One of the best ways to explore Japan is with the freedom a vehicle offers you, particularly if you’re heading off the beaten path. The convenience of being able to set your own pace on a journey and stop at spots that interest you along the way allows for a unique glimpse into the land of the rising sun - and one that you may not get with other modes of transport.
The process of renting a car in Japan may seem daunting, but it really couldn’t be simpler. Take a look at what you need to know to get behind the wheel and hit the open road.
First things first – you need to ensure you can legally drive in Japan! You’ll need to be at least 18 years old and have obtained an International Driver's Permit (IDP) in your country of residence before you visit.
A driver’s license from your home country alone isn’t enough, and car rental agencies won’t be able to hand over the keys to your vehicle unless you have an IDP. Bring your license from home and your passport to the rental office in conjunction with the IDP.
If you already reside in Japan and have converted your home country’s license to a Japanese license, you’re good to go!
In Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road. Typically, Japan's road signs and driving rules adhere to international standards but it is recommended to go over the basics by yourself before hitting the ignition. Read up on Japan's traffic rules and other helpful advice provided by JAF (Japan Automobile Federation).
You will be able to select from a range of vehicle types though your rental company, and they will usually be broken down into categories such as: compact, standard, sports, SUV, and minivan.
Bear in mind that many of Japan’s roads are significantly narrower and parking lots substantially more cramped than what you may be used to, and smaller vehicles can be advantageous in that sense.
Consider the needs of your passengers, the confidence you have in your driving skills, and the knowledge that road conditions are different before you make your decision.
Most car rental companies will give you the option of either renting a vehicle and returning it to the same store location, or doing a one way journey and returning the vehicle to an alternate branch of the car rental chain. There is often a surcharge that comes with returning your vehicle to a different branch than the one you picked up the car from, so if you’re trying to minimize costs keep that in mind.
If you are traveling with little ones in tow, you can specify car seat requirements for your child (or children) with many rental car providers. In most cases this is able to be done via the agency’s online booking platforms, so the seats are ready to go in the vehicle as soon as you pick it up.
Japan’s network of highways and expressways are predominantly toll roads. Payment of tolls can be done in two ways. You can either take a paper based ticket when you enter a toll road and pay for the tolls in cash or by credit card, or use an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) reader.
Your car rental company of choice will generally offer you an ETC reader with your vehicle rental, and toll payments are settled when you return the vehicle at the end of your trip. Some rental agencies will have a small additional charge for the use of an ETC device, but for others it is included with the vehicle.
There are two perks for using an ETC. First, when passing through a toll gate, you do not need to stop – only slow down until the gate reads the ETC signal and opens the gate automatically. The second is that toll companies offer minor discounts on tolls for ETC users.
If you decide to forego the ETC reader option, bear in mind that some toll booths do not have credit card capability. Be sure to have some yen on you to avoid being caught short. In fact, this is advisable by default as some older, regional toll roads do not support ETC either.
Japanese expressway toll stop (Photo: StockStudio / Shutterstock.com)
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:
Multilingual GPS equipment is also provided with most rental vehicles, or can be borrowed for a small additional fee. This can take the stress out of juggling maps and managing directions, particularly in a new country where roads and routes are unfamiliar.
Japan is a country that drives on the left hand side of the road, which may be unfamiliar for those of you used to driving on the right. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the setup of your rented vehicle, and get your bearings. Don’t stress too much though - we’ve all used our wipers instead of our signals once or twice!
Provided you already have a rental car reserved, this step is as simple as arriving at the rental car company counter and showing your reservation number and required documents (license, International Drivers Permit, passport, etc.). If you do not have a reservation, the staff will present you a list of vehicle options and prices.
Before you hit the road and start exploring Japan by car, the rental agency staff will walk you around your vehicle. Check for any pre-existing dents or scratches to ensure that they are verified by the staff member - you don’t want to be charged later on for damage you didn’t cause.
Ensure your vehicle has a full tank of gas when you return it. The staff will check this, along with a check of the vehicle to ensure there is no damage. If you do return the vehicle without a full tank, 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 would expect to find at a gas station.
Any outstanding fees (such as ETC tolls or payment for any damages incurred) will be settled upon returning the vehicle.
If you are returning a vehicle to a store location near an airport, most agencies will have shuttle bus facilities to get you back in time for your flight.