What’s It Like To Drive In Japan – And How To Get Behind The Wheel

by Nicola Spendlove
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Whatever way you choose to travel around Japan, your experience will be one of a kind – whether you’re a passenger on a bullet train, or the driver of your own vehicle.

Driving in an unfamiliar country can be both empowering and intimidating. Whether you’re planning a Japanese road trip, or living in Japan and considering taking the leap of getting a set of wheels, there is plenty to research and consider when driving in Japan.

Chances are, you have a lot of questions you want answers to before you get behind the wheel – I’ve done my best to compile information to help you make an informed decision on all things to do with driving in Japan.

Is It Easy to Drive in Japan?

This question depends on your definition of “easy”. If you’re driving in Japanese cities, be ready for major traffic congestion and extremely limited parking options. I recommend avoiding this completely – the public transport systems in cities such as Tokyo are so efficient and stress-free that you really don’t want to introduce the unnecessary headache of the city driving into your trip. You’ll waste time, money, and goodwill in those traffic queues – if you’ll excuse a very bad pun, it’s best to completely steer clear until you’re heading into more rural areas.

Speed limits in Japan are low compared to other countries (you’re talking 100km/hr on highways, 30km/hr on town roads) and this is a cause of frustration to those who like to feel the wind in their hair on the open road. With that being said, it can be comforting to the nervous driver to know that they will be traveling at manageable speeds while getting used to their rental vehicle. Despite being an extremely law-abiding nation, many Japanese drivers do drive above the speed limit. It is relatively difficult to get a speeding ticket in Japan, as the camera must capture a clear image of both your face and your car’s plates – you’ll notice that a lot of cars in Japan have their plates positioned oddly for this very reason. A rental car will generally have their plates positioned in clear view of speed cameras, so you’re best sticking to the letter of the law on this one.

Japanese drivers tend to be extremely polite and courteous, so if you’re worried about facing the wrath of fellow road users then fear not. Road rage and horn honking aren’t a common phenomenon in Japan – nor are they stealing parking spaces or cutting others off in traffic. While the traffic in Tokyo may remind you of New York, the attitudes of your fellow road users certainly won’t.

Road signage in major towns and expressways tends to be in both Japanese and English, which definitely makes life a lot easier for foreign drivers. Venture a little bit further off the beaten track and you’re unlikely to have translations. Be sure to learn the meanings of the main road safety symbols in Japan before you get behind the wheel — this way even if you get lost on the way to your destination, you’re staying safe and obeying the rules of the road. An English speaking satnav system should solve this issue in any case.

Driving on the Japanese mountain roads is a joy, but a nerve-wracking joy if you’re not used to them. Known as touge, these roads are full of curves and bends that bring you through serene mountainous scenery. You need to be calm and alert for this driving challenge – there are plenty of blind corners and sheer drops that could bring a very abrupt end to your lovely day in the countryside. Be sensible and don’t try to repeat a stunt you saw in an anime show – there are race tracks all over the country where you can simulate that experience in a safe environment.

Practical things like filling up the car are wonderfully efficient in Japan – many of the gas stations are full service. This means you’ll have a pump attendant filling the car for you, handing you a towel to wipe down your dashboard, and even clearing the rubbish out of your interior. It’s service with a smile at its finest! If you don’t speak Japanese, be sure to write down what type of fuel your car takes to show at the gas station – this is one message you don’t want to be relying on charades to get across.

Expressways are easy to drive on by most peoples’ standards but tend to have a lot of tolls. Tolls in Japan can be very pricey (more on that later) and tricky to navigate without some understanding of Japanese. Because of the number of tolls on expressways, the driving style can be a bit more “stop-start” than you might be used to on high-speed roads in your home country.

The vast majority of cars in Japan are automatic rather than manual. If you’re one of us pesky Europeans who’s used to driving a stick shift, converting to driving in Japan feels like you’re manning a large Go-Kart at first.

Parking in Japan can be a nightmare for both your pocket and your soul if you’re in an urban area (are you noticing a theme? Stay away from driving in urban areas!) One cool thing about parking in Japan however is the futuristic car parks that you encounter – particularly the elevator ones where your car is stored in what is essentially a tower of cars while you go about your business.

Taking all this into account, only you can make a call on whether you would consider this type of driving easy or not – in my opinion, an experienced driver who sticks to the main routes and doesn’t drive in the cities would find it very manageable to drive in Japan.

What Side of the Road do They Drive on in Japan?

This is the first natural question that many tourists have. In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car. This can be a bit of a mind-bender if you’re traveling from the US – a much smoother transition for our UK drivers.

Driving in Japan as a Tourist

In many ways, driving in Japan can be one of the best ways for a tourist to see the country. It means you can completely personalize your schedule – you won’t be obliged to stick to inflexible public transport timetables and can choose to stay longer or shorter periods in destinations, depending on how you like them. You can also venture a bit further off the beaten track – discovering hidden gems that might not be readily accessible by public transport.

With all that being said, the railway system in Japan is fantastic – efficient, well-connected, and comfortable. It allows you to by-pass the traffic, and in most cases is far more economical than driving – particularly if you purchase the excellent value Japan Rail Pass. High-speed bullet trains will hurtle you across the country at speeds that your car would never be able to manage, even if the routes were unobstructed by traffic and tolls.

We all have different travel preferences. For some people, the road trip element of renting a car is half the fun of a trip – for others (and I’ll raise my hand for this one) taking an extended break from driving is a big part of what makes it a holiday.

If you fall into the former camp, then by all means rent your car and self-drive your big Japanese adventure. Rather than flying into Tokyo and renting directly from there, I would recommend using public transport to get a bit outside of the city and then sourcing a rental vehicle. This means you’re not beginning your odyssey with the headache of city traffic.

From my experience, I recommend going for a combined approach and having the best of both worlds. Use trains to travel the long distances, and kick back and enjoy a sake or bento box while moving swiftly and painlessly between destinations. Then when you arrive, you can rent a car for a couple of days and explore off the beaten track.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – there is a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving in Japan. If you are caught drinking and driving in Japan, you and your passengers can face up to five years of jail time. I outline this because it’s easy to feel a little bit brave when you’re in a new country and take risks that you wouldn’t normally – this is a risk you do not want to take in Japan (or anywhere).

Driving in Japan with a Foreign License

If you hold a driving license issued by Belgium, Estonia, France, Monaco, Germany, Switzerland or Taiwan, then good news – you can drive in Japan on your license. However, you must be sure to obtain a Japanese translation of your license for use in Japan. You can source this ahead of time via the Japanese embassy in your home country, or you can source it when in Japan through the Japanese Automobile Federation – but this could slow down proceedings.

If you hold a UK driving license, a US driving license, or a driving license from one of the contracting states of the Geneva Convention (see here for a list) then you are permitted to drive in Japan, but must first secure an international driving permit from your home country. This is a simple process, which I’ll outline in more detail in the next section.

If you are from a country that is not listed above, you will have to obtain a Japanese driving license to be eligible to drive in Japan. I will go through the process of applying for this later in the article.

Please note that you must be at least 18 years old to drive in Japan.

How to Get an International Driving Permit in Japan

It’s really important to note that you cannot apply for your international driving permit while in Japan. You must secure this in your home country in advance of your trip. These are generally easy to source – you can organize it through your car insurance company, or through your country’s Department of Motor Vehicles. You’ll need to fill in an application form, provide copies of your valid driving license, passport photos to be used on the permit, and other documents at the discretion of the agency. The fee depends on who you’re sourcing it through – I paid 15 euro for mine, to give you a ballpark figure. You can delay the start date of your permit for up to three months, which allows you to make the arrangements well in advance of your trip.

If you have even a vague intention of driving in Japan, you need to sort out this documentation. I have been to many countries where individual rental agencies have been willing to bend the rules on license policies for a smile and a generous tip – Japan is absolutely not one of them. I once traveled with two other Irish girls, and none of us had thought to apply for an international driving permit before leaving home – the only thing we could rent upon arrival was essentially a three-person mobility scooter. Hilarious? Yes, for about an hour. Functional? No, we would have covered more ground with a brisk walk. Just be sensible and get your international driving permit.

You should note that your international driving permit for Japan will only be valid for one year from your date of entry into Japan – regardless of what the expiry date on the document says. In order for it to be renewed, you must return to your home country for at least three consecutive months and then re-apply. If you are thinking of staying in Japan on a long-term basis, you will probably want to look at getting your Japanese driving license.

Converting to a Japanese Driving License

Initial Requirements

If you are a Japanese resident or staying in Japan longer than one year, converting your foreign license to a Japanese one is an option for you. Depending on where your original driving license was issued, you will fall into one of two groups.

The first group does not need to repeat their driving test – they submit documentation, do an eyesight and color check, and can then convert their license directly to a Japanese one. Specifically, this group is license holders from one of the following places – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, or USA (only Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, or Washington).

The second group will need to complete and pass written and practical tests to convert their license.

Regardless of where you are from, the first step is always submission of documents – so let’s start there. You will need to be the holder of a valid driving license from your home country (it can’t be expired). You will need to have this driving license officially translated by the Japanese Automobile Federation.

If you have these two things checked off, your next step is to consult with the Licensing Centre in your prefecture to find out what else you need – this varies by center. At the very least, you will need some proof of identification and address, along with recent passport photos. You must deliver the required documents in-person to your local Licensing Centre. They will review them and also verify that you were resident in the country that issued your original license for a minimum of three months after the license was issued.

Required Testing

Regardless of where you are from, you must complete an eye test – this is generally a very simple test where you will be required to distinguish colours from each other, and to point in the direction of arrows. If you fail this, then you really should not be on the open road, my friend. If you’re in the first camp, the process stops here for you – you wait until your license is issued and then collect it. Simple, right?

Now, if you belong to the second camp you must progress to your driving test. While this is a simplified version of the full driving test, it’s still quite stringent. You can take the written exam in English – it’s generally a “true or false” format, and you can study for this using English materials from the Japanese Automobile Federation.

The practical exam generally involves driving a route from memory – you will be provided with the route in advance. If you don’t speak Japanese, you may be required to bring a Japanese speaking friend with you, so that they can translate the instructions of the tester. One practical thing that’s important to know is that the time you’re assigned for your test is generally a block time, rather than the time of your personal exam. In other words, you might be waiting around for a period of hours as the testers get through everyone who has been told to come for that particular block.

If you fail your test (and don’t beat yourself up if you do, it’s very common) you’ll immediately be given a new scheduled block where you can make another attempt.

Renting a Car in Japan

Firstly, you must be at least 18 to rent a car in Japan, as this is the legal driving age. You must provide identification in the form of your passport to validate your age. You’ll need your local driving license, and either a Japanese translation or an international driving permit depending on what country you’re from (see the section on driving with a foreign license). You will need a credit card to guarantee your booking.

You can book your rental in advance of your arrival online – many of the larger agencies have English translations on their websites which will make the process easier for those without Japanese. Just because a website has English translations, don’t expect the staff at the rental pick up to speak English – it is not widely spoken in Japan.

One thing worth considering if you’re renting a car in Japan is insurance. Every rental will come with some form of basic insurance, but look into exactly what this covers. Paying a little extra for insurance add-ons such as collision damage waiver can save you serious money if something does go wrong on the road – which is always a very real possibility when you’re driving in a country you’re not familiar with.

Ask your rental company about ETC cards, especially if you’re driving on the expressways. These will allow you to drive straight through the tolls and pay the balance upon returning the car. You can’t purchase one of these as a tourist since you need a registered Japanese address to be eligible — so if your rental company doesn’t offer them you’re stuck queueing and paying at each individual toll station (of which there are a lot).

Buying a Car in Japan

If you’re in Japan long-term and are considering purchasing a car, there are a few quirks about the process to be aware of. Firstly, you’ll need to prove that you have somewhere to park your car. You’ll need the police to stamp a parking space certificate, indicating that you have a reserved spot within 2km of your residence where your car can be stored. This is likely to involve purchasing a car parking spot.

You’ll also need to prove that you can legally drive the car – you’ll need to have your license sorted before you make any type of purchase, be it an international driving permit or a Japanese driving license.

You might also note that the price of cars is cheaper than in your home country. A lot of Japanese cars are made locally (think brands like Toyota and Nissan) which reduces import costs. However, don’t think you’re getting a great deal – the costs of insurance, gas, shakken (car inspections) and tax are all very high in Japan. This brings us swiftly onto our next section.

Cost of Driving in Japan

Toll fees are a huge expense when driving cross country in Japan – prohibitively so in many cases. You can expect to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in toll fees on a Japanese road trip, so it’s important to take this expense into account.

Parking fees are relatively expensive in Japan – you can expect to pay in the region of $4 per hour. When you compare this to the low cost of public transport, it quickly adds up.

Add these expenses onto the cost of car rental, additional insurance, and gas and you’ve almost definitely surpassed what you would have paid for a Japan Rail Pass numerous times over.

It doesn’t usually make sense economically to drive around Japan as a tourist – but depending on your situation, it might make sense in other ways. It might be your preferred mode of transport, it might be the most convenient way to carry around large pieces of luggage — indeed it might be your ticket to stumbling upon beauty spots outside of the realms of train routes. Whatever your decision, your trip to Japan is guaranteed to be memorable for a million different reasons.

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