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I first took up hitchhiking as a primary form of long distance transport back in 2010 in Japan. Since then I have been hitchhiking in Japan on several trips over the years.

For long distances the best places are the SAs and PAs (SA = Service Area = サービスエリア / PA = Parking Area = パーキングエリア). These are located at more or less regular intervals along Japan's expressways, which have high tolls and on which pedestrians are not permitted.

Now in Kyushu and Honshu I've never had any problems hitchhiking to / from / between SAs and PAs along the expressways. It's never considered the same as being a pedestrian on the actual expressway. Many police have seen me hitchhiking at them - I often wave to make sure there's no problem.

On this trip I came to Hokkaido for the first time and naturally I hitchhiked on the expressway as usual. One evening on the way to Sapporo from Hakodate I was at 砂川SA (the northernmost Service Area in Japan) a pair of policemen approached me and told me it was OK to hitchhike but not on the expressway, including the Service Area. I had to go out the back way and hitchhike on the national highway instead (not as fast for covering large distances).

My question is:

  • Is it true that hitching at SAs and PAs is OK in the rest of Japan?
  • Is it true that hitching at SAs and PAs in Hokkaido is not OK?

Or could it be that these police had an unusual interpretation of the rules and I was just unlucky?

Or could it be that I've always just been lucky hitchhiking elsewhere in Japan and could've been asked to leave the expressway system at any SA/PA in the country?

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1 Answer 1

Will Ferguson's The Hitchhiker's Guide to Japan (increasingly outdated, being from 1998, but still the Bible for this topic), this random Japanese forum and the Japan Times all agree:

Hitchhiking is actually so uncommon in Japan that there are no laws specifically governing it. According to the Road Traffic Law, it is illegal to interfere with traffic, or to walk on an expressway, but as long as you aren’t inconveniencing vehicles or causing them to stop in no-parking zones, you should be in the clear.

The vast majority of legislation in Japan is set at the national level, and while some prefectures do have their own additional road traffic legislation (道路交通法), I can't find anything about Hokkaido having one and the Hokkaido prefectural police's traffic rules page doesn't mention any.

But Ferguson has a theory for why you shouldn't hitchhike near the police, even if it's legal:

You will only perturb the officers [...] who feel they have to do something about the odd foreigner standing out there with his thumb in the air.

So in short, as long as you're standing in an area of the SA/PA which is obviously designated for pedestrians (and the strip between the buildings and the parking lots, the end of which I usually hitched from, is), I'm pretty sure it's perfectly legal to hitchhike from the SA/PA.

All in all, I'd put my money on the last of your options: you probably just ran into a few cops who were interpreting that "walk on the expressway" part a bit overzealously. Thanks to its large size, many visitors and (for Japan) poor public transport, Hokkaido does have a lot more hitchhikers than anywhere else in the country, so they may have had bad experiences before with a misguided fool wandering in the toll booths or something.

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The funny part was that I was inside the SA checking out the menu in case I was going to be there for dinner and saw the police looking for the owner of the backpack with the hithing sign propped up on it. I had the same thing once in China in January, but China is a different kettle of fish. Also I'm reading the book you mentioned since being given it by a ski bunny in Osaka on her way from Hokkaido to New Zealand ... –  hippietrail May 15 at 11:59

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