Rental cars and driving in Japan are rare in or around the major cities, as public transport is generally excellent and gets you almost everywhere. In addition, the roads of major cities like Tokyo are plagued with massive traffic jams and parking is expensive and difficult to find, so driving there is more of a hindrance than anything else. However, many rural areas can really be explored with only your own transport, so driving should certainly not be dismissed out of hand, especially on the vast, sparsely populated island of Hokkaido. Due to Hokkaido's cooler climate it is a very popular destination in summer, so if you are considering renting a car at this time be sure to do so well in advance of your planned travel date as they are often unavailable at this time. Often the most feasible option is to combine the two: take the train out to the countryside and then pick up a rental car at a station. JR's Ekiren has outlets at most larger train stations and often has discounted train & car packages.
Japanese driving habits are generally as good as anywhere else, and usually better than other Asian countries. Japanese roads are generally of good quality, with smooth bitumen surfaces. Gravel roads are very limited, usually forest roads, and unlikely to be on the itinerary of too many tourists. Roadworks are frequent however, and can cause annoying delays. In addition, snow can often accumulate on roads in much of Hokkaido and western Honshu, making it tricky to drive even on the freeways. Certain mountain passes are shut over winter, those that are not usually require either snow chains or a combination of studless winter tires and 4-wheel drive. If you rent a car in mountainous/northern areas they will generally come with this equipment already included.
An international driver's license (or Japanese license) will be required if you wish to rent a car or drive in Japan, and must be carried at all times. Rental rates typically start from ¥6000 a day for the smallest car. Purchasing insurance from the rental car company is highly recommended as any rental car insurance from your home country (especially through most credit cards) is unlikely to be valid in Japan, check your policy before heading out.
Driving is on the left as normally found in the United Kingdom, Australia New Zealand, India and Singapore, but opposite to continental Europe, the United States and Canada.
There is no "right turn on red" (or left turn, rather) rule in Japan, however in rare cases a sign with a blue arrow on a white background will indicate where turning on red is legal (not to be confused with the white arrow on a blue background, which indicates one-way traffic). Drivers are required to make a complete stop at all at-grade railway crossings.
Using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit can result in fines of up to ¥50,000.
Driving drunk is not tolerated at all. While the minimum for "driving drunk" is a breath (not blood) content of 0.15 mg/L (equivalent to 0.03% BAC), "driving under the influence" has no minimum, meaning police can charge you with even a whiff of alcohol. Penalties include fines up to ¥1 million, up to 5 years in jail, and immediate suspension or revocation of your license. Refusal to take a breathalyzer test also carries fines up to ¥500,000 and up to 3 months jail. Passengers can also be charged (for allowing the drunk person to drive), with similarly severe fines and jail time.
Both rental costs and fuel are more expensive than those in the USA, but fuel is generally cheaper than found in Europe. Most fuel stations are full service, to fill up the tank with regular fuel, say regulaa mantan to the attendant. Rental car companies generally offer smaller cars from ¥5,000 a day, and a full size sedan will cost around ¥10,000 a day. Most rental cars have some kind of satellite navigation ("navi") thus you can ask the rental car company to set your destination before your first trip. Some models (specifically newer Toyotas) have an English language mode, so it doesn't hurt to ask the staff to change it before you head out. However unless you read Japanese you may need to ask for assistance to make full use of the navigation computer.
Navigating within cities can be confusing and parking in them costs ¥300-400/hour. Larger hotels in the cities and regional hotels normally offer car parking, but it would be wise to check car parking however before you book. Validated parking is available at some car parks that are attached to major department stores in large cities, but don't count on getting more than 2–3 hours free. The best car to use in Tokyo is a taxi.
Signs and signals
Japan has horizontal traffic lights, with any arrows appearing beneath the main lights. The red (stop) is on the right and the green (go) is on the left. There are usually only one or two traffic lights per intersection pointing the same way, which can make it hard to see when the signals change. However some prefectures, such as Toyama and Niigata, have vertical lights (this is supposedly due to the amount of snow they get).
Japanese signs follow a mixture of European and North American conventions, but most should not pose any difficulty in understanding. "Stop" is indicated by a downward-pointing red triangle, not to be confused with the similar looking Yield sign found in North America. On the highways and around major cities English signage is very good; however in more remote locales it may be spotty. Electronic signs are everywhere on expressways and major arterial roads, and provide helpful real-time information on road conditions, unfortunately they are displayed exclusively in Japanese. The following is a brief list of the most common messages and their translations:
- 通行止 — Road Closed
- 渋滞 — Traffic Jam (with length and/or delay indicated)
- 事故 — Accident
- 注意 — Caution
- チェーン規制 — Chains Required
Warning hazards for repair, breakdown and construction are always well illuminated at night and tend to also appear at least once before the main obstacle on higher speed roads such as expressways. Other road hazards to be aware of are taxis, who feel they have a god-given right to stop wherever and whenever they like, long-distance truckers (especially late at night) who may often be hepped up on pep pills and tend to ride the bumper of any slower car in front, and country farmers in their ubiquitous white mini-trucks, who never seem to go above a crawl and may pop out of rural side roads unexpectedly.
Road speed limits are marked in kilometres per hour. They are 40 km/h in towns (with varying areas: some at 30, roads by schools usually at 20), 50 to 60 in the countryside (if unmarked, the limit is 60), and 100 on the expressways. There is usually a fair bit of leeway in terms of speeding - about 10 km/h on normal roads, for example. If you go with the flow you should not have any problems, as the Japanese often pay speed limits no more attention than they have to.
Tolls for the expressways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro) are generally significantly higher than the cost of a train ride, even on the bullet train. So for one or two people it's not cost-effective for direct long distance travel between cities. In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat rate toll is paid when entering the expressway system. On inter-city expressways, tolls are based on distance travelled, a ticket is issued when you enter the system and the toll is calculated when you exit. Avoid the purple ETC lanes at toll plazas (unless you have the ETC device fitted) as they are reserved for electronic toll collection, any other lane will accept either yen cash (exact change not required) or major credit cards.
Inter-city expressways are well-serviced with clean and convenient parking areas at regular intervals, but be wary of travelling into large cities on Sunday evenings or at the end of a holiday period, as traffic jams at these times can reach up to 50 km long.
Using local roads to travel between cities has the advantages of being toll-free and offering more opportunities for sightseeing along the way, but traffic jams and numerous traffic lights slow things down considerably. Covering 40 km in 1 hour is a good rule of thumb to follow when planning an itinerary on local roads, generally more on Hokkaido.
Japan Expressway Pass
The NEXCO companies in charge of most of Japan's toll highways offer a 7- or 14-day Japan Expressway Pass for ¥20000 and ¥34000 respectively. The pass allows unlimited usage of NEXCO's toll roads, and is obtainable in conjunction with a car rental. A drawback is that the expressway pass cannot be used within Tokyo, Hokkaido or certain areas of Kansai, and cannot be used on the highways that connect Honshu to Shikoku.