Driving in Japan: Everything You Need To Know

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If you are planning to visit Japan, it is important to think about how to get around the country. In the cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima etc, the public transport network is developed and very reliable with frequent trains, metros or buses. However, once you go outside of the cities and visit the somewhat more remote areas, you will find that they are less connected to public transport or that the buses and trains run less frequent. Generally, people living in the countryside have their own car to get around without worrying about any delays of transports or inconvenient locations.

When you visit Japan, you can easily go around by Shinkansen or other forms of public transportation, but if you want to discover the more rural areas or just want to have more freedom, you have to option to rent a car! Renting a car is very easy in Japan and there are countless numbers of car rental shops everywhere around the country. For foreign travelers, it is a perfect option to rent a car to travel around the country while exploring the popular tourist attractions. In this article, we will introduce some important traffic rules in Japan, how to rent a car, and other fundamental information on driving in Japan.

Roppongi Tokyo

Driving in Japan

Generally speaking, driving in Japan is quite safe and easy. The Japanese are polite drivers, road are well maintained and most of the traffic rules in Japan are probably similar to the traffic rules in your country: you are obligated to wear a seatbelt, always carry your (international) drivers license and stick to the speed limit. In addition, there is a zero tolerance policy towards drinking and driving, the police are very strict about this. Besides a massive fine you can be send to for up to five year. Some other quick facts:

  • The legal driving age in Japan is 18;
  • In Japan traffic lights are often green for both cars and pedestrians;
  • Pedestrians always have right of way  legal driving age is 18 in Japan;
  • When you get into an accident with a cyclist, you are always to blame;
  • Parking in the cities can be difficult due to limited parking spaces;
  • Parking is often free of charge at supermarkets and conbini;
  • For medical assistance, dial 119; for police, dial 110.

Drive on the left side of the road

Depending on where you live, this is one of the biggest challenges and differences compared to driving bag home. In any case, keep to the left and overtake on the right is one of the most important traffic rules to remember. In Japan, drivers are allowed to drive only on the left side of the road just like Great Britain, Australia and India. It can get a little confusing especially if you are from the United States or any other countries where cars drive on the right side of the road. Just remember: the driver is on the same side as the line dividing road lanes! In addition, all rental cars in Japan are right-hand drive, and possibly takes you a while to get used to it.

Speed limits in Japan

The speed limit in urban areas is 30-50 km/h, the actual limit depends on the roads but will be clearly marked. In the more rural areas the speed limit is often 80 km/h and on the highway (expressways) the speed limit is 100 km/h. The Japanese stick to their speed limits religiously! In addition to the speed limit, there is also a speed minimum on the highways, you can recognize this by the underlined number.

Stop at the railroad crossing

In Japan, you are required by law to always stop at the railroad crossing. It is for the safety reasons, and you are supposed to check both ways to make sure no trains are coming. The police sometimes watches the cars passing through the railroad crossings, and fines might be imposed if you fail to follow this rules.

Rail road crossing

Toll roads

Many of the expressways in Japan are toll roads and upon exiting the toll road you are required to pay the toll. On most toll roads there are two ways of doing so: by ETC card or manually. The purple drive through will be marked ‘ETC’ and can only be used if you have an electronic card in your car. Many rental cars will have ETC card included, just ask for it when you pick up the car at the car rental. Another booth will be for people paying cas, this drive through is marked green. Make sure you always carry some cash with you as often you cannot pay by card!

Learn road signs used only in Japan

Road signs help us be aware of possible dangers and drive safely. There are a number of road signs only used in Japan, some of them have unique pictures on it or are only written in Japanese. Learning about them in advance enables you to get ready for a driving experience in Japan with confidence. You can check the list of main road signs in Japan on the website below.

Road Signs In Japan

International Driver’s License

You need a valid driver’s license to rent and drive a car in Japan. Tourists from designated countries are allowed to drive a car with a driver’s license that was issued in their own country. If your license was issued by a country affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention, you will need an international driver’s license, also called IDP (International Driving Permit), too. You can get these easily and cheaply in your country and they are often valid for one year. Remember to bring your ‘normal’ drivers’ licence and passport too.

The international permits look very similar, but keep in mind that Japan is extremely strict when it comes to international regulations. Always make sure you bring your passport, driver’s license and other documents, without those you will not be able to rent a car. If you are not sure whether you’ll need an international driver’s license, contact your embassy or visit the website of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.

International driver's license permit

Renting a car in Japan

Renting a car enables you travel Japan more comfortably and at your own pace. It may seem a little bit challenging, especially if you are not familiar with the Japanese roads. However, there are no complicated rules or restrictions for foreigners to rent a car, and renting a car in Japan in an easy process that can be completed in just a few steps online! You can find car rental shops easily throughout the country. Check the basic process shown below to get a better understanding of renting a car in Japan.

1. Find a rental shop

Find a rental shop where you are going to rent a car. There are a number of companies with convenient locations in urban areas or countryside such as Times Car Rental, Toyota Rentacar and Nippon Rentacar. Choose a convenient location depending on your itinerary and destination. Most have an online reservation system available.

2. Make a reservation

Making a reservation online is the easiest way to secure your rental car. You can also visit the shop to choose the model of car you want to rent, though online is the most carefree option. Online reservation is recommended as (popular) cars can easily get booked especially before the holiday seasons. Make sure to book your rental car soon after your itinerary is fixed! 

3. Get in the car and enjoy your road trip!

Pick up the car and start your journey! The rental car shop will definitely ask you for your passport and a valid international (!) driver’s license. Drive safely and follow the traffic rules while you are driving. Before you return the car, it is your responsibility to fill up the tank. Don’t forget to keep the receipt of the gas station when you return the car, you are often required to show the receipt!

Coastal road

Parking in Japan

In the urban areas, Japan offers limited space for parking. There are several unique parking features which allow to park a lot of cars in a limited space. The Japanese Parking Garages are often easy to use even if you don’t read Japanese. The Japanese Underground Parking garage is an innovative solution which can accommodate a number of cars and vehicles. They are generally designed in the basement of big shopping malls or buildings in urban areas. Multistory Parking Garage is another facility consisting of several stories of parking space. You may park your car nose-in in your country, but many Japanese reverse their car when they park their cars. It helps you leave the parking lot more easily as you can check surroundings for safety.

Parking Japan

Roads in Japan are relatively narrow, especially in the more rural areas, and there are a number of crosswalks where all cars are supposed to stop when someone is walking across it. On the other hand, there are few roundabouts, which can be found everywhere in some other countries. Highways are well developed and maintained, and take you to any area conveniently. In general, the use of most expressways are subject to tolls, which can be paid cash or by ETC card. Lastly, before you hit the road, learn the basic rules about driving in Japan and make sure to follow these. Enjoy an exciting driving experience in Japan!

If you plan to visit only big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, probably renting a car won’t be necessary as the public transport is well developed, cheap and punctual. But if you want to visit the more rural areas, renting a car is a great option to explore everything at your own pace.

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Happy travelling!

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