Japan’s system of tolled expressways can get you to most places that you want to go, and there’s no doubt that they are efficient and well maintained. However, the tolls are amongst the most expensive in the world. Often, the costs of driving are higher than either taking the shinkansen or flying, and that’s not even taking into account the cost of parking your car at either end!

There are plenty of ways to save money though, and here they are.

Drive a small car or motorcycle

Highway charges vary depending on the size of the car you are driving. Vehicles are divided into five different groups. At the cheapest end are motorcycles, kei cars, and kei trucks. The next size up is “regular vehicles” (futtsusha), which covers most cars and small vans. Large vans and small trucks fall into the “medium vehicles” (chuugatasha) category, then depending on the size of your truck, there are “large vehicle” (oogatasha) and “extra large vehicle” (tokudaisha) categories.

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If you’re brave enough to go on the expressway in a kei car or on a motorcycle, the charges are 20% cheaper than for regular vehicles.

Get an ETC card

An ETC card | Photo by Gregory Lane

ETC stands for “Electronic Toll Collection”, and it’s a slightly over-engineered system that does just that. An ETC card is a special kind of credit card which is connected to your regular (Japanese) credit card. If you already have a credit card in Japan, you can apply for your provider to issue an ETC card. If you have both an ETC unit in your car and an ETC card then you can use the automated purple gates instead of the manual green gates on the expressway. An ETC card doesn’t just provide you with convenience, it also opens up discounts for travel at different times.

If you only have a Japanese debit card, then you won’t be able to get your own ETC card.

If you’re not a resident, you can often request an ETC card with your rental car. The rental company will charge you a fee for the card and also charge your credit card for the actual tolls that you rack up.

ETC charges may take one to two months to appear on your credit card statement, so it’s best to keep track of the charges to avoid any huge surprises.

Drive on the weekend or on public holidays

Remember how we said having an ETC card opens up some discounts? Well, here’s the first one. As long as you’re driving a kei or regular sized car, toll charges on all of the expressways are 30% cheaper on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays. Additionally, most trucking companies give their drivers a holiday on Sundays, so Sunday is by far the best day of the week to drive.

If you don’t have an ETC card, then you don’t get the weekend and holidays discount.

Drive between midnight and 4am

If you’re a night owl and you don’t mind driving in the wee small hours, you can save 30% on the regular tolls—again, only if you have an ETC card.

Tokyo Bay Aqualine at night | Photo by iStock.com/Stossi mammot

Sign up for ETC Mileage for early morning and evening discounts

If you sign up for ETC Mileage you can get up to 50% off when you drive between 6:00am and 9:00am and again between 5:00pm and 8:00pm. The exact discount varies between 30% and 50%. This discount rewards volume, so the 50% discount only kicks in after 10 trips.

You can sign up for the ETC mileage program online, but you will need the serial number of your ETC unit as well as your ETC card. Your ETC serial number will likely be written on the unit itself or in the documentation you received when your ETC unit was installed. You’ll also need your engine block number (shatai-bango) and a scan of your drivers license.

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Don’t fill up on the highway

Once you’ve entered the highway, leaving the highway will incur a charge so you are a captive market for the gas stations along the route. Therefore, the gas stations on the highway charge about ¥20 per liter extra for regular gasoline compared to what you can get off the highway. So if you can fill up before you go on the highway, you can save lots of money.

If you have to fill up while you’re on the expressway, you should check this site which lists the prices of petrol at the different service areas. If you select your region and then the route and direction you are traveling, the site will give you a list of the cheapest gas stations at the various service areas along the route.

Don’t leave the highway on the way

Even though we just told you not to fill up while on the expressway, you also shouldn’t leave the highway before you reach your destination. The reason is because of the method used to calculate your toll. The toll is based on a per kilometer charge + ¥150. Each time you enter the expressway, you incur that ¥150. So if you can save ¥2,000 by leaving the expressway to fill up, then it might be worth it.

Does this apply to all highways?

Not always. These discounts and calculations apply to the kousokudoro (expressways) which are controlled by NEXCO, which are the big expressways that connect the various cities and regions of Japan. NEXCO is divided into East, Central, and West, but it operates in much the same way as JR, so everything is interoperable. Things like mileage points differ between the different companies and each sets their own per kilometer toll rates.

In addition to NEXCO, there are metropolitan and private expressway and bypass companies. Usually, if they accept ETC, the same discounts apply. However, the toll rates may vary considerably. For example, the metropolitan expressway system for Tokyo known as Shutoko has considerably higher rates. So if you can avoid the Shutoko and get straight onto the NEXCO expressways that start on the edge of Tokyo, you can make a significant saving.

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