All You Need To Know About Driving in Japan

Japan’s public transport system is famous for its efficiency and quality of service, yet an increasing number of foreign visitors are hiring a car for their trip. Find out whether or not driving in Japan is the best choice for you!

Let’s be clear from the outset: Japan’s public transport system is great. Trains arrive not just on time, but even at the precise spot indicated on the platform! What’s more, almost every small town has a station. So why would you even consider renting a car?

Tourists Taking to the Road

Overseas visitors to Japan are opting to get behind the wheel for various reasons. One is convenience: You can go wherever you want, without having to worry about timetables or cart your luggage with you. Even though public transport links are extensive, services in the countryside can be infrequent and fares high. If you want to experience Japan’s natural beauty in a limited time, driving may well be your best option.
If you want to get out into Japan's nature, sometimes driving in Japan is the only way -- Photo by Emma Parker
Cost may be another reason for choosing car rental. Japanese public transport is relatively pricey and you get no discounts for booking rail tickets in advance. Even with the option of the JR Pass, it may work out more cheaply to travel long distances by car, especially if you are in a small group. Gasoline in Japan is more expensive than in the USA but generally less expensive than in Europe. When considering the relative costs, remember that Japanese expressways require tolls. You can check those for Western and CentralJapan online. NEXCO East, unfortunately, doesn't offer such a service in English, although their site has other useful information.
Toll gates mark when you enter and leave the expressway. If your car does not have an ETC card, you need to go through the green lane and pay in cash -- Photo by Emma Parker

Rental Car Options

So if you do decide to rent a car, where should you look? Japan has several major car rental companies, many provide services in English.
Nippon Rent-A-Car: Reservations in English both by phone and online. Nippon Rent-A-Car also allows you to connect your audio device to the car stereo, so you can listen to your music as you cruise around Japan!
Toyota Rent a Car: English reservations are accepted by phone. Toyota offers ski carrying systems and child seats on request.
Nissan Rent a Car: Reserve via their English-language website. Nissan also offers SIM cards for your mobile phone.
Times Car Rental: Reserve in English online. Times Car Rental has an English-language support centre and offers a 40% discount on a WiFi router for use during your Japan stay.
Orix Rent-A-Car: Reservations are done via their website.
Portal booking sites also exist, but if you book via one of these and then decide to return your car earlier than planned, it can be hard to get a refund.
If you plan to drive on expressways, ask for a rental car with an ETC card. You won't need to pay cash each time; instead, you settle the bill when you return the car -- Photo by Emma Parker

What You Need

You need an International Driving Permit to drive in Japan without a Japanese driving licence. The permit should be easy to obtain in your home country but takes a little time to process. Apply well before you get on the plane! Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco, and Taiwan do not issue IDPs or IDPs from these countries are not valid in Japan; if you are from one of these countries, you need to get an official translation of your driving licence after your arrival. The Japan Automobile Federation and some Embassies and Consulates in Japan offer translation services. None of these services are available on the spot, however, making it impossible for people from these countries to pick up a rental car at the airport.

Following the Rules

Most driving rules are straightforward, but you need to know a few things. Most importantly, cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road. On-street parking is, in principle, forbidden. It might be okay to stop your car on a country road for a minute or two to take a photo, but don’t try this in towns! All vehicles must come to a complete stop at a level crossing, even if the gates are open. Several of my friends have been fined for failing to do so. Do make a point of stopping, even if it feels pedantic!
All vehicles are required to come to a complete stop at level crossings, even "senior cars" -- Photo by Emma Parker
 The speed limit on expressways is 80 kilometers per hour, though you will certainly see people going significantly faster. On sunny Sunday afternoons, police cars tend to be out in force on scenic routes and looking for violators to fine, so pay particular attention at those times! Finally, the legal limit for drinking and driving is zero. Don’t risk it. If you do “forget”, use daiko taxi services, which drive your car home for you.
The Japanese are not dangerous drivers. They tend to keep to the rules, though their interpretation of speed limits is somewhat elastic and they regularly run red lights. Cyclists are another matter. Riding down the wrong way along a one-way street, in the dark with no lights and holding an open umbrella are all considered perfectly normal. Watch out in the early evening, when many high school students are riding home.

All Who Wander are Not Lost

So you have your car, and you know the basic rules. Now you’re ready to set off! Japan is generally an easy place to drive, with well-maintained roads. Country roads may be narrower than you are used to, but those through the mountains or along the coasts offer spectacular views. 
Smaller roads lead to all kinds of discoveries -- Photo by Emma Parker
Finding your way is not usually a problem. Almost all road signs have Romanized transcriptions of placenames. All the car rental companies listed above offer English-language GPS systems, although availability depends on the model and rental location. If you do get lost, the locals are always willing to help. They may invite you in for tea before you set off again!
Fancy a break? Michi no Eki, or "road stations", are found in towns throughout Japan and sell everything from local produce to potted plants and stag beetles! -- Photo by Emma Parker
Download our "Driving in Japan Guide" below. Whichever direction you head, you are sure to make unexpected discoveries. Happy driving!