noticed through my tent opposite me the glare of light. This was quite odd because there were no lights in the campground and it should have been pitch black around me.
I stuck my head out of the tent. Yep, the trees across from me were definitely brighter which meant there was a light source behind my me. It was kind of creepy feeling seeing light where there should be none and as I looked around the side of my refuge I saw a car pulling into the parking lot a few hundred meters away.
It sat there for a minute and then two people got out. ‘Who were these people?’ I wondered. Were they looking for mushrooms, were they with campground management, were they psychopathic murders bent on ruining my night (the last thought actually didn’t occur to me)? Closer and closer they came, the headlights shining from behind sharply outlining their forms.
Suddenly one of them called out, ‘Michael! Are you there?’ I shook my head. Had they just called my name? I stood up, ‘Yeah, I’m over here.’ My mind raced. Who in town knew my name? I hadn’t given out any business cards or introduced myself to anyone, other then the passing conversation with the two older ladies.
Even in the light I didn’t recognize them until the girl began to speak of things earlier in the day. All the pieces suddenly came together and I recognized who she was, Mutsumi, but the other guy was a blank. ‘Michael, this is my husband Kuni’ she said turning to the man next to her.
‘Here, have some McDonald’s.’ I looked down at here hand and sure enough there was a bag from McDonalds filled with food. ‘Uh, thanks.’ It turns out that they had driven all the way out here to bring me some food because they knew all the restaurants in town were closed. ‘We had some trouble finding you and were just about to give up.’ Actually they had been in town over an hour looking for me, talking with the locals trying to pinpoint my location. Unbelievable. The cold, unfriendly dark that had been surrounding me disappeared as the light of their kindness washed over me.
I sat with them in their van talking while I ate the food, my first McDonalds in weeks. I was so shocked I hardly knew what to say other then ‘thank you, a lot.’ I was already at the end of my day with all energy reserves depleted before Mutsumi and Kuni showed up so unfortunately our conversation was pretty short. I once again said ‘thank you’ and goodbye before they pulled away into the now seemingly friendly darkness.
I’ve had some experiences so far on this trip but this one now sits as number one as ‘out of the blue’ Chuckling quietly to myself I drifted off into a gentle, restful sleep.