A few months ago, while we were planning our last trip to Japan, I was talking on social media with some friends about whether it was a great idea or not to rent a car in Japan. While @japoneamigos wondered if I dared to travel through the south by car, @cabonorteblog said I was a bit crazy… the thing is that we reviewed our options and decided to book a car (this time we were 3 and our destination was up in the mountains.)
So, how was it? I’ve compiled a full list of tips and tricks to make the best of your road trip through Japan.
How is it to travel by car in Japan?
We were driving through the Japanese Alps, so most roads were one or two lines only (sometimes highways only had one lane on each side too). Well built, regular roads but with some stunning landscapes. And lots of tunnels.
And when I say lots, it’s lots. One that we crossed to get to Shirakawa-go from Takayama was 11 kilometres long… But let’s get to the basics, what should you know before driving in Japan?
1. They drive on the left side
This is something you probably know by now: the Japanese drive on the left, just like the british. And, being on the other side, everything works on the other side (practical tip for those who usually drive on the right side: if you are turning right on a crossroads, you don’t have the priority).
It might seem difficult if you haven’t done it before, but since they drive slow and have lots of signs, it shouldn’t be a problem.
2. Speed limits are low
Forget about Fast&Furious races, top speed can reach 120 kilometres per hour at some highways (they approved this in 2016) but the highest limit we found (in highways) was 80 km/hour.
And at regular roads we spent most of our trip at 50 km/h (seems that the legal top is at 60 km/h). Yes, almost everyone looked at us and it seemed that everybody was driving faster than us, but the fines are big, so we chose not to risk it. The biggest advantage is that at that speed, even the driver can enjoy the landscapes without being distracted and you won’t use as much gas.
3. Signs are a bit different
Another funny thing (at least for us in Spain) is that traffic lights are after the crossroads (not hanging above in the middle, not before you cross, but after the crossing). What does this mean? That you have to take a good look before you cross and stop before the crossing, not next to the traffic light.
Also, when the traffic light is red you cannot turn, unless you see a sign or traffic light that specifically allows you to.
The traffic signs are written in Japanese characters but also in latin alphabet/English. At least all immovable ones. Temporary ones are usually only in Japanese (most of the ones we found were for road works, and the moving dummies made quite clear that they wanted us to go slower or stop.
Also, red blinking traffic lights are stops.
There are no Yield signs. What you think is a yield sign (red triangle with something inside) are actually stop signs. What this means is that you mus stop, look and then cross. They do have one with a white space in the middle, which would be a bit more similar to our yield sing, but we didn’t see any.
Most local roads have continuous line, so no advancing other cars. But highways do have slow lanes and advancing is quite common as everywhere else.
All other traffic signs are self-explanatory (and the people on the roads too.)
4. What’s forbidden is truly forbidden
Drinking and driving? Forbidden, but not only for the driver, they can stop and fine everyone that goes in the car with a drunk driver.
Watching the smartphone (or other type of phone) is also forbidden. As well as the GPS (but the one in the car gets blocked when you move, so you can only search for another destination when you stop.)
And all passengers must wear the security belt (up front and behind.)
5. Forget about free parking
Except for some rural places or in the suburbs (and at some supermarket and conbini parking lots), all parking lots are pay (and expensive). Many hotels have their own free parking lot for clients, but check for availability before going, some are really small since most travelers move around by train in Japan.
Also, parking in forbidden places can become a big issue. They place a sticker on your window and you have to pay at the town hall (at least this is what they explained to us at the car rental office in Matsumoto). If you fail to prove that you have paid that fine, the car rental can charge your credit card directly. And, at some places with lots of traffic, they can block your car (or take it.)
5. Highways are pay, even though they don’t feel like them sometimes
As I told you before, some highways only have one lane (each way) and highest speed can be around 80 km per hour… Even then, Expressways (Japanese highways) are always pay.
Most rental cars bring a device for electronic payment that is called ETC, but since you are not living in Japan, the machine won’t work (it needs to have a valid ETC payment card inside to be fully active) and you will have to pay at the toll booths.
When you get near the toll booth, the machine will shout at you something in japanese which means that you cannot go through the ETC electronic booth (on our trip, every time we got near a booth, even when we were not leaving the highway).
Choose the lane that doesn’t say ETC (in our trip all ETC lanes were green and the toll booths for cash/card payment were blue). This is one of the few things that are not written in English, so remember that you are not ETC and always stop at the booth.
You will have to go through the booth when you get in (to pick up a paper stating were you got in) and when you get out (to pay.) If you fail to do so, they can charge you the whole length of the Expressway (just like they do in Portugal).
6. You do need the International Driving Permit
Remember to get one in your home country (or the country where you got your license) before arriving to Japan.
Ok. But, is it really worth renting a car in Japan?
Reading all the above, it seems a bit difficult to drive in Japan (only at first sight) but renting a car in Japan has two major advantages:
- You can set your own pace, stop wherever you feel like and change your itinerary without depending on train connections. We found one of our favorite restaurants from the whole trip just because of this.
- It helps you reach places where the JRPass cannot take you or where the train connections are a hell (yes, getting off the beaten track has its ups and downs sometimes). Por example, reaching the furthest towns in Shirakawa-go.
- Speed limits. If you get stressed out of driving slow, don’t do it! It will wear you out and it will seem it takes you forever to go anywhere
- Driving long distances having to stay concentrated on what side of the road you are driving on (Thanks Igna for this, you’re top!)
And in terms of money? Is it worth compared to train tickets?
It depends. This is what we did (3 people):
- We paid 27.540 yen for 4 days / 3 nights, picking up the car in the morning and returning it in the evening
- We used 3/4 of the gas tank and refilled 30 litres for about 3600 yen (regular gas from the station) – compared to the kilometres we covered and the type of roads, good efficiency.
- Paid 5.000 yen in tolls
- Paid 1.500 yen in parking lots (mostly at touristic spots)
- Visited Matsumoto + Kiso Valley (Magome – Tsumago) + Hida, Takayama and all the Shirakawa-go World Heritage Villages and back to Matsumoto. All about 500 kilometres in total, up in the mountain ranges of the Japanese Alps.
Recommendations & Tips to rent a car in Japan (cheaper)
Given the price above, you might have thought that we found a super saver and that’s why it was worth renting. True! But only compared to the traditional search online. Compared to other prices for Japanese people, it is quite average.
We started our search at the same places you probably would start (international rentals that had offices in Japan, meta-search engines that compare travel rental prices…) and we got prices that wow! That wasn’t worth the pain! So we thought of changing our itinerary, until some friends told me I was searching wrong.
What I found out is:
- International rental car offices in Japan don’t own their japanese fleet, but sublet from local agencies. And, even if they had one, they are usually located at the most expensive spots (Tokyo, Kyoto, airports…) So this is not a great idea.
- Bigger cities have a bigger demand (higher prices) and it is not worth paying to get out of the city by Expressway when most JR stations with Shinkansen stops have rental offices nearby.
- Picking up the car in one place and returning it in another different place is not usually worth paying for since the train tickets are usually cheaper than that difference.
- Many local japanese rental cars don’t have their sites in English nor accept bookings from foreigners. And, even when they do, they don’t always speak English or have the GPS in English.
- Cars are all (or mostly) automatic, so finding a manual one is difficult and more expensive (the opposite than in Europe)
- The webs usually offer a number of recommended passengers in the car but it’s better to search for the same model online to get an idea. We are not Pau Gasol size, but our car recommended 2 people and little luggage and we would have fitted 4 with a few big bags.
But the greatest tip here was to use a meta-search called Tocoo, which is in English and works such as any other booking comparison page. Just remember these tips when searching there:
- The pick-up and return time is exact. You have an extra hour before and after for free, but if you return late they will charge you extra, if you pick up earlier they might not have the car ready (or will charge you extra) and if you pick up late they will not make a discount.
- Use the “Choose option” button to add extras and always remember to define:
- Non-smoking car (unless you smoke). If you are a smoker, the price is higher, but if you say you don’t and end-up smoking, they can charge you the extra for cleaning
- Multi-lingual GPS. Here multilingual means “in English”. And you will only get the voice (directions) and the search in English. All other things are usually in Japanese. By the way, since there are no regular addresses in Japanese towns, have the phone numbers at hand, the GPS can search addresses by phone (and works most of the time!)
- After you get the results, you will be able to filter by price, size, occupancy, etc.
Let me know what you choose and if there are any extra tips worth adding.
Below you will find a short video with some real roads ;)