Driving in Japan offers some conveniences over public transportation. Here are some tips and information on how to rent a car and drive in Japan.
When Nami asked on Instagram if JOC readers would be interested in driving in Japan, we were surprised by the overwhelming number of responses and questions. We’ll take a quick break from our regularly scheduled Japan travel post this week to share our experiences renting a car and driving in Japan. For the most part, I’ll be comparing driving in Japan to driving in the US where we do most of our driving.
Disclaimer: This post is for helping those of you who are interested in driving in Japan based on our own driving experience. We are not responsible for any traffic tickets, violations, or incidents based on the information provided in this post.
In this post, I’ll be covering the basics of renting a car and how to drive around Japan. I’ll list additional resources at the end of the post for more detailed information.
One of the most asked questions was if it is safe to drive in Japan? Our short answer is yes. Japanese drivers are not usually aggressive and driving speed is much slower than in the US. Another question was if it is possible to drive if you don’t read Japanese, the answer is also yes as long as you pay attention to specific signs.
Who Can Drive in Japan?
As a visitor, before thinking about renting a car in Japan, you need to verify that you can drive there with an international permit. If you live in one of these countries, you should be able to get an international driving permit in your home country for driving in Japan.
If you have a valid license from Switzerland, Germany, France, Taiwan, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco, and Estonia, it is accepted as well with a Japanese translation of the license. Click here for more details.
Renting a Car In Japan
Japan Car Rental Companies
When we were in Okinawa, we rented the car from OTS. For the summer trips in Japan, we’ve been renting from Toyota Rent a Car mainly because it’s the closest one to Nami’s house (5 min walking). Other large car rental companies in Japan include Nissan, Nippon, Budget, Orix, and Honda.
The Process to Rent a Car in Japan
For Toyota Rent a Car, they offer a website completely in English that is simple to navigate. It’s pretty straightforward to use Toyota’s website to reserve a car:
- Select pick-up point (airport, Shinkansen, or local shop)
- Select return shop (there is a surcharge of ¥3,000+ for returning the car at a different location)
- Select the type of car
- Choose smoking, 4WD, and Transmission Options
- Select Optional Insurance Packages
- Select ETC Card
Once you reserve the car online, when you go to the car rental shop to pick up the car, you MUST HAVE your passport and International Driving Permit. They will make copies of your passport and driving permit when you pick up the car.
If you are concerned about not being able to speak Japanese, don’t worry. When we asked our local Toyota Rent a Car manager, he said most locations can get by with some English and you don’t need to speak Japanese to rent a car.
After signing the rental agreement, it’s time to pick up your car. The first step is to check the car for damages and make sure it’s identified otherwise you’ll be responsible for the damages when you return the car.
In Japan, you don’t need to refuel the car before returning. The shop can calculate the distance driven and estimate the fuel cost. The fuel costs the car rental shop charge is the similar to gas stations’. If you did fuel up the car before returning, they’ll ask to see the receipt so make sure you keep it.
Car Rental Prices for Driving in Japan
Compared to the US, Japan’s car rental prices are really expensive. There aren’t many deals to be found online. We’ve seen some discounts offered through Rurubu Travel after we’ve booked a hotel but for the most part, it’s standard price. At Toyota, the cheapest compact starts at ¥6,500 ($65) a day and the cheapest wagon starts at ¥12,000 ($120) a day.
The good part is you can rent the car right before you need one and prices won’t be more expensive than if you had planned it beforehand.
Additional Options When Renting a Car in Japan
As I mentioned above, there are a few add-on options available to the customers and they are:
- Exclusion of liability insurance & Non-Operation Exemption – ¥1,620 ($16.20) for each 24 hour period
- ETC card – ¥324 ($3.24) + Toll
- JAF card – ¥500 ($5)
Insurance and Protection Package
For our peace of mind, we always purchase the extra insurance when driving in Japan. Since we don’t live in Japan it could be a lot of hassle to deal with if the car was damaged.
If you plan to drive on the highway, we highly recommend renting the ETC card. There is a one-time ¥324 ($3.24) rental charge and then you settle rest of the toll charges when you return the car. Having the ETC card allows you to pass the tolls much quicker.
The last option is the JAF card, it’s similar to AAA service in the US where you can call them for a flat tire and other car troubles. Some tourist attractions offer a small discount for JAF card holders.
If you live in the US and has AAA, it is honored in Japan as JAF card. Here is the AAA link for more information.
Should You Rent a Car in Japan?
In general, car rental in Japan is quite expensive in my opinion. I would say it is not necessary unless the location you’re going has very little public transportation in place. If you are going to a popular tourist city such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, or even Kanazawa, you do not need a car. After traveling in Japan for 10 plus years, this past winter (Okinawa Travel Guide) and summer was the first time we rented a car for traveling.
Many of you asked if it’s cheaper than trains, I would say no. In addition to the car rental fee, parking fee adds up quite quickly as well. Most tourist spots do not offer free parking and from what we’ve seen, average parking price is ¥500 ($5) per visit.
Are there benefits to having a car? Yes, and they include:
- Protection from the elements – Not having to wait in hot weather or rain for a bus or train
- Time-saving – Get to places you want more quickly in certain cities compared to a bus
- Cheaper than taking taxi’s all day
- Carry around equipment and luggage easily
- Allows for conversation – talking loudly on a bus and train is discouraged in parts of Japan
- The best part – stopping by convenience stores and buy loads of snacks and drinks to enjoy on the road trip
Navigating the Streets and Highways of Japan
Besides the safety questions, a lot of you also asked if it is difficult to drive in Japan since it’s on the left-hand side of the street. Based on my own experience, the answer is no, it’s not difficult to get used to. More than anything, I was confused by the turn signal and the wipers since they are on the opposite sides compared to the US cars. It will take a bit of time to get used to; for me, it took 1-2 hours. I’ll share more information on this below.
Japanese Car System and Navigation
For the cars with just analog screen, there is no language translations. For the Toyota cars we rented that had a digital information screen (fuel efficiency, lane departure warning, etc), the car’s system could be changed between Japanese and English.
Using Car Navigation in Japan
When you rent a car from Toyota online, they ask you during the registration process if you would like navigation set to English. Select yes and when you pick up the car, the navigation will already be set up in English.
When using the English version of the car navigation, it’s very difficult to use the search function to find locations. Most of the time when we use the English spelling to search the system, it is unable to find the location. We find it much easier to just find the location by using phone numbers of the destinations (You can Google or use Google Map to find the destination and phone numbers).
I would say almost 98% of the time we could find the places we need to go with a phone number. The only places you might have trouble getting to are ones without phone number such as a scenic area or forest that doesn’t require an entrance fee or has a gate.
Steps to Use Car Navigation with Phone Number
Most of the time the phone number matches to more than 1 location. Say if you enter the phone number for a temple, the temple’s administrative office, parking lot, and the temple itself would all show up as the matching options. The results would be likely in Japanese only, just select the first option if there is any doubt. You can search the location on Google map to match the location name in Japanese to verify it’s correct.
Things to Watch out for When Using Car Navigation
- Voice instruction could be confusing so pay attention to the screen. Oftentimes the system would ignore the turn right coming right up and provide the voice guidance for the turn after. For example, based on the screen it shows a left turn but the voice could say right turn. Use the screen as the source of truth.
- There are many small streets, we recommend using the split screen view to see the details. You see in the screen below this is indeed the correct intersection because the navigation screen has a Lawson’s on the left side of the intersection.
Depending on how new the car navigation system is, the older ones might display Japanese characters only. Once again, it shouldn’t be challenging if you follow the screen’s instructions.
How about Car Navigation vs. Google Maps?
Google Maps works pretty well for driving in Japan if you are not surrounded by tall buildings. When you’re around tall buildings, the phone’s GPS tends to be confused. Between the two, I would still recommend car navigation system over Google Maps because many streets are small and winding. Cell phone navigation tends to be slightly delayed so you could easily miss the turn if that’s all you can count on. If you prefer to use Google Maps, it’s completely fine.
The differences Driving on the Left Side
So, how different is it from driving on the right side? To be honest, not much. It’s quite easy especially if you have a car in front of you that you can follow. Sometimes the intersection is not as straightforward and your brain wants you to go into the right lane instinctively, but it’s not difficult to get used to.
Things to watch out while driving in Japan:
- Streets are small and narrow, drive slow.
- There are many pedestrian and bikers, drive slow.
- There are many children playing, walking by themselves, running around, drive slow.
- People follow traffic rules and there aren’t many aggressive drivers, don’t honk.
- Avoid driving in crowded and touristy areas like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
- No turn on red lights.
- Do not drink and drive, it is insanely expensive and troublesome if you get caught.
- Japan has no Street Names, don’t expect to find a location using street names and number.
- The very strange signal lights. The follow signal lights really irritate me and they are everywhere. There is a red light on top and it stays perpetually red. Cars can only go based on the green arrow. In my mind, if it’s red, why is the arrow say to go forward? You agree with me right?
As far as driving in Japan goes I think you get my point, especially in the city, just DRIVE SLOW.
On the highway, the speed limit was faster in Okinawa but around Tokyo area, it was all 80 kph (50 mph). What I can say is most cars are going at least 90 kph (60 mph) and cars in the fast lanes are going 105-110 kph (65-68 mph). We are not suggesting to break the law but just follow the speed of traffic around you and use your best judgment.
Another good part of driving in Japan is most Japanese drivers are courteous and follow the rules so it is fairly relaxing to drive in Japan. Here are some additional info for you to get around Japan in a car.
Common Highway and Street Signs in Japan
Parking in Japan
Parking in Japan is straightforward. There are several common types of parking lots:
- Attendant parking – Fixed price or get a ticket and pay based on time (tourist attractions, city parking, etc).
- Machine parking – Get a ticket at the entrance and pay before leaving (supermarkets, malls, etc).
- Self-parking – Parking fee based on time (everywhere)
Parking lots often offer a time-based rate, such as by minutes or hour (e.g. 30 min, 1 hour, etc). A lot of places also list the max price for a 24 hour period. Drive around and you might be surprised by the drastic 24-hour rate differences. Around Nami’s neighborhood, it ranges from ¥400 ($4) to ¥1000 ($10) for a 24-hour period.
Fueling Up in Japan
For a long time in Japan, gas stations were all full service. You do not need to get out of the vehicle to fuel the car, simply tell the attendant how much you want to fuel up. They also wipe your windows while the car is being fueled. These days, there are self-serve filling stations that are slightly discounted vs. full-service filling stations. If you want to keep it simple, enjoy the full service. Oh, one more tip, do not drive in the diesel/truck filling lane.
Additional Resources for Driving in Japan:
I hope the post is helpful for you if you are planning on renting a car and driving in Japan. For Japan travel guides, click here. We’ll see you soon on our next Tokyo post, Roppongi Hills.