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.

Do I actually need a rental car?

If you’re just after a bit of that automotive independence with the wind in your hair and some tunes pumping on the stereo, then just go ahead and rent a car. However, Japan caters amazingly for people without cars—whether you’re a resident that needs to move some stuff or a fresh-off-the-plane visitor.

For residents, a common use case is for shopping. But even if you need to carry home some bulky purchases like gardening tools, grab a bunch of flat-pack furniture at IKEA, or pick up six dozen bagels from Costco, you can usually get it delivered to your door by the next day for a nominal fee. So why go to the trouble of renting a car?

For certain destinations, such as Okinawa or Hokkaido, it makes a lot of sense to rent a car. Distances are large and public transport is either limited or non-existent. Ditto much of the countryside outside the big urban areas in the rest of Japan.

If you’re a visitor to Japan, you should be aware that Japan’s big cities are not car friendly. Getting around by car in central Tokyo or Osaka is not practical—parking alone (if available) will cost you at least ¥3,000 per day.

Renting a car in Japan
Renting a car in Japan is easier than you might think. | Photo by Gregory Lane

How much does it cost 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 rental cars are plentiful. You can also rent luxury and sports cars in Japan, if you’re a classy cheapo.

You can book a rental car via Klook, easily and in English, for use in Tokyo, Okinawa or elsewhere in Japan.

What do I need to rent a car in Japan?

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).

The booking companies Web-Rentacar.com and Klook will be happy to help. 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 you 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 driver’s license, that works too. The other thing you’ll generally need to rent a car in Japan is a credit card.

Roads near Akasaka Mitsuke
Driving in Tokyo can be a little nerve-wracking | Photo by Gregory Lane

Pickup points: airport, city or train station?

Although most rental car users will be aware of airport and city pick-up points, Japan has a third option: large railway stations. In many areas on the Shinkansen network, train stations are the equivalent of airports. So rather than drive three hours to Nagano, for example, you can take a relaxing trip on a high-speed train, then pick up your rental car right next to the station. View Plaza (JR East’s own travel agency) has packages that include a Shinkansen ticket and car rental. They tend to work with the more expensive rental car companies though, so it’s not always a great deal.

As mentioned in the Do I need a rental car? section above, if you’re a visitor to Japan and plan to spend a few days in Tokyo or Osaka at the start of your trip, picking up a rental car from one of the international airports is a bad idea. Getting around by taxi or train is the way to go in the big cities—it’s cheaper, faster, and more convenient. If you’re heading straight into the countryside, leaving from the airport is practical, but if you’re getting straight off a long-haul flight or you’ve never driven in a left-hand traffic country, you might want to settle in a bit before hitting the highway.

Lastly, a warning if you’re planning to pick up your car from either central Tokyo or Osaka. Escaping from the big cities can be an ordeal if you’re at all nervous about driving on narrow, heavily congested roads. A large part of Tokyo’s espressway network, for example, is underground with off-ramps branching off from both the left and right and constantly merging traffic.

The Japan car rental and return process

Whether you’ve used an online booking service like Klook or 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.

car rental companies japan
Photo by iStock.com/TkKurikawa

Pick-up

Most of the pick-up procedures are the same as those used anywhere in the world. Usually, it starts with an inspection of the vehicle during which any existing scratches, dents, or damage are noted. Take photos with your phone to document the existing issues.

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.

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.

Insurance

Before roaring off, it’s worth noting that while rental contracts usually carry some built-in basic insurance, this won’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. If it’s not listed, ask about it. The rental car company might also offer a more comprehensive insurance add-on. While this is the most convenient option, you should compare it with global online insurer rentalcover.com. If you go with a provider like rentalcover.com you’ll have to pay for any expenses out of your pocket, but then you’ll be reimbursed.

Crazy car in Shibuya
Be sure to drive carefully | Photo by Chris Kirkland

Optional extras

If you have young ‘uns, you can request a baby or child car seat when you make your booking, as well as winter tires, snow tires, snow chains, GPS devices and ETC (electronic toll collection) cards.

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). You should use ETC if available as it’s very convenient.

GPS devices in Japan aren’t great. While some have an English interface and will give you instructions in English, the UI is always arcane, and they’re often out of date. Instead, we recommend using the (much better) turn-by-turn navigation on Google Maps.

Lastly, especially if you’re coming from a warm-climate country, you should take care with your tire selection. Winter tires, snow tires, and snow chains are different! If you’re unfamiliar with chains, make sure you get a demo before you leave. Also a word of advice: If heading into serious snow country, pay a bit extra for an all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle.

Toyota Rentacar
Toyota Rentacar | Photo by Gregory Lane

Returning the vehicle

When you’re on your way to return the car, 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 (or even fortieth) 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.

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.

Most rental companies allow you to return the car at a different branch (for a fee), making one-way road trips simple.

Best car rental services in Japan

There are a bunch of different companies serving the vehicle rental market in Japan. To start, we suggest you look at the options on Klook and Web-Rentacar.

We like these car rental sites for Japan because they’re pretty easy to use, and you can complete your entire booking in English. Budget (as in price, not the company) and higher-end cars are available, with plenty of pick-up and drop-off options around major airports and train stations. They both offer more than 10 car rental brands, including familiar names like Budget, Avis, Europcar, Toyota, Times and Nissan Rent a Car (availability may differ between the two rental websites).

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 Shinkansen (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.

Man paying parking fee
Parking lots are some of the most expensive places in Japan. | Photo by istock.com/ablokhin

It’s not all cautionary tales though. Japan has an amazing network of rest stops and michi no eki (literally “road station”). As well as providing a breather, you can often pick up local produce at super-low prices or eat local delicacies. Some michi no eki even have onsen, camping grounds, and areas for scenic walks. You’re also (legally protected by law) allowed to sleep in your car at a michi no eki!

Renting a van or truck 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.

The rental car companies also have regular transport vans (like Toyota Hiaces), but you’ll need to go directly to the individual companies to book them. The larger companies like Orix, Toyota Rent a Car, and Nissan Rent a Car are more likely to have vans available. The cost to rent a Hiace-type van is usually about ¥14,000 for 24 hours.

Unless you get a “kei van“, your vehicle will be classed as a mid-sized vehicle, which means your ETC tolls will be higher.

Kei trucks can be rented from about ¥9,000 for 24 hours. With a regular driver’s license, you can rent up to a medium-sized truck—such as the Toyota Dyna. The rental fees are about ¥14,000 per day.

If you need a truck to haul materials from a home center, check with the staff, as many home centers rent out kei trucks cheaply to customers so that they can cart their purchases home.

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. You can rent them 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.

If you can’t or don’t want to drive, you can always take a taxi or use one of the various JR Passes for your escapades.

If you need a car for a specific purpose, but you can’t drive, you can charter a car with a driver. The cost is about ¥33,000 for 6 hours. It seems expensive, but it’s cheaper than a taxi and can be better value if you split the cost with friends or fellow travellers.

Car rental in Japan: FAQs

You ask, we answer.

What are the costs of renting a car in Japan?

Budget around ¥6,000 a day for a cheap rental car—but check prices carefully with the rental company, as they can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the season and demand. Don’t forget that in addition to the rental fee, you’ll be paying road tolls and fuel costs. Depending on whether you’re going on a quick jaunt into the countryside or an epic journey to the far reaches of the country, these additional fees vary from a few thousand yen up to about ¥20,000.

How old do I need to be to rent a car in Japan?

18. And you need a valid license!

What happens if I get a fine or parking ticket?

Take care of it immediately! Follow the instructions carefully. If you’re a resident, be prepared to declare it on your next visa application.

Should I rent a car in Okinawa?

Yes. It will make your life on the southern islands much easier. Do it now.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in April 2018. Last updated in September 2021.

Ask our local experts about Tokyo

Get our Tokyo Cheapo Hacks direct to your inbox

Watch this next