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Rent a car in Japan – tips on driving in Japan

Rent a car in Japan – tips on driving in Japan

Renting a car in Japan can provide many positive experiences, but there’s also many negatives to consider before deciding on whether a rental car is the best option for your trip.

The following information can help with your decision. It will, at least, give you a few things to think about which you may not have considered about driving in Japan.

Basically, driving in Japan is safe and enjoyable…..you just need to be prepared. We’ll help you get prepared with our guide to driving and renting a car in Japan.

Why should I rent a car in Japan?

If you’ve been to Japan before and you want to get off the beaten path, renting a car may be a good option.

There are some locations which don’t have great public transport. Hard to believe right!! Well, it’s true. Japan has some beautiful places which just don’t have public transport to get you there. At least not enough to make your travels convenient and time efficient.

Renting a car can provide you with the luxury of packing your suitcases into the boot of the car rather than having to lug all your stuff around all the time. It also means that spending a single night in a hotel and then moving on to your next destination is easier, more convenient and, for many areas, can really be the right way to travel with a car.

Rather than being dependent on train and bus timetables, you have the freedom to set your own schedule, set your own route, and keep things in the car. Including a cooler with food, snacks and drinks (just don’t drink any alcohol while driving – see below).

What I enjoy about driving in Japan is the ability to drop off at places along the journey, taking in Japan’s beauty from a different, slower perspective than the shinkansen, sharing the experience with just your friends, family, loved ones rather than the thousands of other tourists using public transport.

Need help finding a car? Contact us.

Why shouldn’t I rent a car in Japan?

If you’re travelling to Japan for the first time and visiting places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima – anywhere along the shinkansen lines, you won’t need to rent a car in Japan. The train system throughout Japan’s major tourist destinations is so good, you’ll save time and money by using public transport. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better train system anywhere in the world. You can literally set your clock by the trains.

The major centres are, of course, very busy and the traffic is packed and slow moving (often speed limits in cities are 30 or 40km per hour).

Tokyo has a fair amount of signage in English – but most of it is in Japanese. Outside of Tokyo and the other major centres the traffic is less hectic, but in these typically country/rural locations the signage is almost exclusively in Japanese. Unless you are reasonably fluent in reading Japanese, it can be difficult to understand where you are, where you are going and what you are supposed to, or not supposed to do.

Finding addresses in Japan is a nightmare. But you can get through this by understanding the GPS in your vehicle.

Next is cost. Since I’ve driven a lot in Japan, I can paint a very clear picture of the costs you’ll face. See below for Toll road and petrol costs.

So, there’s lots to think about when renting a car in Japan!!!

What do I need to drive a car in Japan?

To drive in Japan, you must hold either:

  • a valid Japanese licence; or
  • a current Australian driver’s licence PLUS a valid International Driving Permit (IDP).

An International Driving Permit (IDP) is issued under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. IDPs issued in accordance with other treaties (such as the Vienna Convention) cannot be used in Japan even if it is issued by countries of the Geneva Convention.

An IDP is not a licence; you must also hold a valid Australian licence. To obtain an IDP, you should contact the relevant IDP authority in your state (eg. RACV, NRMA etc).

Road Rules

The good news for Australians is that the Japanese drive on the same side of the road as us. That also means the driver’s seat is on the same side as your car at home (unless you’ve got an old muscle car from America or something!!).

Also, there are many road signs which have obvious meanings, or are similar to those we have in Australia. So, it’s somewhat easy to get around and know that you’re not doing the wrong thing.

The bad news is that there are also a lot of signs that are not like ours in Australia, and knowing them (and understanding them) is paramount to enjoying your driving tour of Japan.

If you want to be completely satisfied with your understanding of the road rules in Japan, you can purchase the Rules of the Road booklet, which outlines traffic rules in Japan, from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF).

Road signs aside, there’s some very important rules that apply in Japan…..just like they do in Australia –

  • While driving a vehicle, you must not use a mobile phone or be distracted by the car navigation system.
  • When you drive a vehicle, you must wear a seatbelt. All passengers in the vehicle must wear seatbelts.
  • If you drive with a child younger than six years old, you must place them securely in a child seat.
  • You must not drive under the influence of alcohol. The limit is ZERO!!!

And here’s one that actually takes a bit of getting used to…..when you approach a railway crossing, you must bring the car to a complete stop before crossing the railway lines.

Traffic signs

If you plan on driving in Japan, you should familiarise yourself with Japanese traffic signs. Some traffic signs are easy to understand, while others may leave you scratching your head. Here’s a list of a few common signs –

Rent a car in Japan – Road signs in Japan

The animals to be aware of are a bit different to what you’ll find in Australia!!

You will also need to note that stop signs are not always in place. Instead the word 止まれ is painted onto the road. You must treat this as a stop sign. Its usage will be at obvious intersections where you’ll be slowing down anyway. When in doubt….stop!!

Traffic lights

Traffic lights in Japan operate the same as probably anywhere else in the world. But in Japan, you’ll see that the lights are horizontal, not vertical. They’re also often located on the other side of the intersection so be sure to stop before crossing the intersection, and not when you reach the traffic light.

Japanese also refer to the green light as ‘blue’. While blue traffic lights in Japan used to be more common, these days it’s rare to see a “go” light which does actually look blue.

If you find one…..tell me where or send me a pic!

Rent a car in Japan – Traffic lights in Japan

Filling up with petrol

In Japan, you’ve got 3 types of petrol. Regular is the usual unleaded 91 Octane. Then you’ve got High Octane (abbreviated to High-Oc – if there’s English on the pump, it will say Premium) and also Diesel.
Petrol prices in Japan are rather static. They don’t have a petrol cycle like we do in Australia so you can almost predict how much you’ll be paying at the pump. On my last trip, regular petrol was going for about $1.80 per litre, give or take 5 cents.

So how do you fill up the tank?

Full-service petrol stations

In Japan, full-service petrol stations are still a thing. If you pull in to one of these stations, the staff will be yelling stuff at you….don’t worry, they are welcoming you to the station. You’ll have no problem choosing the right petrol, you just need to know what to say to them!

You’ll probably want a full tank every time you get petrol. You can just say to the attendant Mantan.

You should be able to pay with cash (Genkin) or credit card (Kurejitto Kaado).

Self-service petrol stations

What’s becoming more popular in Japan, however, is the self-service petrol station. Here is gets tough…and you have to be ready and be aware of what to do!

When you see a petrol station with a sign that says “セルフ”, it’s self-service (that sign says self).

Getting petrol at self-service stations is not so terrifying. You may need to pay in advance so be aware and check for signs (which may, unfortunately, be all in Japanese!).

The first thing to do when you are getting ready to fill the tank is to touch the anti-static. It’ll look something like this picture you see here. If there isn’t one, touch the car. Don’t grab the petrol pump first. Japanese are very safety conscious and you don’t want to cause a commotion. There may also be an attendant watching who won’t release the petrol until the safety steps have been taken.

Next, choose your petrol type. Even if there is no English, you can usually go by colour. At most self-service petrol stations, regular is coloured red, premium is yellow and diesel is green.

anti-static-touch-panel
petrol-pump-colours

GPS

Probably every rental car in Japan these days comes with a GPS system. If you’re smart, you’ll order your car with an English version!!

Understand how to use the GPS as finding addresses in Japan is difficult! The Japanese address system is based a location’s geographic area, rather street name and number. In fact, addresses in Japan, more often than not, don’t even include the name of a street. They’re also written backwards compared to Australia, with the prefecture first, then city, suburb, then block number, house number – although when written in English, it is the right way around!! Confusing??

Having a GPS is paramount to finding your way!

Parking

Parking is not cheap and at local car parks it’s billed either hourly or every 30 minutes. If you’re unlucky, you could be paying $10 per hour to park the car. Parking is, of course, capped the longer you leave it, but could still produce a shock.

Hotels may also charge a small amount for parking, perhaps $10 to $15, but some also provide parking free of charge.

The most common type of parking lot has the boom gate that you’re used to seeing so there’s nothing new there. They also operate the same – grab a ticket upon entering and pay at the exit when leaving (that’s a bit different, but you get the picture – it’s pretty simple).

Illegal parking is strictly prohibited

If you park illegally, you must follow the proper procedure and pay the fines.

Go immediately to the designated police station, follow the required procedure and pay the fine by the designated payment method.

Make sure to keep all documents from the police, and the receipt of the paid fine for when you return your rental car to the outlet.

If you do not pay the penalty fee, you will be registered on the All Japan Car Rental Company Association list for violation of Japanese law and the rental contract. You will not be able to rent a car again from any car rental company in Japan.

Highways and tolls

If you are travelling any amount of distance between cities, chances are you’ll be driving on an expressway. Sounds great….until you realise just how much the tolls are on those roads. I recently drove from Aomori in the very north of the main island down to Sendai City. It’s a 4-hour trip, about 400km and cost about JPY8,000 (just over $100) in toll charges. While it is expensive, that’s cheaper than the bullet train for a single person (and 2 hours slower).

Toll roads on Japan are very well looked after. That’s part of the high cost of using them. Always drive in the left-hand lane unless you’re overtaking.

To use a toll road, you can pay in cash or credit card, or use the ETC system. ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) records expressway tolls automatically – like the thing that goes beep on the toll roads in Australia. Using the ETC system allows you to take advantage of certain discounts like daytime, late night and holiday discounts. As well as the fact that you don’t have to stop (but you do have to slow down!).

There are 3 kinds of expressway toll gates – ETC only, Cash only, or Either OK. We think they are obvious enough, so just take caution when you approach and make sure you take the correct lane.

Just like you would (or should) do in Australia, ensure you are driving at the speed limit when entering the expressway. Also note that there may be both minimum and maximum speed limits on the expressway……and there are speed cameras and both marked and unmarked police cars!

Rent a car in Japan – ETC Lane
Rent a car in Japan – - ETC Or cash lane
Rent a car in Japan – General Cash toll lane

What if something goes wrong?

Unfortunately, it may not always be smooth sailing when driving your rent a car in Japan. Breakdowns and accidents happen. It’s important to know what you need to do if either happens to you.

Breakdowns

If your vehicle breaks down on the road, if possible, you must move it out of the way of other vehicles. Leaving your broken-down vehicle on the road may cause a serious accident.

If you have to park your broken-down vehicle on the road at night, you must turn on your emergency flashing hazard lights to warn other drivers that your vehicle is parked.

The possibility of a vehicle colliding from behind makes staying with your broken-down vehicle very dangerous. After taking the necessary risk prevention methods, evacuate to a safe location such as outside the guardrail. Do not remain in the car.

Some rental car companies can provide you with Roadside Assistance for an extra cost. If you don’t have this option, you can then call the Japan Automobile Federation to come and pick up the car.

Traffic accidents

If you have an accident, it’s probably best to call your rental company first. The staff there will tell you what you should do.

However, if anyone is injured, call 119 first and give whatever first aid you can to the injured person until an ambulance arrives.

Call the police (110) and report the accident, providing information about the location of the accident, number of injured persons (if any), and degree of damage. Then follow the police officer’s instructions.

*You must always notify the police in the case of an accident, regardless of the accident’s severity.

If you cannot call the police or an ambulance for yourself, ask someone around you to do so. If you leave the scene of an accident, you might be deemed to have committed a hit-and-run offence.

Try to get as much information of the other driver and their vehicle as you can….just the same as in Australia.

Rental car companies generally offer two types of insurance. There should be a basic level of coverage (which is sometimes compulsory) which gives you some cover in the event of an accident. A higher level of insurance can provide you with full cover if an accident happens. You should also have travel insurance in place once you’ve booked your holiday. Your travel insurance may provide cover for rental cars, but also may have an excess to pay. Check the policy, or just purchase the extra cover provided by the rental car company.

Ready to rent a car?

Like anywhere, there’s a heap of car rental companies in Japan. Some have a better understanding of English than others. Some don’t have English websites at all, which could make it impossible for you to use.

The easiest way to rent a car in Japan is to use a company that has access to wholesale rates across all rental car companies in the country. Japan Explorer does, but if you want to book yourself, you can do so through ToCoo.