Cars and Car Rental

Trains will get you a very, very long way, and to most of the country – but sometimes there’s more to see further from the tracks. If you can drive, car hire in Japan isn’t hugely expensive: a tiny kei-car, like the one pictured above, will normally run to around 5,000 yen for a day. You’ll need the right license, though, and booking one can be tricky – here’s how to do it. Also below you’ll find information on what to do if you crash a rental car, and how to negotiate expressways and tolls.

Getting a License

If you’re a UK or US citizen then your driving license alone is not sufficient to either rent a car or drive it. As well as carrying your license, you’ll need to obtain an International Driving Permit (1949 version). Don’t try to bluff it without one; the international permit will be instantly recognised but a EU-style license is not.
If you’re in the UK, International Driving Permits can be obtained from the AA, or from a handful of post offices – including Charing Cross, London. In the USA, you can obtain one from the AAA.

Renting a Car

When it comes to renting cars, the web will be mostly useless: unless you have a Japanese address and you’re absolutely fluent in the language, the websites of the major Japanese rental companies are of no use. What’s more, many list ‘branches’ that have no cars unless you’ve pre-booked – you need to phone ahead, and well in advance (the day before, in my experience, won’t work).
If you want a car for a day or two, I’ve had much more luck with the rental shops operated by car manufacturers (Toyota Rental, in particular), which tend to be slightly out of town but have a car-park full of vehicles ready to go. Toyota Rental lots tend to have a stock of cars on the forecourt, and they’ve always been happy to rent to a foreigner with shaky Japanese. I’ve also used local, independent rental shops – on Sakurajima, for example, which cost around the same amount.
For longer term rental, or if you need to book ahead, then Nippon Rent-A-Car offers an online booking service in English. You complete a form, stating what dates you want and what kind of vehicle, and they email back with a quote. You’ll find it here.

Hitting the Road

Japan, like the UK, uses a drive-on-the-left system. Almost all cars are automatic, and the speed limits are slow. If you can drive in Europe or the US, it’s easy.
Most rental cars in Japan have a powerful satellite navigation system, but these can be really hard to use unless either 1) your kanji reading skills are great, or 2) you can switch it into English. I’ve found that the Toyota Vitz tends to be the smallest, cheapest car with an English-language option. If you’re renting a kei-car, look for an icon with a phone: tap this, then tap in the phone number of your destination.
And speaking of language issues, it’s worth noting that a bit of Japanese goes a long way when renting cars. You could probably do it via sign language and luck alone, but a basic ‘いくらですか’ level of communication makes it pretty easy.

Hitting Other Stuff

One of the occupational hazards of driving a car is that you might, if you’re unlucky, crash it. In case you’re unlucky enough to experience this in Japan – as I have, once – here are some tips.
1) Know how much you’re in for. When you rent a car abroad, it’s worth taking the maximum possible damage waiver to limit your personal liability. Check your documents to ensure this is included. Even with a full waiver, though, some Japanese rentals have a Non Operation Charge (NOC) – essentially, a lump sum you owe if you damage the car to the extent that they have to repair it. There might be two levels of this: one for a car that’s damaged but drivable, and a higher one of they have to tow it away.
2) Be prepared for bureaucracy. In the UK or USA, if you hit an object with your car but nobody was hurt and no other property was damaged, you could just curse and drive away. In Japan, you’ll need to report it to the police so they can file a report (a “jikou shoumeishi”). This could take hours. You’ll also need to report it to the rental company.
3) With that in mind, if at all possible, enlist the help of a fluent or native speaker. The questions you’ll be asked by the police will be many, baffling and (on occasion) downright stupid. It’s worth having someone on your side who can help you fend them off. If you’re in the countryside, you may be the first foreign license holder the police have ever encountered, so there’s a lot of explaining to do and they will take notes of absolutely everything.
If this sounds like a pain in the backside, that’s because it is. But it’s manageable. At the end of the day, as long as nobody’s hurt and you do all the necessary reporting, you should be able to drop off the car, pay the required NOC fee and walk away without any real trouble.

Expressways and Tolls

If you’re driving long-distance, you might want to take advantage of Japan’s faster Expressway routes. These have slightly higher speed limits, and more importantly no traffic lights or stop junctions, so you can make good time even when they are only one lane. However, be aware that expressway travel can be really expensive.
Most Japanese drivers will use an automatic card system (“ETC”) to pay tolls, but as a foreigner that’s not available – the box on your rental car dashboard will happily chirp away warning you of this, but do nothing else. Instead, when joining or exiting an expressway at a tollbooth, look for the lane marked green.
On entering, take a ticket from the machine and drive on. On exiting you’ll give that ticket to a member of staff (or very occasionally a machine) and be asked to pay the fee – in most cases, but not all, credit cards are accepted. Expect to pay a couple of thousand yen for a decent stretch of driving – your car’s navigation system may well keep track of fees for you.