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Rent a car in Japan: info & things to know

In recent years, Japan has become increasingly popular as a tourist destination. However, this popularity has led to the problem of overcrowding in well-known locations. As a result, more and more people are choosing to sacrifice a few days of their classic itinerary in Japan in favor of less crowded destinations. Japan has the power to captivate us and create an irresistible desire to return and explore lesser-known, yet equally beautiful, places.

Because of this, I find myself increasingly organizing customized itineraries in Japan, both for myself and for others, that require renting a car to discover different areas of Japan and optimize time. While the train network is efficient between major cities, there are vast areas of Japan where having a car allows you to visit more places in less time, without the need to rely on local train and bus schedules.

While it is possible to visit places like the Japanese Alps also using public transportation, renting a car allows you to visit more stops and provides greater flexibility for accommodations, which are not always near train stations, especially traditional accommodations like ryokan. To visit the Iya Valley, renting a car is absolutely necessary, as there are only a couple of buses per day that cater more to locals than tourists.

I generally recommend renting a car in Japan to explore rural areas and locations outside of major cities that are well-served by public transportation. For long-distance travel between cities, it is advisable to use the Shinkansen bullet trains.

How to Rent a Car in Japan

To rent a car, all you need is a credit card and to book your chosen vehicle in advance online. I usually use Toyota Rental because I prefer to always use the same type of car (the Yaris), and they also have their website in English. However, I have to check each time if they have locations in the places I’m interested in. The same goes for Nippon-Rent-a-Car, but post-pandemic, they have significantly raised their prices, especially on the English website.

Once you have booked the car online, carefully selecting the date, time, and pickup/drop-off location, you just need to provide your name/booking number and show your passport, international driving license, and Italian driving license. In general, you pay the rental fee when you pick up the car. Upon return, you don’t have to pay anything, except possibly for tolls (if you use the ETC, a Japanese electronic toll collection system that I will talk about below) and gasoline if you haven’t refueled before returning.

Most cars allow you to connect your Google Maps via USB and display it on the car’s screen, which is a much simpler solution than the built-in navigator that is only in Japanese!

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Necessary Documents

To drive in Japan, you must be 18 years old and have an International Driving Permit based on the Geneva Convention of 1949 (the one with a validity of 1 year, the one with a validity of 3 years is NOT ACCEPTED). You should obtain it in your country of residence before arriving in Japan. Please check the procedure on how to obtain it from your country’s official website.

How Much Does Renting a Car in Japan Cost?

Compared to other Western countries, renting a car in Japan is not particularly expensive, and most importantly, no advance deposits are required in addition to the rental fee.

Base Rate & Insurance

Prices are divided into hourly blocks, generally 6-12-24 hours, which can be combined with each other (for example, 1 day + 6 hours, 2 and a half days, etc.). Each city has slightly different rates that also change depending on the season, with weekends and peak seasons being generally more expensive. The cost for a Yaris, which is the car we usually use, is around 10,000-12,000 yen for 24 hours, less than 80€ at the current exchange rate.

The rate includes unlimited km, taxes, and the minimum mandatory insurance that covers damages, accidents, and liability but does not cover additional expenses resulting from damage to the car.

Personally, I always recommend adding premium insurance for about ten bucks per day. This way, you don’t have to worry about what is included or not. The Japanese are very precise and not flexible at all, so it’s better to be safe and have maximum coverage for any eventuality. In the unfortunate event of an accident or even scratches against a wall (without involving other cars), immediately contact the car rental office for reporting, and you won’t have to pay any extra fees.

One Way Fee – Returning the Car to a Different Destination

It is often possible to pick up and drop off the car at different rental locations, but there is an additional cost, which varies depending on the area, generally ranging between 50 and 100€. However, this is generally more convenient than returning to the original pickup point and then traveling by high-speed train, which is usually quite expensive and, unless you are traveling alone, may end up being more expensive than the One-Way fee.

Sometimes, if the pickup and drop-off are in different locations but within the same area (for example, within Tokyo or in some cases within the same prefecture), no additional fee is charged.

Gasoline & Toll Roads

Gasoline in Japan is generally cheaper than Western countries, and most cars are hybrids, making fuel costs minimal. You will receive the car with a full tank, and remember to refuel shortly before returning it. This way, you won’t have to pay the higher fuel cost directly to the car rental company.

It is also possible to rent the ETC card, a card that is inserted into the provided reader and works as a toll road payment system. The rental cost is usually 330 JPY per car, and I personally recommend renting it if you plan to use the highways. By using Google Maps, you can check if the route is still feasible or if the travel time doubles without the ETC card. This way, you not only don’t need to have cash to pay at the toll booth, but you also pay a slightly reduced toll rate. You will pay the toll fees upon returning the car, and you will be presented with a usage summary.

Road Rules and Customs to Respect

In Japan, driving is on the left side, like in the UK. Roundabouts are not common, and the horizontal signage is always clear and visible, so you shouldn’t encounter major issues.

Speaking of horizontal signage, on multi-lane roads, it is crucial to position yourself correctly in the lane depending on the desired direction (straight or turn). Changing lanes at the last minute using the indicators is generally frowned upon if you realize you are in the wrong lane. It is better to follow the indicated direction and find an alternative route.

Another important point to note is the placement of traffic lights: they are typically positioned AFTER the intersection. Therefore, be careful not to stop under the intersection but instead, follow the horizontal signage and stop at the stop line.

The use of four-way flashers is to express gratitude, and don’t honk the horn!
When overtaking, it is necessary to use the indicators, especially because cars are equipped with sensors that emit a sound if you cross a white line without using them.

Regarding parking, it is customary to park “backwards,” meaning with the front of the car facing outward, ready to leave. Cars are usually parked this way and perfectly within the lines. Illegal or imprecise parking is strictly penalized.

In Japan, it is strictly prohibited to consume any amount of alcohol before driving, and they enforce this rule rigorously!

However, driving outside of cities is not complicated at all because everyone is attentive and respectful of the rules, and the roads are well-maintained. Renting a car in Japan is undoubtedly an excellent way to explore lesser-known areas and discover a different side of the country. If you have any other questions about driving in Japan, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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