From centuries-old cherry blossom trees to castles, tranquil temples and more, Japan’s incredible tourist sites and landmarks are world-famous. Coming to this country and visit these places that we could only see in magazines certainly makes for an amazing vacation.
What most people don’t realize, though, is that Japan has much more hidden beauty than one could expect and it’s in its landscapes, country roads, beaches, and mountains. The problem is that many of these places are somewhat difficult to reach with public transportation alone. In fact, while Japan’s subway (metro) and train systems are among the best in the world, when it comes to reaching rural areas the easiest way to do it is by car.
So why not spend some of your holiday driving around some of the most beautiful nature, hidden temples and more you’ll ever see? Follow along as we share 10 things you’ll want to know before you drive in Japan.
1. Familiarize yourself with the signs before you go
When people think about driving in Japan they usually get overwhelmed by a number of legitimate fears about how to get around, read street signs, manage driving in places that they don’t know. While it’s understandable to have these worries, after a closer look you’ll realize that it’s not that hard after all.
Granted the names of locations and of roads might look rather complicated to many people, but other than that, signs are not very different from the ones you may be used to. Road signs indicating places are almost always written in both Japanese and English, making it pretty easy for most people to navigate.
There are, however, certain signs with meanings that you might not immediately intuit. One notable exception for American drivers is the Japanese “stop” sign which resembles the U.S. “yield”.
Some other special signs are as follows:
1- Slow down
2- Road closed to vehicles
3- No entry
4- Motor vehicles only
2. What side of the road do we drive in Japan?
In Japan you will keep the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. For drivers visiting from the U.K., Australia, Honk Kong and a few other countries, this presents no change from their respective countries.
For people coming from most countries in Europe, the Americas, and Asia this means that in Japan you’ll have to drive on the opposite side and everything within the car is a “mirror image” of what you are probably used to (with the exception of the position of the brakes and accelerator pedals). (One simple tip is to always remember that the driver is on the same side as the line dividing road lanes.)
While this may feel troublesome for some people, you’ll likely get used to it after just a few hours. To make matters better, Japanese cars, by and large, are equipped with automatic transmission, so you won’t have to worry about shifting gears with “the other hand”.
3. Speed limits in Japan
Let’s start by saying that, compared to many other countries, most Japanese drivers religiously respect the speed limits both in city roads, and on the highway. The speed limit in urban areas is 30-50km/h (depending on the roads), and typically 80km/h in rural areas. On the highway the speed limit is 100km/h.
4. Head into the countryside! Highways in Japan
While most roads and expressways in Japan are toll free (Tokyo’s ones being an exception), highways are not necessarily so.
Highway access signs are green and rectangular.
Similarly to many other countries in the world, the toll depends on the distance you drove on the highway, and you’ll have to pay as you exit it.
Entering the highway you’ll collect a ticket from a usually unmanned station. This ticket will need to be presented at the exit gate where you will pay your fare. If the car you rent is equipped with the so called ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) card, you will instead be able to use separate gates for access and exit to the highway, without needing to stop. The ETC card needs to be linked to a credit card that will be charged with the highway fares; ask your rental agency for details and additional instructions.
ETC cards can also be rented, making your road trips across Japan much smoother. Please note that regular gates are marked in green (presenting the kanji for “cash”) and the ETC ones are marked with a purple sign reading “ETC”.
Highways in Japan have many rest, gas, and restoration stops, many of which are state of the art. These rest areas also tend to have shops which retail regional produce and other products, making them a unique chance to sample local treasures. Definitely give them a go and take your trip slowly and safely when in need to drive for long periods of time.
5. In case of emergency
If you rent a vehicle, chances are that it will come with an insurance and a 24/7 emergency number should you have a problem with the car, or get in an accident. In the off chance that is not the case, you will notice on highways and expressways frequent “emergency stations” from where you’ll be able to get in touch with and communicate your location to road services with the push of a button.
For medical assistance, dial 119; for police, dial 110.
There are 3 main kinds of gas for vehicles used in Japan: diesel, regular, high octane.
Diesel pumps are green or gray, regular gas pumps are red, and high octane ones are yellow. If in doubt, never go for the cheapest option unless you know your vehicle is diesel.
Prices for gas change from prefecture to prefecture. Furthermore it’s important to notice that the prices you see on the lightboards by the gas stations refer only to customers with member cards. If you don’t have one, you’ll need to add a few yen/liter to the price that you see on the boards.
How to fill up in Japan
Most gas stations have instructions only in Japanese. The good news is that the steps to put gas in the tank are always the same (of course if you’re not using a self-service station you’ll only need to tell the service person your needed amount and type of gas).
1) Select “fill the tank” (uppermost option) or “select amount”.
2) Input amount, if needed.
3) Choose method of payment (card, or cash)
4) Here there’s a step that doesn’t often appear in many other countries: the monitor will prompt you to touch a panel on the machine which will prevent potential static when touching the pump.
5) Refuel your vehicle.
If you inserted more money than you eventually need, the machine will give you your change once you re-holster the pump.
7. Some different rules to pay attention to
Japan may have rules that are a little different from what you may be used to in your country.
a. No “right on red”
For example, unlike in the United States, you cannot turn right (or left) on a red traffic light.
You can, though, once the traffic light turns green, drive towards the center of the road in preparation for the turn. You will have to wait for a green light giving you way to turn, or for the flow of cars coming from the opposite direction to stop.
b. Come to a complete stop at railroad crossing
One thing that most drivers might not be familiar with is that in Japan, regardless of whether a sign is present by a railroad, one must come to a full stop before crossing the tracks, even when the bar is up and there are no trains approaching. (Japanese police are actually very strict when it comes to this rule.)
c. Only those with a valid permit and license can drive
We’ll talk more about driver’s permits in Japan, but it’s very important to remember that driving without a driver’s license (or a non-valid driver’s license) in Japan is punishable with a fine of up to 300,000 yen and up to 1 year imprisonment.
d. Under no circumstances can you drink and drive
While drinking and driving is rightful severely punished almost everywhere in the world, Japan is particularly strict on this matter. Even just a few sips of light alcohol will show as way past the limit on a breathalyzer. Do not ever get behind the wheel if you drink any amount of alcohol. Not only can you endanger yourself and others, but you can also face extreme legal consequences.
8. How to prepare for a road trip in Japan
a. Check if your rental car has a navi
Most rental cars in Japan will come with GPS navigation; make sure your car has a navigation system that you can understand. Most modern ones have several language options, but the older models might be only in Japanese. If you rent a car, make sure to ask to have your GPS (referred to as a “navi”) set up in your language of choice.
b. Book your hotel in advance
If you decided that you’re going to go on a long road trip across the country, chances are you’ll want to visit many places (and you should!). Before you leave, though, make sure to book your hotels in advance, to avoid surprises.
c. Plan your trip ahead
There’s so much to see and so many places to visit that you may end up not seeing all you would like to, if you don’t make a good plan. Spend a few days to decide which areas are more worth visiting during your trip and remember to take into account the time you’ll need to get there (and to rest!).
9. What documents will you need to drive in Japan?
When it comes to what kind of documents and license you need to drive in Japan, things require a little bit of attention, since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for foreigners driving in this country.
a. International drivers licenses come in different types.
Not all countries can issue an international driver’s license valid in Japan. If your international license was issued by a country affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention, then you will be able to drive in Japan with it. It’s sometimes confusing for people because many other countries are affiliated to the 1969 Vienna Convention to which Japan is not affiliated.
While the international permits look very similar, Japan is extremely strict when it comes to international regulations, so make sure you first find out whether your country issues an international permit recognized in Japan.
For drivers whose license was issued by countries affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention
In order to drive in Japan you will need your international driver’s license, your passport, and your home country driver’s license.
You may use your international permit for up to one year (starting from the date it was issued) in Japan. After one year elapses you’ll need to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.
For drivers whose license was not issued by countries affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention
You’ll need your home country’s driver’s license, your passport, and an official Japanese translation of your driver’s license.
The translation can be procured through JAF (Japanese Automobile Association).
In order to rent a car you’ll need to present all this documentation.
For drivers whose license was issued by countries NOT affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention AND which do not have an agreement with Japan regarding official translation for driver’s licenses
Unfortunately, in this scenario you will not be able to rent a car, or drive in Japan.
NOTE: in order to be sure to which group your driver’s license belongs, contact your closest Japanese Embassy.
b. Renting a car in Japan
Once you have all your documents in order, you may want to finally rent a car!
All major Japanese rental companies (such as Toyota Rent a Car, Nissan Rent a Car, Times Car Rental) have websites in Japanese, English, and Mandarin Chinese (and often other languages).
Booking online is recommended.
Remember that usually bigger rental companies, while massively more convenient in terms of pick up and drop off locations (as well as availability), can be a little pricier than their smaller counterparts.
10. Some little-known Japan-specific things to know when driving in Japan
a. Japan has many very narrow two-way roads, especially in cities
Unlike in many European and North American countries, one-way roads are somewhat less frequent in Japan. Yet very narrow streets are extremely easy to encounter. You may think that roads so narrow that can barely fit a car would be one-way. More often than not you’d be mistaken. You’ll have to be extremely careful in these instances. Whenever encountering a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, custom dictates that both drivers get as close as possible to their side of the road, or one will let the other pass, by stopping in an opening.
b. Flashing hazard lights to thank other drivers
Japanese drivers customarily thank other drivers by using the emergency blinkers (they turn them on for a couple of seconds). If you want to thank a driver who is not behind your car, a small head bow or wave will also suffice.
c. Watch for road construction – with human-looking signs
Roads in Japan are extremely well kempt. Highways are certainly no exception.
For this reason it’s not uncommon to encounter work-in-progress areas on the highway. The signs that warn you of the works ahead are pretty standard with the exception of one.
You will often see a human sized moving sign in the shape of a worker waving its “arm” holding a red light. These signs are positioned very close to the traffic lanes and could scare more than a few drivers, since, especially at night, these signs can look like a real worker being way to close to speeding cars.
d. Get ready for the yellow lights
Japanese drivers tend to play it a little loosely with the yellow on the traffic light. They should slow down and safely come to a halt, but, often, they will instead suddenly speed up trying to beat the red (and sometimes failing, which causes cars to cross an intersection well after the traffic light switches to red). Make sure you pay attention, and don’t join in the “speeding for yellow” craze!
d. Motorcycles and bicycles are all around
Be aware that laws regarding how motorcycles may operate in lanes may be different in Japan. Especially when turning, be careful of motorcycles and scooters approaching quickly in your lane.
e. No cell phones while driving
f. Where to park
Parking in Japan is not too hard (with the exception of some areas in the major cities). White lines marking a parking spot mean that you can park your vehicle for free.
In other cases you’ll need to pay a certain amount/3-10 minutes. The cost changes massively depending on the city (Tokyo being by far the most outrageously expensive one), and the area within the city.
Some parking lots operate with moving platforms that send your cars in a beehive-type of arrangement. These parking lots have restrictions when it comes to the size of cars they accept. Generally even small SUVs cannot be parked in there.
g. Japan has some unique signs
Alongside the universal signs, you will encounter signs warning you of animals which may cross the road (these include boar, deer, and monkeys!). These signs are yellow and of rhomboid shape.
h. What’s that sticker mean? Japan also has special stickers for vehicles
Cars may carry stickers for beginner drivers, elderly, or differently abled people. In Japan these are image and color-coded.
h. Don’t fret if you see police lights approaching
Police cars in Japan always have their flashing lights on. Unless you hear sirens, if you see police lights approaching, that doesn’t mean that they want you to pull over, or that you’re doing something wrong.
Now you're pretty much set to drive in Japan and enjoy one of the most amazing road trips you’ll ever undertake! While this article is intended to give an overview of the major points to know before driving in Japan, if you are curious to learn more about the rules of the road and more, check out the Japanese Automobile Federation’s website (http://www.jaf.or.jp), which provides a large amount of related information in English.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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