Cars and driving in Japan

Japanese cities have some of the best and busiest public transport systems in the world and so many urban residents don’t own a car or even a driving license. Those who live in the country, however, tend to rely on cars despite the extent of the Japanese railway network.

Japan Street
Photo by nicolacassa

Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan can be complicated and expensive. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs, highway tolls are often very high (tolls for one route from Tōkyō to Kyōto costs in excess of 50USD), city traffic congested, and there is virtually no roadside parking. If you plan to drive to remote areas, it is advisable that you purchase a reliable English-Japanese road atlas, such as those published by Shobunsha and Kodansha.

In order to drive a car in Japan you must possess a Japanese driving license or an international driving permit (IDP) based on the Geneva Convention of 1949. Some countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Taiwan issue driving permits based on different conventions, but a certified translation of these may still be accepted. Please check with your local embassy or automobile association when applying.

‘Residents’ are expected to convert their IDP or obtain a Japanese drivers license. Persons using an international license who are resident in Japan can be subject to fines or arrest. The exact boundary between ‘resident’ and ‘not resident’ is unclear. In practice, it seems to involve more than simply visa status or length of stay in Japan and is determined by the police.

If you hold a driving license from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom, you can obtain a Japanese driving license without taking a written or practical exam.

Distances Japanese cities

If you have a driver’s license from a country which does not have an agreement with Japan, you will have to take a written and practical exam which is expensive and notoriously difficult even for experienced drivers.

The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18 years, cars are driven on the left, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is strictly prohibited (it is also illegal to be a passenger in a car with the knowledge that the driver is under the influence of alcohol). The typical speed limits are 70–100 km/h on highways and 40–60 km/h in urban areas. Japanese drivers tend to be well mannered and pedestrians considerate but do pay attention to cyclists who may be driving on the wrong side of the road.

It’s really worth investigating Japanese road-signs and familiarising yourself with some of the words and kanji that you are likely to encounter (右 and 左 often appear to indicate left and right, 止まれ is used to indicate that you must stop, and so on). This kind of basic knowledge can vastly increase your safety and competence when driving in Japan.

Renting a car

If you are planning to explore rural Japan, and especially if you are traveling in a group, renting a car may be a convenient and cost-effective alternative to public transport.

There are hundreds of rental outlets across Japan, operated by a number of different rental companies (e.g. Toyota Rentacar, Mazda Rentacar, Nissan Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar and Orix Rentacar). Depending on the size of the car, Japanese rental companies usually charge between ¥6,000 and ¥15,000 per day, but the rates may be higher during peak seasons.

Most of the Japanese rental companies do not provide websites or service in English and so if you don’t know the Japanese language, you may choose to go with one of the international car rental companies such as Hertz but their rates are usually not very competitive.

Owning a car

Cars in Japan are relatively inexpensive and smaller cars sell for less than a million yen. Owning a car, however, can be expensive due to numerous taxes, biannual compulsory car inspection, insurance, high parking cost, and other car running costs. Acquiring a car can be difficult if you don’t know the Japanese language and so it is advisable that you do it through a car dealer.

Shijo Avenue taxis, Gion, Kyoto, Japan
Photo by miguelmichan

Japanese taxi cabs

Taxis in Japan are most pleasurable to use; the service is generally one of excellence. They wait around the places that you’d expect, such as train stations, and they can of course just be flagged down. You can tell so by a small light which is coded red for ‘for hire’ and green for ‘occupied’ (yes, the exact opposite of international conventions). Taxis are most affordable for short journeys but think carefully about taking one for a longer journey, especially ones with toll roads as all of the charges are passed onto you, and you may get a nasty shock when you see the price.

Give clear instructions to the taxi driver, even better if you can provide a postcode or written address so that there is no chance of misunderstanding (the Japanese address system can be confusing even to local drivers). Do feel free to ask the driver to adjust things like the windows or air-conditioning. They are usually most obliging.

Equally, if there is a television in the taxi (and these are becoming more common), do feel free to use it as there is no extra charge involved. Unfortunately, karaoke taxis, although in existence, are not the norm. The taxi doors open automatically so do not force them yourself, as they can break. When paying, do not expect to give a tip—it is just not the done thing.

One last note about taxis is that if you can afford it, pre-booking a taxi driver with good English and a good knowledge of the local area can be a brilliant way to explore the surroundings. Specifically ask for one with experience of doing private tours and agree on a number of hours that you would like to book the taxi for. Although expensive, this is particularly recommended for Kyōto, where public transport is relatively poor owing to the ancient infrastructure.

What has been your driving experience in Japan? Have you had a pleasurable rental experience, or a taxi journey of note? Let me know below!

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+Philip Seyfi is a Russian independent strategy consultant and entrepreneur, author of NihongoUp, and co-founder & CEO of EduLift.

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