25 Oct Renting a car and driving in Japan
We chose to rent a car and drive in Japan as it seemed an easier option for getting to some places with a toddler. Japan has an excellent transport system and we take advantage of this most of the time. When travelling with a toddler however, even some simple routes can seem challenging. We looked at a driving route as a chance to relax a little more. No checking timetables, rushing to meet trains, disturbing nap times or entertaining toddlers for long journeys. Fletcher slept well in the back of the car, leaving us some quiet time to chat.
Having a car also gave us more freedom in where we could go and what we could see. On our first Japan trip we drove Nagoya to Takayama with a detour to Inuyama Castle. From Takayama we drove to Shirakawa-go, a route served by bus. We also included a drive along the Hakusan White Road, a scenic road winding through mountains. For our second trip to Japan we rented a car to drive around.Mt. Fuji over two days. We saw each of the Fuji Five Lakes as well as other places including the Shiraito Falls. Our time driving in Japan has been a highlight of both trips. The only reason we didn’t hire a car on our recent Japan trip was because their were too many of us to fit in one.
Booking a rental car in Japan
There are many car rental companies in Japan as well as third-party booking companies. It was Tim’s job to book the rental car and he ended up making the booking through third-party website Japan experience as it had a more simplified process. We wouldn’t need a large car, as long as it could fit our luggage and a car seat. Many of the streets around Japan are very narrow so it made sense to choose something smaller. The rental company was Nissan Rent-a-car and the car we chose was a March. We added on an English GPS and a child seat at an extra fee each. We received email notification of the booking registration from Japan Experience, which was followed by a confirmation from Nissan Rent-a-car. The next trip we booked through Nissan Rent-a-car directly.
- You will need an international drivers license.
- Check the rental company has an outlet in your desired location.
- A fee will be charged for drop off in a different location.
- Choose a car size you are comfortable driving in narrow streets but make sure your luggage will fit.
- Pay the extra fee for an English GPS. It was great and easy to follow.
- Add child car seats to your booking if needed.
- Bring a printout of your booking to pick up.
Picking up the rental car
Find out where the outlet is and how to get there. Both our outlets were close to the Shinkansen exits of the station. I google street viewed the route so we knew which direction to walk in. Have your booking, passport and international driving permit ready. After the paperwork is done, you will be taken to the car. First the vehicle will be checked for any damage and a list checked off in front of you. If you have a child seat ordered you will be asked to check it. They will make sure your child is correctly fitted and show you how it works. Attendants will help load your luggage into the vehicle. Our first trip we over-packed and they were laughing as we made it all fit.
Lastly, you will be asked to sit in the car as they explain the GPS system and other functions of the car. They will ask if you understand, wakarimasu ka is do you understand? in Japanese. You will then be sent on your way with a bow.
Driving in Japan
In Japan cars drive on the left side of the road. This made it easy for us coming from Australia as we also drive on the left. It is not recommended that you drive in or around any of the major cities. It really isn’t necessary as there are great connections via public transport. We picked up our first rental car in Nagoya and had some trouble finding the entrance to the expressway. Luckily it was mid-morning so traffic was low.
Driving in Japan is pretty simple and straightforward. The roads are well maintained and signs are in English and Romaji. Japanese drivers are polite and follow the road rules. The only exception to this is the speed limit. The speed limits are set quite low even on the expressways and nobody follows them. You are stuck with whether to follow the limit or go with the traffic flow. A driver tooted their horn at Tim as we came into a country road and slowed down.
The roads through the Japanese Alps include many tunnels going through mountains. One we went through stretched for 11km. When not passing through tunnels the roads usually offer great scenery of little towns and farms below.
Using the GPS
When booking our rental car for Japan we paid the extra fee for an English GPS. The map remains in Japanese but the menu and sound guidance are in English. We input phone numbers for our destinations. Most of the time this was easy to do. We looked up places we wanted to go and made notes of the phone numbers. Sometimes, I had to pick a place nearby because things like lakes don’t have phone numbers. I often used google maps to double-check we had the right route before setting off. The GPS can also be used by inputting map codes.
We ran into some trouble twice but they were both easily overcome. The first was when our WiFi device didn’t have enough reception and I didn’t have the phone number of our ryokan written down. I had assumed it would be on my confirmation but it wasn’t. Tim saved us by remembering that I had already entered it in before our detour and was able to retrieve it through past trips. The second was when the GPS decided to reset itself back to the Japanese menu. Tim remembered some of the buttons and after fiddling with the system for a few minutes, he had it set back to English. Nissan rent a car say they have a manual available so it may be worth asking for it.
Most of the driving between towns is on expressways which are tolled. The toll gates are clearly marked overhead with cash, ETC or both. ETC is an Electronic Toll Collection card. The cards allow drivers to pass through the toll gates without stopping. Some Japanese rental car companies have started renting out the cards to foreign customers. They are only available at limited outlets.
We used cash, which meant taking a ticket upon entering the expressway. When exiting, hand the ticket to the attendant along with cash and continue on your way. We never had to wait in line for the toll gates.
I had snapped a photo when passing a fuel station so I could look up what word was unleaded, so that we would get the right one at a self-serve station. A lot of fuel stations in Japan are full service and we weren’t too confident in our abilities to say that we needed unleaded fuel and to fill it up. Here is a great PDF on Japanese fuel stations, it would have been handy at the time.
During both our driving trips the fuel from pick-up lasted remarkably well. The first time we dropped the rental car off in Nagoya. Tim wasn’t too keen on driving around the city to find fuel. We decided to skip the stress, return the car and cop whatever the surcharge was for not returning with a full tank. It turned out to be a very reasonable $40 (AUD), which is what it would have cost us to fill up anyway. Our next trip, dropping off in Shizuoka, we were lazy and opted for the surcharge again. It was a lot more this time and we could have easily went to a fuel station in the smaller city.
Notes for driving in Japan
- Pay attention to enter the correct toll gate.
- Have cash ready for the toll booth.
- Have phone numbers for destinations written down, to enter into GPS.
- Be aware that most drivers don’t follow the speed limits.
- Check the road rules and road signs before your drive.
- Don’t rent an over-sized car, unless you’re comfortable driving it down narrow roads.
- Enjoy, it’s a great experience.
We loved having a rental car, even for just a short time. Driving in Japan was such a great way to be able to see a lot of places that would have been difficult to get to (with a toddler) otherwise.
On our next trip to Japan, we would love to rent a car and explore a new area.