Last Updated on November 30, 2021 by Nellie Huang
Planning a road trip in Japan? This guide to driving in Japan will get you prepared to hit the road!
There’s something special about road trips: the open road represents freedom and adventure. Alberto and I have always enjoyed exploring on two wheels, and even more so now that we have a daughter. Renting a car makes it so much easier to travel with our little one, especially when we want to explore the backcountry in places like Iceland and South Africa.
On our recent two-week trip to Japan, we decided to rent a car once again. We had traveled around by bullet train on our first trip to Japan almost 10 years ago, so it was time to do a road trip to experience a different side of the country!
Many people were surprised to hear we rented a car instead of taking the train to travel around Japan. But we absolutely loved it and highly recommend it especially if you’re traveling Japan with kids. Here’s a complete guide for those who are thinking of driving in Japan.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to Driving in Japan
- Is Driving in Japan Easy?
- Who Can Drive in Japan?
- Things to Know About Driving in Japan
- How to Rent a Car in Japan
- How to Get Insurance for Your Japan Road Trip
- Cost of a Road Trip in Japan
- Parking in Japan
- Renting a Car vs Buying the JR Pass
- When to Go on a Japan Road Trip
- Where to Stay on a Japan Road Trip
- Where to Eat on a Japan Road Trip
- Where to Refuel when Driving in Japan
- Final Tips for Driving in Japan
A Guide to Driving in Japan
We were glad we chose to rent a car in Japan, as it allowed us to explore Japan off the beaten path and go deep into the rural parts of Japan. While the Japanese public transport system is amazing and covers a large area, there are still some places (such as the Snow Monkey Park in Jigokudani) that are only accessible by car or foot.
This was our second trip to Japan — while we wanted to revisit some of the places we love (Kyoto), we also wanted to explore comfortably and explore some places that aren’t necessarily popular with travelers. My favorite spots in Japan are the villages and mountainous areas that cannot be easily reached by train, such as Shibu Onsen and Okuhida in the Japanese Alps.
Plus, renting a car makes traveling Japan with kids much easier and more convenient. Our daughter Kaleya walks everywhere now, but she still can’t cover long distances, so having a car is the best solution for us when we travel. Besides, renting a baby seat is surprisingly cheap in Japan (only cost us US$10 here while it cost $80 in Oman) and it was brand new, easy to use and very comfortable for Kaleya.
Is Driving in Japan Easy?
We were surprised by how easy it is to drive in Japan. Roads in Japan are in excellent conditions and easy to navigate. Most road signs are in both Japanese and English— though many warning signs like “Danger” are in Japanese. People in Japan are very well-mannered as you probably know, and that applies to drivers too. Everyone follows traffic rules and often give way to others.
Mind you, Alberto thinks it’s easy to drive in Japan as he has driven in many countries including South Africa, Indonesia, Poland, Oman, Jamaica, and Dominican Republic. So he’s accustomed to driving abroad and getting used to new traffic rules.
We could find our way easily using Google Maps since we had a mobile WiFi dongle. The rented car also had a navigation system which we used from time to time to save some data. It’s really affordable and convenient to rent a pocket WiFi router from the airport.
We rented our router from GetYourGuide for US$71 that provided us unlimited WiFi for two weeks. It was the cheapest deal we found online and we were pretty glad we could use the internet to find restaurants with good reviews or research on places to go.
Who Can Drive in Japan?
An international driver’s license is necessary to rent a car in Japan. You can easily get that in your home country before the trip as long as you have a driver’s license.
There are two places where you can obtain an international driver’s license: the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Automobile Club (NAC.) If you are offered a license from any other organization, it is likely this is a scam. Just complete a few simple steps and pay $15 in order to obtain this license.
You must present your valid driver’s license (issued at least 6 months prior), two passport photos and cash, check, or money order for the total fees, in order to obtain the license. The international license is valid for a period of one year.
Things to Know About Driving in Japan
In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s seat and steering wheel are on their right side. The legal minimum age for driving is 18 years. Drinking and driving is strictly prohibited. Road signs and rules follow international standards, and most signs on major roads are in Japanese and English.
The typical speed limits are 80 to 100 km/h on expressways, 40 km/h in urban areas, 30 km/h in side streets and 50 to 60 km/h elsewhere.
Road conditions are very good, although side streets in the cities can be rather narrow or even impassable to larger vehicles. Traffic congestion is common within city limits and it’s advisable to drive outside of major cities (although we found it wasn’t too bad driving around Tokyo).
How to Rent a Car in Japan
We booked our rental car online from Discover Car Hire and the cheapest deal was from Budget. For the entire two-week trip in Japan, we paid around US$565 for our two-week rental of a compact Japanese car including the insurance and US$10 for the baby seat. We picked it up and dropped it off at Narita Airport.
If you are concerned about not being able to speak Japanese, don’t worry. All the staff at our car rental company spoke English and their service was amazing. The staff even helped us put on the child seat, move our luggage onto the car and show us how to use the GPS system. They made sure that we were comfortable with driving the car before saying goodbye.
How to Get Insurance for Your Japan Road Trip
When renting a car, make sure to get Third Party Liability Insurance (TPL) which covers third party damage or loss in an accident. Our car rental included Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and Personal Accident Insurance (PAI).
I highly recommend getting travel insurance as well as it covers COVID-19 risks, personal loss, theft, and medical on top of damages that may incur on your camper van or vehicle in Iceland. With the harsh conditions and extreme weather, your camper can easily suffer from damages.
Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
Cost of a Road Trip in Japan
Renting a car in Japan isn’t extremely expensive — it’s the other costs like toll fees and parking that make it pricey. As mentioned, we paid US$565 for the car rental itself, but other fees added up to make the total amount double of that.
Toll fees in Japan
Tolls are the reason why I wouldn’t advise renting a car in Japan. They are extremely expensive and almost every highway we drove on required toll fees. Avoiding tolls would take a lot longer for us to get to our destination so we usually used the fastest route and paid the tolls.
I wouldn’t recommend driving the car in major cities as tolls within the cities made driving more expensive than using the subway. We only used it one day in Tokyo and totally regretted it.
Here are some examples of toll fees: the 1.5-hour drive from Tokyo to Hakone cost 3200 yen and the 4-hour drive from Jigokudani Snow Monkeys Park to Tokyo cost around 4500 yen.
TOTAL TOLL FEES: US$285
Having an ETC card allows you to pass the tolls much quicker. However, we were told that it is only available to Japan residents. There is a one-time 324 Yen ($3.24) rental charge and then you settle rest of the toll charges when you return the car.
You don’t need an ETC card to pay the tolls. Most tolls can be paid by cash or credit card. Just look out for the lane that says “一般” where you’ll be able to pay by card or cash. We did encounter one toll booth that didn’t take credit card and we unfortunately did not have any cash. The officer ended up giving us a ticket but we just gave it to our rental company and paid them for it.
Petrol in Japan
Gas is surprisingly cheap in Japan. The average price is 148 yen/liter (US$1.35/liter). It costs around 3200 yen ($29) to fill up our compact car and we pumped 4 times in the two weeks that we drove. It can be confusing to pump petrol in Japan at first, but the attendants are always more than happy to help.
TOTAL COST: US$30 x 4= $120
Parking in Japan
Parking fees are another killer for those who are driving. It is surprisingly easy to find parking everywhere, even in Tokyo, but it’s expensive. We were paying around 300-500 yen ($3-5) per hour of parking. Most carparks have a maximum limit of around 2000 yen ($18) per night. In contrast to taking the subway (where a day pass costs 900 yen or $8 per person), driving around a city is definitely more expensive than taking local transport. That’s why we chose to stay at hotels that offer free parking.
TOTAL COST OF PARKING: $150
To sum it all up, we spent the following on renting a car:
Car rental: $565
Toll fees: $285
GRAND TOTAL: $1120
Renting a Car vs Buying the JR Pass
Many travelers debate between renting a car or buying a Japan Rail Pass and taking the train all over Japan. So which is a better option for you?
This really depends on how many people you’re traveling with and if you have kids (and how old they are). For instance, if you are a family of four with kids older than 11, it will be cheaper to rent a car than buy four JR passes.
But if you’re traveling solo, then it might be better to get a JR Pass for unlimited travel on Japan Rail transportation (including bullet trains, local trains, buses, monorails and ferries). Getting a JR Pass will definitely save you money, as individual trains are super expensive.
The JR pass is free for kids under 6 years old. For kids between 6 and 11, the pass is half-priced.
Here are the adult prices for the JR Pass:
7 days — $267
14 days — $426
21 days — $545
When to Go on a Japan Road Trip
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are the most popular months to travel Japan due to the mild weather and moderate humidity. They’re also the best time to drive in Japan as there won’t be snow in the mountains and tourist spots are not too crowded.
We traveled to Japan in late September and still found many places quite crowded, particularly Kyoto. During our trip, we experienced mostly warm days of 21-25 deg C (70-77 F), with some rainy days during which the temperature dipped to 15 deg C (59 F). In the mountainous areas like Takayama and Nagano prefectures, temperatures ranged around 10-15 deg C (50-59 F), but a light jacket was enough.
It can get really hot and extremely humid in summer (June-August), which is best avoided. Winter (December-February) is pretty cold with temperatures dipping to freezing point. But Japan has lots of great ski stations and it’s a good time to see snow monkeys in Nagano. Try to avoid the cherry blossom season as places can get overcrowded. Each year, the sakura season varies (usually around April).
Where to Stay on a Japan Road Trip
Renting a car in Japan gives you the freedom to explore more rural parts of the country and stay in absolutely stunning spots. We’re very glad we decided to drive in Japan as we would have missed some of our favorite spots and hotels otherwise. Some ryokans and glamping sites are located in the mountains and away from access to public transport. We also made sure to find hotels/ryokans that had free parking spots to save money on parking.
Here are some of the hotels we recommend staying at if you’re planning a road trip around Japan.
Hakone Kowakien Tenyu
Opened in April 2017, this spectacular five-star hot spring resort is a worthwhile destination on its own and is best accessible by car. Read my detailed review of the best ryokan in Hakone. All of its rooms have tatami flooring, open-air stone bath and mountain views. Its beautiful garden is dotted with bonsai plants, waterfalls and even a Shinto shrine. The hotel also has an attached hot spring themed park that’s perfect for kids. Check latest rates here!
Fujino Kirameki Fujigotemba
Possibly the most family friendly hotel we stayed at in Japan, this glamping site has beautifully furnished cabins transformed from cargo containers and huge play areas for families to hang out. Each cabin is equipped with a fire pit, barbecue grill, hammock and even a jacuzzi. Best of all, it has a gorgeous setting high up above Gotemba, with Mount Fuji in the backdrop and a thick cypress tree forests surrounding it. Check the latest rates.
Located in the Okuhida hot spring village, this traditional ryokan is a charming little abode run by an old lady and her family. It’s actually reasonably priced for such a comfortable and traditional ryokan. It’s surrounded by mountains and the views from its open air onsen are spectacular. There are several good restaurants just walking distance from the ryokan. Staying here gave us the opportunity to experience a typical Japanese small town and also go on short hikes in the mountains. Check the latest rates.
Where to Eat on a Japan Road Trip
You can find good food everywhere in Japan — even at highway pitstops or roadside restaurants (pictured). We found that many of the highway pitstops had food halls with several different stalls to choose from. They are usually affordable, with a meal costing around 800-1500 yen per person. There’s usually free iced water or tea provided.
There’s also no shortage of convenience stores all over Japan, like 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson’s. They all have cheap and delicious yakitori (meat skewers), onigiri (triangular rice buns) and bento sets available.
For more details on what to eat in Japan, here is my detailed Japanese food guide with the best Japanese dishes to try. If you’re a Japanese food lover, you might like to check out this curated list of Japanese recipes.
Our Favorite Restaurants in Japan
- Sushi Dai, Tokyo — Located outside the famous Tsukiji Market, this is indisputably one of the best places to enjoy sushi in Tokyo. You’ll get an affordable taste of the freshest and finest seafood for only a fraction of the price of upmarket sushi restaurants. But it’s a tiny place and might not be suitable for those with strollers/babies. Reserve your table here!
- Kisoji, Tokyo — Our Japanese friend brought us to this shabu-shabu (hotpot) restaurant and we had some of the best wagyu beef I’ve had. You can book a tatami room and cook the shabu-shabu or sukiyaki yourself. Book a table here.
- Sakura Tei, Tokyo — We absolutely loved this restaurant chain that lets you make you own okonomiyaki and monjayaki (pan-fried pancake batter). It’s cheap and casual, and filled with character. Reserve a table here.
- Tenka Chaya, Kawaguchiko — While driving around the Mount Fuji area, we chanced upon this gorgeous roadside teahouse and had an amazing meal there. All of its tables are on tatami floor and the menu is traditional hot broth pot.
- Kaseidon Ichiba, Kanazawa — Inside the Omichi market, you’ll find the best spots to try fresh sashimi that the city is famous for. This place serves awesome salmon roe, oysters, scallops and outstanding sushi. Read reviews here!
- Sakaguchi-Ya, Takayama — Housed in a Samachi traditional building, this restaurant serves the famous Hida beef in the form of handrolled sushi or beef rice bowl. A little pricey but well worth for the quality food and atmosphere! Book a table here.
- Hokkyokusei, Kyoto — Right next to Yasaka Shrine is this cute ‘Western’ cafe that specialises in omurice (Japanese omelette rice), which is one of our favorite Japanese dishes. Kid-friendly and good service. See reviews here.
Where to Refuel when Driving in Japan
There’s no shortage of gas stations in Japan, regardless of where you’re driving. Most gas pumping kiosks only operate in Japanese language but they are all full service, meaning that they have uniformed attendants who will help to fill up your car, clean your windscreen, and check your tires. All of the stations we went to accepted foreign credit cards, and you usually pay straight at the pump without having to go inside the station.
If you are driving a rental car, you must return the vehicle with a full tank. Our car rental dealer asked us to pump at a particular gas station right before returning the vehicle and to bring the receipt from the gas station when returning it.
As of 2019, gasoline is around 148 yen a liter.
Final Tips for Driving in Japan
On an ending note, I just want to remind you that you’re in Japan to have fun! Don’t stress out when you see only Japanese signs, just follow what the other drivers are doing. People stick to traffic rules and there aren’t many aggressive drivers. Don’t honk unless it’s an emergency!
Keep in mind that you’re there to have fun and explore, so slow down and enjoy the beautiful country! I hope this guide to driving in Japan has been useful. Feel free to leave me any questions or comments you may have below.
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