For the most part, you probably won’t need to rent a car in Japan—especially not in Tokyo. The trains and buses will get you wherever you want to go, quickly, safely and affordably. That said, there are some occasions when renting a car in Japan is the easiest (or only) way of getting from Point A to Point B. You might want to take a trip to the rurals, for example, or do a run to the nearest (never very near) home center to pick up some curtains or gardening tools you don’t want to lug on your local JR line. Or perhaps renting a car simply seems like the best way to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re planning to explore the deep south that is Okinawa or bounce around Hokkaido, it always makes sense to hire a car. Distances are large, public transport limited. Ditto much of the countryside in the rest of Japan.
You can take the Shinkansen or a plane to the station or airport nearest your destination, then hop into your hire car and zoom around without worrying about missing the only bus of the day. Most rental companies allow you to return the car at a different branch (for a fee), making one-way road trips simple.
So here’s how to get driving on these narrow, kanji-flecked roads.
Renting a car in Japan: What you need
First off, let’s take a look at your driver’s license. If you have an International Driving Permit (IDP) issued in line with the Geneva Convention, you’ll be able to rent a car in Japan—but not from all companies (lookin’ at you, Niko-Niko). This rental car booking agency will be happy to help, though. You can get an IDP through your national automobile association before coming to Japan (note: not once you are here); the permit is valid for a year from the date of issue. You’ll need to carry your local license with you when you use it. Oh, and you need to be over 18.
If you’re from Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco or Taiwan, you won’t be able to do the IDP thing, but can use an official Japanese translation of your license instead. You can get the translation done through the Japan Automobile Federation or (in some cases) your local embassy or consulate. Once you have it, you can drive for a year after arriving in Japan.
Of course, if you happen to have a Japanese driving license, that works too. The other thing you’ll need to hire a car in Japan is a credit card.
How much it costs to rent a car in Japan
It all depends on what sort of wheels you’re after and how many people you need to pack into the back. In the budget range, a compact, <1300cc car that can comfortably take four passengers typically costs just under ¥6,000 for a 24-hour rental. Bigger and fancier cars usually cost ¥1,500–¥6,000 more. Hybrids can sometimes be had for a competitive price. Toyota hire cars are plentiful. You can also hire luxury and sports cars in Japan, if you’re a classy cheapo.
Best car rental companies in Japan
There are a bunch of different companies serving the vehicle rental market in Japan, and you can compare car rental options on Web-Rentacar. We like this car hire site for Japan because it’s pretty easy to use, and you can complete your entire booking in English. Budget and higher-end cars are available, with plenty of pick-up and drop-off options around major airports and train stations. They offer more than 10 car rental brands, including familiar names like Budget and Nissan Rent a Car.
Before roaring off, it’s worth noting that while all rental contracts carry built-in basic insurance, this doesn’t necessarily cover you 100% in the event of an accident. By paying a bit extra for a collision damage waiver (CDW) and non-operation charge (NOC), you minimize the amounts you might be liable for if something goes awry.
Kiddy seats and other add-ons
If you have young ‘uns, you can add a baby seat or child seat when you make your booking, as well as winter tires, GPS devices and ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) cards—though the latter two are not always available. If you opt to use an ETC card, you can proceed through toll gates without stopping, and just pay the rental office when you return the car. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay cash at the 一般 toll gates (and yes, they do give change).
The Japan car hire and return process
Whether you’ve used Web-Rentacar or reserved wheels directly over the phone or via a rental company’s booking site, you simply take your booking details to the designated rental office, confirm your payment information, and away you go. While some Japanese-language ability will make the collection and drop-off of the rental car easier, it’s not essential.
Before you start off or when you return the car, a staff member will sometimes offer you a pack of tissues or a can of (usually cold) coffee as a token gift. Just take it.
When you’re on your way to bring the car back, be sure to stop off at a gas (petrol) station (“gasorin sutando” in Japanese) and fill up. This can be quite an intimidating thing to do if it’s your first time driving in Japan; to make it easier, head for a regular, staffed gas station rather than a self-service joint. The pump attendants will do all the hard work for you, and even help you get back onto the road.
Ask whether you run on “regular” or another kind of fuel before you leave the rental car office; “regular” refers to regular unleaded petrol, “hai-oku” is premium unleaded, and “keiyu” is diesel. Say “mantan de onegai shimasu” for a full tank of whatever it is you need.
A few car rental offices are prepared to do the refueling for you upon the return of the ride, but generally the responsibility is with the driver.
Car rental in Japan: A few things to know before you go
Some folks get a bee in their beatnik bonnet about doing the road trip of their dreams in Japan. While you can indeed do some lovely driving in Hokkaido and Okinawa, driving in much of the rest of Japan means rolling, relatively slowly (think 80-100km/h) along endless, walled highways. The views are virtually non-existent.
The tolls, well, take their toll on your bank balance (seriously, they can be very steep). The roadside stops are redeeming, to be fair (and there are lots of ’em). But mostly, driving between big cities is a drag. If you had any plans of burning rubber from Tokyo to Osaka, for example, shelve them and take the shink (or a bus) instead.
Also, parking is really pricey in the cities. Consider your cheapo self cautioned! Oh, and before driving anywhere, it pays to familiarize yourself with Japanese road signs. Not all of them are intuitive.
Renting a car in Tokyo
While you can rent a car in Tokyo, it isn’t recommended unless you need to transport something big, or are traveling in a group from Tokyo to elsewhere in the country, e.g. popping down to see the legendary Fuji Rock Festival (see the blurb about camper vans below). For tourists, we generally suggest simply relying on the extensive public transport network to get around the big city, instead of fussing with car hire in Tokyo.
Renting a van in Tokyo
While getting out of Tokyo itself (if you opt for city pick-up) might be a little hair-raising, this is actually a great way to get around the country: you can rent a budget camper van to get out of the hotels and off that beaten track that hipsters seem to hate so much.
If you’re looking to rent a camper van in Japan, we recommend Dream Drive Japan.
Alternatives to renting a car in Japan
If you aren’t so keen on the traditional rental business, you can try car sharing instead (note: you’ll need a Japanese license for this). Orix Car Share and other providers allow you to “borrow” their cars, which are parked all over the show, especially in bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, for short periods of time (even 15 minutes)—making mini, semi-spontaneous (you reserve cars through an app or website) and cheap drives a breeze.
Car rental in Japan: FAQs
You ask, we answer.
How much is it to rent a car in Japan?
Budget around ¥6,000 a day for a cheap hire car—but check prices carefully with the rental company, as they can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the season and demand.
How old do I need to be to rent a car in Japan?
18. And you need a valid license!
Should I rent a car in Okinawa?
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in April, 2018. Last updated in August, 2020.