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Bihoro Pass located at Highway 243, Akan National Park, Hokkaido

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[dead link] has outlets at most larger train stations and often has discounted train & car packages.

Understand[edit]

One morning's snowfall on a car in rural Hokkaido

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.

Rules[edit]

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. Most cars are right-hand drive, though imported cars from Europe or the United States are usually left-hand drive.

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.

Traffic enforcement[edit]

A speed trap operated by Japanese police in Hokkaido. The officer holding a flag at the right will run out of the road to stop speeders once they are identified.

It is common for Japanese police to set up checkpoints, or wait in junctions attempting to catch traffic offenses (1 Hakozaki Junction Hakozaki Junction on Wikipedia in Tokyo is an example of such hot-spots). Unmarked police vehicles are used often. These vehicles should have emergency light popped out automatically when performing a traffic stop (instead of being manually placed on top of the vehicle), and the officers are uniformed. When performing checkpoints, officers may run out of the road and indicate you to stop, with little notice. Please comply with all police operations.

Costs[edit]

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.

Expressways[edit]

Most toll plazas have purple signs and white/blue lane markings for Electronic Toll Collection (ETC).

Expressways (高速道路 kōsoku-dōro, often abbreviated as XX道 or XX高速, where XX is a general direction or the starting and ending cities of the expressway) form the backbone of the Japanese road network, and are the fastest way to travel by car. However, the tolls are often 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. On the other hand, some expressways have toll-free sections, and a few of them are entirely toll-free. The Meihan Expressway from Kameyama to Nara and the Tottori Expressway from Tottori to Sayō are some examples of entirely toll-free expressways.

If renting a car, it's worth ensuring it comes equipped with an ETC (electronic toll collection) device, which entitles you to use the purple ETC-only (ETC専用) lanes at toll booths and make use of a wide variety of discount programs for driving on weekends, off-peak hours, etc. You can, however, still pay by yen cash or credit card at almost all toll plazas by choosing the green lanes.

In major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, a flat rate toll is paid when entering the expressway system, while 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.

The speed limits of Japanese expressways are significantly lower than other countries, usually with 70-100km/h for most expressways. There are plans to raise the speed limit for some expressways, such as sections of Shin-Tōmei Expressway and Tōhoku Expressway.

A smart interchange on Ban-etsu Expressway

There are also some minor toll booths known as smart interchanges that only accept ETC as the only way of payment, which are marked with purple signs.

Besides expressways, privately-built roads, often branded skyline (スカイライン) or equivalent (aqualine, beachline etc), may also be toll roads.

Inter-city expressways (usually referred to as XX線) 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[edit]

The NEXCO companies in charge of most of Japan's toll highways offer a 7- or 14-day Japan Expressway Pass[dead link] for ¥20400 and ¥34600 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.

Countryside driving[edit]

Outside expressways, road conditions can vary largely. Consider using proper navigation applications or maps to plan your journey.

Highways[edit]

Japanese National Route Sign
Japanese Prefectural Route Sign
Highway symbols in Japan: national roads (left) and prefectural roads (right)

National highways (国道 kokudō) and prefectural highways (県道 kendō) in Japan can be quite variable in quality. Especially in the mountains, roads can be very twisty and narrow, with inadequate safety infrastructure.

On the other hand, some national highways are built and tolled as high quality expressways, such as the Ken-Ō Expressway serving as the outer ring expressway of Metro Tokyo.

Forestry roads (林道 rindō) are best avoided completely: they're often unpaved muddy trails leading nowhere and can be straight up inaccessible without 4WD.

City driving[edit]

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[edit]

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
  • 别料金 — Surcharge, usually occur in transitional sections between city expressways and trunk expressways

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.

Low speed limit entering a town in rural Hokkaido

Speed limits[edit]

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.

There are plans to raise speed limits for cars on certain sections of three-lane expressways to 120 km/h in the future.

Rest areas[edit]

The Ebina Service Area on the Tokyo-bound Tomei Expressway
A Michi no Eki nestled in the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture

When traveling long distances by car, Japan has motorists covered with a number of rest areas both on and off the highway.

On the expressways, drivers will find two types of rest areas:

  • The most basic rest areas are called Parking Areas (パーキングエリア, abbreviated PA). Parking Areas usually contain restrooms, vending machines and WiFi hotspots, but smaller PAs may only provide nothing more than limited parking spaces, especially for those of urban expressways. Some may also include a convenience store or restaurant.
  • The larger, busier rest areas are called Service Areas (サービスエリア, abbreviated SA). In addition to the basic amenities, a Service Area typically includes restaurants, convenience stores, souvenir shops, a gas station, and charging stations for electric vehicles. Some may include shower facilities or a hotel.

Parking Areas and Service Areas are spaced out on the highway at regular intervals, with Parking Areas more common than Service Areas. As an example, drivers using the Tomei Expressway between Tokyo and Nagoya will pass a SA or PA every 15-20 km, with Service Areas spread out about every 50 km.

If traveling on one of Japan's main non-toll roads, you will run into plenty of Roadside Stations, referred to as Michi no Eki (道の駅). These government-designated rest areas offer 24-hour access to parking and restrooms. During business hours, these stations may also sell local food, snacks and souvenirs.

Car ferries[edit]

MV Ferry Naminoue, a car ferry running from Kagoshima to Okinawa

As Japan is an island nation, there are various car ferries run across islands. The following lists some of the routes:

Kagoshima-Okinawa[edit]

  • A-Line Ferry, +81-099-226-4141 (reservation). MV Ohamana and Ferry Naminoue runs from Kagoshima to Port of Naha, Okinawa, and stops at a series of outlying islands including Naze, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima, Yoronjima, Motobu. Takes about a day to arrive at Okinawa. A-Line Ferry (Q11341201) on Wikidata
  • Matrix Line, +81-099-225-1551 (reservation). MV Queen Coral Plus and Queen Coral 8 runs from Kagoshima to Okinawa, and stops at a series of outlying islands including Naze, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima, Yoronjima, Motobu. Takes about a day to arrive at Okinawa. Marix Line (Q11341065) on Wikidata

Honshu-Hokkaido[edit]

Aomori-Hakodate[edit]

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