Sometimes a Better Option Than a Bus

Public transit goes most places in Japan. But sometimes you want the freedom to travel anywhere you’d like, anytime you’d like. A rental car is a great option if you prefer driving and there’s a group of you travelling. If you have lots of luggage you may prefer having your own vehicle instead lugging bags on and off the bus and train.  Car rental in Japan is easy but there are a few rules and pieces of advice to keep in mind.

Rules of the Road

There are a few things to know and keep in mind when planning to rent a vehicle in Japan:

  • you need an international driver’s license issued from your own country’s government agency.
  • you are not allowed any alcohol if driving. There is no legal threshold, you are not allowed a single drink.
  • cars in Japan drive on the left. If you’re arriving from a right-hand driving country you will quickly get frustrated turning your wipers on every time you want to signal.
  • rates can vary from around 7500-15000 yen depending on the make and model.
  • rental vehicles always come with a dash GPS system that often has an English function.
  • signage is generally internationally recognizable. If not… do what everyone else is doing?
  • gas stations require communication. ‘Regyura’ for ‘regular’ gas, ‘mantan’ for ‘full’, and ‘credito caado’ for ‘credit card’. Done. They will then help direct you back into traffic when you leave.
  • extensive and impressive expressways cover Japan but have many tolls. It gets pricey pretty quickly.
  • return your rental clean and with a full tank of gas otherwise you will be charged extra.
  • you can drop in at a rental shop if you’ve got your international license or you can arrange a reservation online in English at TooCoo!, Japan Experience, or Times Car Rental (Times Car Rental is available for rentals at many airports in Japan).
Two round curved mirrors facing away from each other. In the mirror surfaces we can see the road in either direction. These are critically important when driving a rental car.

These mirrors are very useful for seeing around tight corners. If you’re going to be driving in Japan get in the habit of using them. Especially in the mountains.


Driving in Japan

The points above are about it. With just that little you’ll probably be fine driving your rental car in Japan. It’s not advisable if you’re going to be sticking to urban centers but driving isn’t as bad as you might think in some of these locations.

Osaka? Awesome. You can drive through a building on the Hanshin Expressway and soar along highways a couple feet away from the tenth floor of skyscrapers.  It’s like driving in the future.

Hiroshima? It’s a grid! Even better for getting around and there’s a ferry to Miyajima.

Tokyo? Don’t do this. It’s not even worth doing just to later say you did it.

Having gotten thoroughly lost driving in Tokyo, we had to resort to navigating through the world’s largest urban centre using the sun as a guide to determine which way was East. So the general advice of this guide is don’t drive in Tokyo.

Outside of these major cities driving through the Japanese countryside can give you some of the most majestic views imaginable. You’ll have access to areas that would otherwise have limited or no access by bus or train. These could be beaches, mountains, or my personal favourite reason for driving excursions, onsens.  Once you arrive at these locations the value of your rental car becomes readily apparent.

Cost of a Rental Car in Japan

It has been quite a while since I’ve reserved a rental car in Japan.  That being said, you can always check prices at the shops or websites listed above ( TooCoo!, Japan Experience, or Times Car Rental).  Rates are generally around 5000 yen a day for the smallest size car, up to 15,000 yen a day for a full size.  Vans and other speciality vehicles will be more expensive.  When trying to determine the cost it’s important to factor in the cost of gas.  Petrol may be more or less expensive relative to your home country.  Some rental shops will have the ability to fill up when the vehicle is dropped off.  But this is not always guaranteed and the rate may not be as good relative to other gas stations.

In most cases there is also a supplemental fee for separate location drop-off.  Be sure to get a quote on this fee before rental as the distance from the original location can determine how expensive this additional cost will be.

At edge of the ocean a compact four door rental car stands in front of a windswept and bare tree.

Renting a car allows you to get to locations you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach by public transit.

Driving to Your Tattoo Session

Driving a rental car to your Japanese tattoo appointment may help you avoid the difficulty of navigating public transit.  This may also be desirable if your artist’s studio is located away from your accommodations or any major stations.  Just be sure to plan ample travel time to find the shop and suitable parking.  Parking can be quite tricky depending on the location.

If you do plan on driving make sure you won’t be uncomfortable while driving after your irezumi session.  Bring comfortable clothes or padding if need be.

Hitchhiking, the Free Way to Rent a Car

Much like driving in Tokyo, you shouldn’t do this. It’s a great way to be unsafe and not go anywhere all at the same time.

Without, at the very least, a slightly better than basic command of the Japanese language I wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking.  If you’re an idiot like me than by all means that’s fine.

Hitchhiking is not at all common in Japan so you won’t get picked up anyway. But if you insist on ‘making your parents worry’ you’ll need to indicate where you’re going – writing the kanji characters for your destination on a sign of some sort. And you should have some small souvenir gifts (in Japanese, ‘omiyage’) from your home country as a present for your would be driver.

Actually if you have omiyage you should indicate it on the sign. You’ll definitely catch a ride then.