For travel to rural areas a car is the best way to get around, especially for two or more people. Areas that are great for exploration by car include: Hokkaidō; Tōhoku; Hida, Shirakawa-gō, the Japan Alps and the Noto Peninsula (Central Honshū), the San-in Coast (Western Honshū); Shikoku; Kyūshū; and Okinawa.
Navigation systems have made driving in Japan much easier than it used to be. In remote mountain areas, however, these are not fool-proof; be sure to give yourself plenty of time to find your destination.
For intercity travel, it's hard to compete with the trains – after taking into account expressway tolls, city traffic and parking.
If you're a member of an automobile association in your home country, you're eligible for reciprocal rights with the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF; www.jaf.or.jp)
Prices are largely comparable among all agencies: from around ¥7000 per day for a compact car, with reductions for rentals of more than one day.
The following rental agencies have large networks around Japan; vehicles with English-language navigation systems; and ETC cards for rent. Bookings can be completed online in English.
Agencies located at major international airports are most likely to have English-speaking staff. If you walk into a rental shop where the staff don't speak English, the best thing to do is first show them your international licence: whether or not you have a valid licence will be the primary concern.
Hiring a motorcycle for long-distance touring is not as easy as hiring a car. Rental 819 (www.rental819.com) is one of the few agencies that makes it possible to book in English. Crash helmets are compulsory for motorcyclists in Japan.
Scooter rentals are common on smaller islands; you'll still need an international licence (though not a motorcycle licence) to rent one of these.
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Travellers from most nations are able to drive (both cars and motorcycles) in Japan with an International Driving Permit backed up by their own regular licence. The International Driving Permit is issued by your national automobile association. Make sure it is endorsed for cars and motorcycles if you're licensed for both.
Travellers from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco, Estonia and Taiwan need to get an authorised translation of their licence (be sure to carry the original with you too). JAF branches do same-day translations for ¥3000.
Foreign licences and International Driving Permits are only valid in Japan for one year. If you are staying longer, you will have to get a Japanese licence from the local department of motor vehicles.
Japan has an extensive, well-maintained expressway system. Expressways are numbered as well as named (the numbers are new and most locals know the roads only by name). Interchanges and exits are signposted in English, but make sure you know the name of your exit as it may not necessarily be the same as your destination.
Tolls are calculated at ¥24.60 per kilometre (plus a base fare and surcharges for some tunnels). Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, will cost about ¥10,500 in tolls. It adds up quickly: if you are going to be covering a lot of ground, it makes sense to get one of the expressway passes offered to foreign tourists.
Expressway toll booths accept credit cards; others will take only cash. Staffed toll booths will be marked in green with the characters 一般 (ippan) for drivers without ETC cards; automated ETC booths are marked ETC.
ETC cards (www.go-etc.jp), fitted into a reader inside the car, allow drivers to pass through the automated toll booths at 20km/h without stopping. The cards also save money: tolls for ETC users can be up to 30% less than standard tolls (depending on the time of day and distance travelled).
Rental cars have ETC card readers and major agencies will rent the cards for a small fee; you'll be presented with a bill for your tolls when you return the car.
These can save money if you plan to cover a lot of ground in a short time by relying on expressways to get around; they're less useful if you prefer to take more scenic roads.
Japan Expressway Pass (https://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/jep) Seven-/14-day ¥20,000/34,000; covers the whole expressway system except for Hokkaidō, the Tokyo and Osaka metro areas and the bridges between Honshū and Shikoku.
Hokkaidō Expressway Pass (www.driveplaza.com/trip/drawari/hokkaido_expass/en.html) Available from two-day (¥3600) to 14-day (¥11,300); good for all Hokkaidō expressways.
Kyūshū Expressway Pass (http://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/kep) Available from two-day (¥3500) to 10-day (¥11,500); good for all Kyūshū expressways.
Petrol stations can be found in almost every town and in service stations along the expressways. Petrol usually costs around ¥130 per litre for regular grade. Credit cards are accepted everywhere.
While self-serve petrol stations are increasing in number, full-service stations are still the most common.
To say 'fill ’er up' in Japanese, it's mantan (full tank). You will likely be asked how you intend to pay: Oshiharai ha dono yō ni saremasu ka? (How would you like to pay?) The two possible answers are genkin (cash) or kaado (credit card). Full service costs slightly more, but the service is excellent: staff will take any garbage you have, wipe your windshield inside and out and then wave you back into the traffic.
If you use a self service pump: the red pump is regular, the yellow is high-octane, and green is diesel.
Mandatory coverage is included in the cost of the rental car and usually comes with a deductible fee of around ¥50,000. For an extra fee (about ¥1000 per day) you can add on extra coverage that includes the cost of the deductible as well.
Kodansha's Japan Atlas: A Bilingual Guide has maps labelled in English and kanji.
Rental cars come equipped with satellite navigation systems that are generally very reliable; major agencies offer ones that have an English function. Japanese addresses can be confusing, so the best way to set your destination is to input the phone number. Many tourist organisations now also provide pamphlets with 'map codes' for major destinations, which you can use in car navigation systems.
In larger cities (like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto) parking is expensive and largely confined to car parks where you might pay anywhere from ¥300 to ¥600 per hour; metered street parking is rare in Japan. Car parks are easy to spot, as signs sport a big 'P' on them. Not all big city hotels have car parks; when they do, expect to pay from ¥500 to ¥1500 per night (the larger the city, the higher the cost).
In smaller cities and in the countryside, where locals rely on cars, parking is generally plentiful and free. Some sights will still charge for parking, often about ¥500 per day.
There are regular service areas (SA) and parking areas (PA) along national expressways; the former usually have more amenities, including petrol, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Only some are open 24 hours, but even those that aren't will always have a clean, well-lit restroom open for travellers.
Country roads have their own rest stops, called michi-no-eki (道の駅; road stations). In addition to toilets, these have restaurants or cafes run by community members and sometimes local produce and crafts for sale (but no petrol). For a list, see www.michi-no-eki.jp.
Japanese roads are generally in excellent condition. You're far more likely to encounter roadworks in progress than a road in need of repair. Bear in mind that mountain roads tend to be narrow, as are many in the cities (where you'll also have to contend with one-way streets).
Winter driving in Japan can be treacherous if you don't have experience with snow and ice. Snow is possible in higher elevations as early as November (October in Hokkaidō) and may keep mountain passes closed as late as April, and while roads are signposted in English, weather warnings and road closures typically aren't. If you're driving through the mountains in winter, have someone (perhaps at your accommodation) check your route to make sure it's feasible under current conditions.
Car rental agencies rent vehicles with chains and snow tyres or four-wheel drive. Petrol stations in mountain areas will usually put the chains on for a charge (¥1000 to ¥2000). There may be police stops in these areas to make sure that cars have chains.