Thanks to the efficient, reliable and affordable public transportation systems in urban areas that tourists are most likely to visit, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Kansai region, the majority of tourists to Japan are unlikely to need or want to rent a car.

However, if you are intending to visit more remote regions where there is less public transportation coverage, then hiring a car can be the best idea to ensure a hassle-free holiday. These include Hokkaido in the north, smaller islands such as Shikoku and Okinawa, and mountainous areas on the Japanese mainland such as the Tohoku region and the Chubu region.

Because of urban traffic congestion, driving within Japan's major cities is not recommended as the best way for foreign visitors to get around. However, driving between cities or regions is a viable alternative to public transportation if you are a family or group, have a lot of luggage, or just prefer the flexibility that driving can give you.

Kagoshima City

Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan may be less challenging for drivers from the UK than many other European countries, as in Japan too cars drive on the left side of the road. Roads are well-maintained and signposted, although side streets in residential areas in the cities in particular can be very narrow and may be impassable for larger vehicles.

Road signs on most major roads are in both Japanese and English; in rural areas, however, this may not be the case. If you are planning to drive in more remote areas, it is advisable to equip yourself with an English-language GPS or purchase a reliable English-Japanese road atlas before you depart; these are published by major Japanese publishing companies.

Typical speed limits are 80 to 100 km/h (50-60 mph) on expressways, 40 km/h (25 mph) in urban areas, 30 km/h (20 mph) in side streets and 50 to 60 km/h (3-40 mph) elsewhere, although in practice, people often drive somewhat over the posted speed limits.

Driving Licence

An international driving licence is required to drive in Japan.

If you wish to drive a car while in Japan, you must obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) prior to departure - they cannot be issued once you are in Japan. You will also need to be in possession of your UK driving license at all times while driving in Japan, in case you are asked to show it.

International Driving Permits can be obtained at certain post offices around the UK. You will need to take a passport sized photo, proof of your address and your UK driving license with you to apply. Find more details on the Post Office's website.

Car mechanics

Car Rental

You will be required to show your International Driving Permit (IDP) when renting a car in Japan. Rental prices vary from company to company, so it is worth shopping around. Average rates for 24 hours rental with unlimited mileage, taxes and insurance are as follows (rental charges do not include fuel costs, tolls, etc.): around 5000 yen for sub-compact cars, 7500 yen for compact cars, 10,000 yen for mid-sized cars, 15,000 for full-sized cars and more for larger vehicles such as vans and camper vans. Cars should usually be returned with a full tank of petrol.

Rental Companies

Companies offering vehicle rental at various locations throughout Japan include:

Japan Experience Car Rental & Self-Drive Holidays www.japan-experience.com UK - Tel: 020 3514 6932

They offer English online reservation form, in-car GPS, and roadside support.

Toyota Rent a Car rent.toyota.co.jp

Nippon Rent-A-Car www.freeroad.co.jp 

Orix Rentacar www.car.orix.co.jp

Times Car Rental (formerly Mazda Car Rental) www.timescar-rental.com 

Nissan Rentacar www.nissan-rentacar.com

Some international car rental companies also operate in Japan:

Budget www.budget.com UK - Tel: 08701 565 656

Avis www.avis.com

Hertz www.hertz.com UK - Tel: 08708 44 88 44

Mazda showroom

Petrol Stations

A litre of regular petrol costs roughly 130 Yen (0.95p) (as of March 2017). Petrol stations in Japan are either “full service” or “self service”.

At a full service station, attendants usually direct you to a free space. Once you’ve parked, switch off the engine and open your window. Tell the attendant what kind of petrol you want, how much, and how you want to pay. While your tank is being filled, attendants will usually take any unwanted litter from you and give your headlights and wing mirrors a quick wipe. At the end, they may ask you where you are going and escort you out of the correct exit from the forecourt.

The number of self-service stations has increased considerably in recent years. Self-service station pumps usually only have menus and instructions in Japanese, but there should be an attendant on hand to help you if you cannot figure it out.

 

Parking

In small towns and the countryside, parking is often free. Hotels in the countryside often provide free parking for guests, while urban hotels may offer parking at a flat fee per car. Car parks near tourist attractions often charge a flat fee (200-500 Yen per use). Parking in large cities such as Tokyo is expensive, costing several thousands of Yen per hour.

Most public car parks operate on a slightly different system to pay & display car parks in the UK. Once you have driven in and parked in an empty space, a low metal barrier under the car rises up to prevent the car from leaving without paying. 

When you want to leave, go to the machine (usually only in Japanese), type in the parking space number and pay the fee. (Most machines only accept 1000 Yen notes.) The barrier will lower and you can leave.

Toll Roads

Most roads in Japan are toll-free with the exception of expressways (Japan's motorways) and some scenic driving routes. Toll charges depend on how far you travel on the toll road. On longer journeys, they can become quite expensive, meaning that often the cost of driving is similar to taking the train. With some forward planning, in many cases it is often possible to avoid or reduce the use of toll roads.

ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) is a standardized nationwide system used to collect toll charges from drivers automatically. After its introduction in the early 1990s, it is now available on almost all toll roads across Japan, and provides a quicker and easier way of paying at toll booths than cash or even credit card.

Using wireless communication between the ETC device inside the vehicle and the toll gate, drivers are able to drive straight through toll gates without stopping (at speeds below around 20 mph). Tolls are payable in arrears by credit card.

The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) publishes an English guide to driving in Japan called "Rules of the Road". It are available at JAF offices throughout Japan. For further information go to the JAF website or contact the International Affairs Department of JAF on Tel.+81 (0)3 3436 2811 /Fax. + 81 (0)3 3588 6055.