Renting a car in Japan can be a great option for those who wish to explore more remote and less-travelled areas of the country. While Japan's infrastructure is excellent and trains, buses, and subways can be used to reach many popular destinations, a car rental is necessary for visiting some of the country's most beautiful locations.
These areas are often off the beaten path and can only be accessed by car. Some examples of such places include the stunning landscapes of Hokkaido, or the oldest hotel in the world. If you plan to travel to these areas and have a more enjoyable experience, it is recommended to rent a car.
However, it is important to note that there are certain things to consider when renting a car and driving in Japan, and this guide will provide all the necessary information.
Can tourists rent a car in Japan?
Yes, absolutely. You need to be over 18, have a valid driver's license, an International driving permit and a passport with you. I recommend booking your car in advance as during peak season cars tend to be fully booked.
Is it difficult to drive in Japan?
It's not more difficult to drive in Japan than other Western country. The roads are well marked, drivers are generally considerate and most cars come with automatic transmission.
Is it expensive to drive in Japan?
It is expensive to drive in Japan. While rentals are affordable, most expressways come with tolls which are very pricey. For our return road trip from Tokyo to Nishiyama Onsen, I paid £50. Prices can really add up fast when driving in Japan.
Is it worth it to rent a car in Japan?
Yes, definitely, but only if you intend to visit some stunning rural attractions which are difficult to get to by public transport. For urban areas, trains a much better option.
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The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18 years. You need your driver's licence as well as an International driving permit with you.
International driving permits are issues in your home country. In the UK, for example, you can go to a post office to get it done, on the same day, for around £5. Just remember to tell the staff what country you require the IDP for.
With an international driving permit, you can drive in Japan for up to one year.
Anyone with an International Driving Permit (IDP) issued abroad under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic can drive a car in Japan in accordance with Japanese laws.
If you have a driving licence from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, or Taiwan, and you meet certain requirements, you will be able to drive in Japan. You will need to have an official Japanese translation of your driving licence.
In Japan, driving is on the left side, the same as in the UK, Australia or New Zealand.
Drivers must keep to the left, and allow passing vehicles to overtake on the right.
Drivers must yield to pedestrians.
You must not drive intoxicated. If your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03 or above, you are considered legally intoxicated and guilty of drink-driving.
You must not exceed the allowed number of passengers or load.
While driving a vehicle, you must not use a cell phone or be distracted by the car navigation system.
When you drive a vehicle, everyone in the car must wear a seatbelt.
When you drive with an infant younger than six years old, you must place the infant securely in a child seat.
There will be some traffic signs which are different from what you are used to. The most notable difference I found was in the stop sign. The stop sign is an inverted red triangle, as you will see in the picture below.
There are a few popular rental companies in Japan including Toyota Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar, Orix Rentacar, Times Car Rental, Nissan Rentacar and Ekiren. I rented our car from Nippon Rentacar in Shinjuku.
Each of the above have serval offices dotted all around Japan. In Tokyo, you will even find the same company in multiple locations for ease and convenience. I rented our car via trip.com because it was an easy interface and English checkout.
At the desk, everyone spoke good enough English for us to be able to understand each other. The staff at the rental company took a picture of our passport, driver's licence and international driving permit. We filled some forms together and made sure we are aware of some traffic rules which they had prepared in a folder for us.
The cost of renting a car in Japan typically ranges from 5,000 yen for a sub-compact car per 24-hour period to 20,000 yen for a van. During peak seasons, rates may be higher.
For example, we paid 10,000 yen for our compact car plus some supplement for full insurance with zero excess fee.
The rental prices usually include unlimited mileage, taxes, and a minimum insurance fee of 1,000 yen per day for damage, injury, and liability, but do not cover non-operation fees for damage to the car. This is why I recommend buying a full insurance coverage for your rental.
When we received the car, it had a full tank of petrol, and we were expected to return it in the same condition. There are many gas stations in Japan, and it is best to fill up within a 5-mile radius of the rental office to avoid additional charges for returning the car with less fuel.
Most rental car outlets allow cars to be dropped off at a different location, but there may be additional fees for locations further away. The fee can be quite high, especially for dropping off a car in a different city. Most companies do not allow cars rented in Hokkaido to be dropped off outside of Hokkaido and vice versa.
Additional options such as child seats and snow tires can be rented with your car. Snow tires are free of charge in snowy regions of Japan during winter.
I recommend asking the office to reserve an electronic toll collection card. This ETC card is used at toll gates when you enter toll roads. Almost all rental cars will be equipped with an ETC card reader.
Having an ETC card will make your trip more relaxed as you won't have to always stop and deal with tollbooths. Most expressways in Japan are subject to tolls.
Driving Experience & Tips
Driving in Japan is generally considered to be a safe and efficient experience. The roads are well-maintained, and traffic tends to be orderly. Drivers in Japan tend to be polite and obey the rules of the road. However, it is important to note that driving in Japan can be challenging due to factors such as narrow roads, tight parking spaces, and confusing traffic signs.
In my experience, I found it that many Japanese drivers went over the speed limit. As a foreigner, you should respect the speed limit, and keep your distance from other drivers. There were times I felt that some drivers were rushing me to go a little faster, especially on single carriageways.
My Japanese rental car came fairly clean, easy to use and with decent mileage on board. The only thing I didn't like was the heavy cigarette smell lingering in the car still.
Most rental cars are with automatic transmission, making it much easier to drive in Japan. I noticed that some Japan rental cars offered manual transmission as well, but I don't recommend anything but an automatic.
Driving in Tokyo can feel very hectic, and I strongly recommend using a GPS. Google maps work perfectly fine, just make sure you respect the signs and get in line for turns. We used our pocket WiFi for Google and it was perfect. Most cars will have a connector for your phone to see the maps on the car's screen.
Drivers are usually polite and can accommodate if you need to change lanes.
Driving in rural Japan was very relaxing for me. I found it similar to driving in the UK. The roads were well maintained and marked. It was not scary.
Make sure you check how to signal and how to use the wipers. In our rental, the signal was on the other side than what I'm used to in my Suzuki in the UK.
Petrol stations are abundant throughout the country and typically offer full service, although self-service options have become more prevalent recently. Some stations close during the night, while others are open 24 hours. High octane and diesel fuel are also widely available. Payment can be made with credit card or cash.
Make sure you fully understand what type of fuel your rental needs. At the car rental services, the staff will show you the colour you require for your fuel. Make sure you take a photo to remember this information.
"Regular unleaded" - Red
"High-octane" - Yellow
"Diesel" - Green
When getting petrol at a full-service station, you may be directed to a stall by an attendant. You should park your car, open the window, and turn off the engine. You will need to tell the attendant the type of fuel you need, if you need a half or full tank and how you will pay (cash or credit card).
Depending on the petrol station, the attendant may also offer you a wet towel to clean your dashboard or ask to take your rubbish.
Self-service stations typically have Japanese-language menus. We used a self service petrol station, and it's very straightforward. We used our card, selected the petrol and fuelled the car. Furthermore, we got a receipt which we kept in car the rental offices required one as proof.
Services in Japan
There are numerous services along the expressways in Japan which are clearly marked on large signs. Services don't always come with petrol stations. There are toilets, cafés, restaurant and/or a shop to buy treats, food, and drinks.
The toilets in service spaces are very clean and well maintained. There is ample parking space around the main service building, and it's easy to get off and on the main road.
For rural areas, you might want to check on google maps for local shops and supermarkets located off the main road.
In Japan, parking can vary depending on the location. In urban areas, parking can be difficult to find and expensive, with many garages charging high hourly rates. Because of this, I suggest that you pick the car from the rental offices as early as possible and start your journey right away, to avoid parking in main cities.
In more rural areas, parking is often more available, but may still be subject to regulations, such as designated parking areas for cars and motorcycles. There are also parking lots designated for tourists and people who want to park their car for a longer period of time.
Most rural ryokans will have parking lots for visitors. Rural and off the beaten path attractions also have parking available.
More tips for Japan
Japan is a fascinating country with a rich culture and history. There are many things to see and do, but it's also important to be aware of some customs and practices to make your trip more enjoyable.
And finally, no trip to Japan is complete without trying all the Japanese food. I recommend sampling lots of street food too. And finally, don't forget to check what to wear and how to pack for your Japan trip.