Japan may be famous for its super fast shinkansen trains and hyper-efficient metro systems, but outside of the big cities public transport can be infrequent. If you plan to visit some of the more remote areas of the country, hiring a car can be a good idea.
Hire car offices can be found at most airports and stations; some might even be able to bring a car to your hotel. Car hire is a generally fair value, especially if there are several of you traveling together. Petrol stations are normally full service so an attendant will fill up your car for you. It might be handy to get the car hire company to write a card showing the type of fuel needed, how much you want (“mantan” means full tank) and how you will pay (cash or card) if you are not confident speaking Japanese to the attendant.
Like the UK, Japan drives on the left, with the driver seated on the right of the car. You need to be 18 to drive and hold an international driving licence (apply in your home country before traveling to Japan). Do not drive after even one drink – driving with any trace of alcohol in your body in illegal.
The fastest roads around Japan are often toll roads: beware of the ETC exit lanes as these toll lanes require a sensor to be fitted to your car to exit the motorway. Instead look out for the manned exit lanes where you can pay cash. Expressways are the quickest way about but the free roads are usually more scenic and better for visiting more out of the way areas. Road conditions are excellent and driving in Japan is very safe. Japanese drivers are generally polite and courteous, but be careful at junctions as a small number of drivers may ignore red lights.
On the expressways, speed limits are 100kmph maximum, with 40kmph being the norm for urban areas. Street signs are mostly self-explanatory, with directions usually written in English as well as Japanese. In urban areas, traffic can be horrendous and side streets impassable to larger vehicles, so don’t bother hiring a car for urban travel. If you plan to travel to a remote area, English signs may be infrequent so it might be worth hiring an English sat nav system or buying a good quality road atlas. Mountain roads close in the winter due to snow so check with the local tourist information centre before heading out.
For more in-depth information about driving in Japan, visit a JAF office and pick up a copy of ‘Rules of the Road’.