Car Rental in Japan: Self-Driving the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan is home to one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and the extremes of Japanese history and modernity are absolutely worth thorough sight-seeing. View Japanese culture at its most authentic by travelling off the beaten path via automobile hire!
The best time to visit Japan is during the spring, particularly when the cherry trees are blossoming March to April and the weather isn’t yet too hot or humid. The weather is also comfortable late fall, after the September typhoon season has passed.
Japan is an incredibly homogeneous country and its inhabitants speak almost universally Japanese. Many younger Japanese people will have had some education in English, but outside of large cities and popular tourist destinations, few people speak even basic English. You may find that people are much more adept at reading and writing English than speaking it, however, so having a notepad and pen on hand can be a big help!
The Japanese yen is the currency in Japan and cash is still the preferred method of payment in most stores and agencies. Exchanging currency outside of major airports can sometimes be a challenge, though the US dollar is widely accepted. Many ATMs will not accept non-domestic credit cards, though you’re likely to get lucky using a foreign card at ATMs in post offices and 7-11 convenience stores.
Though most cities of any size have an airport, those of you arriving internationally will likely fly into Narita Airport near Tokyo or Kansai Airport near Osaka. These are both excellent places to pick up rental cars, as they are each located about an hour outside of these congested and busy cities. If you’re planning on visiting cool Hokkaido in the summer months, be sure to book a rental car well ahead of your arrival; you can pick up a rental car at many train stations on the island.
Driving in Japan
Public transportation is at its world’s best in Japan, so many travellers to the country only visit major cities (where parking is very difficult and expensive) and the destinations they can reach by train. Automobile hire remains the primary and most inexpensive way for you to reach the remote locations of this incredible island country, so avoid the crowds with your rental car!
- Traffic proceeds on the left-hand side of the road.
- Expressways: typically 80 to 100 km/h
- Metropolitan areas: 40 km/h
- Residential areas: typically 30 km/h
- Local highways: sometimes as low as 50 to 60 km/h
- If you are driving in any metropolitan areas, you will definitely experience traffic congestion and traffic jams!
- Parking is very expensive and inconvenient in larger cities. If you are planning in navigating Japanese cities by car, ensure that your hotel offers complementary parking before you book.
- An international driver’s license based on the 1949 Geneva Convention is required for all car rentals and must be carried with you at all times. Make sure you have acquired an international driver’s license for Japan before you arrive. Some international driver’s licenses are not recognized in Japan, but a Japanese translation of your license will often suffice. Be sure to check country-specific regulations on licensing before you leave your home country.
- It is unlikely that your domestic car insurance – even that issued through credit cards – will be valid in Japan, so make sure to double-check before you hire your car.
- Tolls on expressways between cities can cost more than one person’s ticket on the train. Local roads are a great alternative for your cross-country travel needs, though these scenic routes require slower driving.
- The minimum driving age is 18.
- Most nationalities can visit Japan visa free, though restrictions according to arrival, departure, and the quality of identification documents can vary. Double-check visa regulations for your country before you depart, particularly as a visa received prior to entry is necessary for some nationalities. All foreign nationals age 16 and over will be fingerprinted and biometrically photographed upon entry.
- Most gas stations are full-service, meaning you’ll have to speak with an attendant to fill your gas tank.
- Major street signs may have legible images or Latin letters, but many other signs will not. Particularly if you’ll be driving local roads, a GPS that operates in your native language and a guide to Japanese road signs are recommended.
- Some medications, such as cough medicines, decongestants, and EpiPens are strictly regulated in Japan and you may be required to discard these medications in order to enter the country – even if you have prescription documentation. Consult the Japanese consulate in your country to effectively handle any necessary medications before you leave for Japan. You must carry your passport with you at all times – even for a long night out at the clubs!