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.
Likewise, if you’re planning to explore the deep south that is Okinawa or bounce around Hokkaido, it makes sense to rent 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 rental 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 rent 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. A compact, <1300cc car that can comfortably take four passengers costs just under ¥6,000 for a 24-hour rental. Bigger and fancier cars cost ¥1,500–¥6,000 more. Hybrids can sometimes be had for a competitive price.
There are a bunch of different companies serving the vehicle rental market in Japan, and you can compare car rental options here. You can complete your entire booking in English on that website.
Before checking out, it’s worth noting that while all rental contracts carry built-in basic insurance, this doesn’t 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 and ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) cards—though the latter 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.
The rental and return process
While some Japanese-language ability will make the collection and drop-off of the rental car easier, it’s not essential. You simply take your booking form to the designated rental office, confirm your reservation and payment details, and away you go.
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.
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, shelve them and take the shink (or a bus) instead.
Also, parking is really pricey in the cities. Consider your cheapo self cautioned!
Before roaring off anywhere, it pays to familiarize yourself with Japanese road signs. Not all of them are intuitive.
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, for short periods of time (even 15 minutes)—making mini, semi-spontaneous (you reserve cars through an app or website) drives a breeze.