- Makes and models of vehicles
- One way or return journey
- Traveling with children
- Tolls and Electronic Toll Collections
One of the best ways to explore Japan is by renting a car and driving around on your own. While there are many modes of transport available, such as trains, buses, and taxis, there are some hidden gems and off-beaten paths that are not accessible through public transportation. Driving a car also allows you the convenience of setting your own pace and even stopping along the way for unique glimpses of the land of the rising sun.
Before you look into renting a car, you need to know the requirements for driving in Japan. First, you’ll need to be at least 18 years old—the legal age for driving in Japan. You’ll also need to have obtained an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) in your country of residence. IDPs aren’t issued in Japan, so you’ll need to get them before your visit. A driver’s license issued by your home country won’t be enough, and car rental agencies won’t hand you the keys unless you have an IDP.
While preparing for your trip, familiarize yourself with Japan’s road rules. Generally, the road signs and driving rules adhere to international standards, but it’s always best to go over the basics, so you don’t forget them. You can find Japan’s traffic rules and other helpful advice provided by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF).
You’ll be able to select from a range of vehicle types through your rental company. They usually fall under the following categories: compact, standard, sports, SUV, and minivan.
Keep in mind that Japan’s roads are significantly narrower and parking lots more cramped than what you might be used to. It might be more advantageous to get a smaller vehicle.
Most car rental companies will give you the option to rent the vehicle and return it to the same store location. Other rental companies allow you to take the car on a one-way trip and return it to an alternate branch of the car rental chain.
Take note that there is often a surcharge when returning your vehicle to a different branch from where you picked up the car. If you’re trying to minimize costs and plan to leave the same route you arrived at, it might be best to return the car on your own instead.
If you plan to travel with your kids, you can specify car seat requirements, and most rental car providers will be able to provide them as well. It’s best to do this via the agency’s online booking platforms, so the seats are good to go in the vehicle as soon as you pick it up.
Most cars are equipped with multilingual GPS equipment, or you can rent them for a small fee. Having one of these in your car will take the stress out of juggling maps and managing directions, especially as you navigate a country where the roads and routes are unfamiliar.
Japan’s networks of highways and expressways are predominantly toll roads. You can pay for this in two ways: either by taking a paper-based ticket and paying for the toll fee via cash or credit card or by using an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) reader.
Generally, car rental companies will offer you an ETC reader with your vehicle rental, and you only need to settle toll payments when you return the vehicle at the end of your trip. However, some rental agencies will charge you a small fee for the use of an ETC device.
One of the pros to using an ETC is that you do not need to stop when passing through a toll gate—just slow down enough until the gate reads the ETC signal. Another pro is that toll companies often offer minor discounts on tolls for ETC users. But, if you prefer to pay for the toll as you use it, keep in mind that some toll booths do not have credit card capability. Some toll roads—even in Tokyo, as well as older, regional toll roads—only accept cash. Make it a standard practice to always have some yen with you.
Whether you decide to use an ETC or not, be aware that toll gates are segregated by payment types. You’ll commonly see three lane options presented to you:
• 一般 (green signage) – this is the “general” lane, for anyone without an ETC reader; payment must be done by cash (though many toll booths now take credit card)
• ETC/ 一般 (purple and green signage) – this can be used by anyone, whether they have an ETC reader or not; vehicles with ETC can pass without stopping, while others will stop to make payment
• ETC専用 (purple signage) – this lane is only to be used if you have an ETC reader.
If you have already reserved your rental car, all you have to do is show your reservation number and required documents when you arrive at the rental car facility. This includes your license, IDP, passport, and other documents they might require. If you haven’t made a reservation yet, the staff will present you with a list of vehicle options and prices.
Before you start exploring Japan, the rental agency staff will walk around your vehicle. Check for any pre-existing dents or scratches to ensure that the staff member verifies them. You don’t want to be charged later for damage you didn’t cause.
Japan is a country that drives on the left side of the road, which might be new to you if you come from a country that drives on the right. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the setup of your rented car to get your bearings.
Be sure to pay attention to traffic light signals. In Japan, a red light means red. You are not allowed to turn in any direction even when there is no traffic coming from the road where you are turning. Wait for the light to turn green before you make the turn.
There are two kinds of gas stations in Japan, a full service where an attendant will fill your tank and a self-service where you will pump your own gas. You can identify which kind of gas station it is by the signage out front, so it’s best to familiarize yourself with how the Japanese signs look:
• フルサービス - Full Service
• セルフ - Self Service
Most of the time, you’ll be able to find gas stations along highways and expressways, both near the entrances to them and also at rest areas along their routes. Look out for a gas pump icon or a highway rest area marked with either PA (parking area) or SA (service area). Most parking areas are simply a place to stop, use the restroom, and perhaps grab a drink from the vending machine. Service areas have more facilities, including restaurants and gas stations.
You’ll also be able to find plenty of gas stations along main roads in central, suburban, and rural areas. You should usually be able to find them using the in-car navigation system or an app like Google Maps. (Note: You have to be parked legally if you are going to use the phone as a driver of the vehicle.) It’s best to remember that not all gas stations are open 24 hours, especially in the more rural areas. Keep this in mind so you fill up regularly and don’t accidentally run out of gas.
Make sure that your vehicle has a full tank of gas when you return it, as this is one of the things the staff will check. If you forget to fill your tank and return the vehicle, they will calculate the amount of fuel required based on the number of kilometers you’ve driven, which is often charged at a higher rate than what you might expect to find at gas stations. They will also check the entire vehicle to ensure that there is no damage. If you have other charges, such as for ETC tolls, these will also be settled when you return the vehicle.
If you’re sticking to Japan’s big cities that have several public transportation options, it’s best not to get a rental car as traffic tends to be heavy. However, if you plan to explore rural areas or are traveling with a large group, it can be more convenient to get a rental car instead, especially if you plan to go to places where public transportation might not be available.
There's a lot to see and do in Japan, whether you stick to well-known destinations or go off-beaten paths on your own.
See those places for yourself. Explore Japan today.
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