Japan Road Trip Guide: Driving, Car Rental, Expressways, Tolls, Parking, Penalties, Emergencies and More

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Driving in Japan

Japan has highly efficient public transportation systems including its unrivaled rail network, with high-speed, intercity, local and subway trains connecting many popular destinations. But outside the cities, public transport can sometimes be inconvenient or not frequent enough (like Okinawa, Takayama, Nagano, Hokkaido), that is where you need a car to get around.

Remember, Japan has a number of amazing scenic spots that can only be reached with a car. If you want to enjoy greater range and flexibility and visit places with spectacular scenery, whether it’s a ski resort, beach or hot spring renting a car is a very nice idea! You will be able to see the destinations that most other travelers do not get to see. Many people imagine that driving in Japan is very difficult, but don’t worry! In fact, it’s much easier than you think! In this guide I will give you the information that can help you enjoy a blissful trip in Japan from the driver’s seat. So, let’s get into the details.

Booking a car

How to book a car when taking a road trip in Japan?

There are four simple steps:

  1. Choose your route and car model
  2. Fill in your order details
  3. Complete your reservation
  4. Pick up your car at the store

How to choose a car that meets your needs?

The type of car that you want to choose would depend on various factors such as: number of people (adults, children), the season, how long will you be driving, how much luggage you will have, etc.

In Japan you will be able to rent all kinds of vehicles, from the most basic to roomy and luxurious SUV. If you do not have any special needs go for the cheapest option, especially if you are on a budget. If you have a child with you make sure to equip the vehicle with a safety seat.

Obviously if you are going someplace that’s covered in snow a 4WD vehicle would be the best choice. Make sure it’s equipped with winter tires. Additionally, snow chains might come in handy too.

If you travel with your family you can get a larger car. For long distances you would appreciate having a more luxurious vehicle. It can make the trip more comfortable, especially if you plan on having long-distance journeys or fewer stops.

How to choose the insurance?

Major car rental suppliers in Japan usually include liability insurance and damage insurance in their basic contract. However, in case of an accident, insurance companies will pay the amount up to a certain limit. Be aware you will also be required to pay the deductible. If you get a CDW you will be exempt from paying the deductible. However, if you damage the car due to negligence, for instance driving on a beach that has no road for cars, you will still be required to pay deductible together with Non-Operation Charge (NOC), which is a compensation for the time during which the car rental company cannot rent out the vehicle because of damages.

You can buy the insurance:

  • Online when booking the vehicle (recommended)
  • At the service counter of your rental car supplier
  • Or from a third-party insurer

Some personal car insurances extend to rental car as well. You may already a basic insurance plan, but you should be careful as there are some exceptions. The validity of your policy will largely depend on the location of your travel. It is usually unlikely for such policy to extend in faraway countries.

Some travel credit cards do include the basic insurance for your car rental, even when traveling abroad. The best would be to consult with your insurance company/credit card provider and see if they cover rental cars too. Even then, make sure that they don’t leave some parts of potential risk uninsured.

If your travel budget is sufficient, it is recommended to choose an insurance with the most comprehensive coverage, as repairing the car might be very expensive. Moreover, if you get injured, medical expenses and other related charges will also be high. And obviously, the better your coverage is, the lower your financial risk will be.

Picking up your car

Pick-up materials that you will need

Item Note
1. Passport Belonging to the main driver (if he/she does not have a Japanese driver’s license).
2. Driver’s License Foreign travelers are required to present an International Driving Permit (IDP, based on the 1949 Geneva Convention).

OR an original driving license issued in Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Taiwan, Slovenia or Monaco – TOGETHER WITH Japanese translation by an authorized organization.

If you hold a Japanese driver’s license, you are not required to have an IDP.

3. Credit/Debit Card Credit or debit card.
4. Pick-up Document Offered by EasyRentCars once the reservation is successfully confirmed. For many bookings electronic pick-up document is also available, which can be used to replace the paper version.

Note: In order to drive an ordinary vehicle in Japan, you must be at least 18 years old. However, for certain types of vehicles higher minimum age limit is applied.

Other materials that you might need

  1. Offline navigation app: Tantu Map, provided by EasyRentCars for free.
  2. Phone holder: Japanese traffic regulations forbid the use of mobile phone while driving. Recently the rules have become stricter, with steeper fines and possible prison terms. Consider, having a mobile phone holder with you.
  3. Child Seat: Proper safety seats for children under the age of six are required. Otherwise, driver will face heavy fines, you can reserve a child seat online, ahead of your trip.

How to get to the store?

On foot If the store is nearby you can walk and simply follow the “car rental” signs.
By bus If the store is far, usually there is a shuttle bus available. You may find the name/logo of the company for directions towards the bus station.
By requesting a pickup on the spot If a shuttle bus is not available, you can dial the store number and wait for the staff to pick you up. If you have problems when communicating with the local staff, you can contact EasyRentCars’ customer service for assistance.
By requesting a pickup in advance (staff waiting with a name board) Some rental companies will provide meet and greet service. One of the employees will be waiting for you with a name tag. If you cannot find him/her, dial the store number.

Things to pay attention to when picking up a car

  1. Bring all the necessary documents and ensure that you have sufficient amount of money on your credit card.

The main driver is required to have all the relevant documents. The credit card must be issued in the name of the main driver. Also, you should verify that there is enough money on your credit card for pre-authorizing the deposit.

  1. Early pick up/Early drop off

In some cases, if you pick up your car earlier, you might be asked to drop it off earlier too. However, some companies might allow you to pick up the car in advance but return at the original drop off time. The rules also vary based on the location of the rental office. Make sure to inform the rental company in case you prefer to get your car before the scheduled time. Additional charges might be incurred.

  1. Registration of additional drivers

If there are additional drivers, make sure to provide relevant information and register them at the store. Otherwise in case of an accident, the insurance will be invalid.

  1. Car checking

Inspect the car carefully before picking it up. If some defect (even a small scratch) is found, it is necessary to show it to the staff and indicate the damaged location in the inspection voucher. It is highly recommended to take photos of those defects in order to avoid disputes when dropping off the car.

  1. Keep all the contracts and receipts

Make sure to keep all the contracts and receipts.

What to do if you are offered additional services and insurances at the rental counter?

  1. Compare the details of your contract and pick up voucher

When picking up a car at a store, the clerk may promote additional insurances and services. Before signing the contract, carefully check whether the estimated charge written in the rental agreement is consistent with numbers in pick-up voucher. Inconsistency might mean that they have added additional services in the list.

  1. You can reject any of the extra offers you don’t need

Extra insurances and services are optional. It’s up to you whether or not you want to have them. You can explicitly reject the ones that you don’t need. If you have any questions when negotiating with the store, feel free to call EasyRentCars’ customer service for assistance.

Driving in Japan

Traffic rules and signs

Basic rules

In Japan cars are driven on the left side of a road (i.e. steering wheel is located on the right side). Those from England, Australia, India, South America and other “left-lane” countries will have no difficulties related to the driving side. However, for those of you who are not used to driving on the left side, it might be more complicated, and it is of utmost importance to stay alert and never forget the correct side of your road when driving in Japan. Besides there are a few basic but important rules you should remember:

  • Motorbikes are allowed to overtake you from your left. It is important to be attentive when moving from one lane to another.
  • Ordinary roads have a speed limit of 60 km/h, unless stated otherwise.
  • Highways have a speed limit of 100 km/h.
  • You cannot turn on the red light.
  • All passengers must have their seat belts on.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or any other substance is strictly prohibited.

While driving in Japan you will also notice that if you let somebody into your lane they may respond by blinking their hazards few times. That means “thank you”. If you see hazards on a highway it might mean that the cars ahead have stopped. If you see this, slow down and turn on your hazards so that the person behind you also knows.

Important traffic signs

  1. Stop

  1. Slow down

  1. No entry

  1. Closed to motor vehicles (left sign); Road closed (right sign)

  1. No parking (left sign); No parking or stopping (right sign)

  1. Speed limit

  1. No U-turn

  1. No overtaking

  1. Railroad crossing

  1. Slippery road

  1. Steep road

  1. Stop line

  1. Bus only lane

  1. Pedestrian crossing

  1. One way

Roads & Fees

Tolls

Driving on a Japanese highway or expressway is in fact easier than driving on city streets. There is nothing to be afraid of, even if it’s your first time in Japan. An important factor that you should keep in mind is that the passing lanes are located on the right side of a road. It is not allowed to stay in the right lane for a long time.

Highways/expressways use ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) systems. In order to use an ETC card your car must be equipped with a special card reader. Using an ETC card can make your drive easier as the costs are automatically accrued on your card. In case of a rental car, you can pay the accrued fees at the end of your road trip. Those who have their own ETC card, the fees are automatically charged from the bank card that is attached to it (the credit/debit card must be issued by a Japanese bank).

Once you reach the toll gates you will see one of the three signs:

  • ETC Only
  • Cash Only
  • ETC or Cash

You can choose the gate based on your payment preferences.

Highways and expressways are not that cheap! One thing you can do to lower your costs is to use Expressway Passes. To be eligible you must have a non-Japanese passport or have a permanent residence in another country. Expressway Pass can give you unlimited access to toll roads in the designated region/area. They use ETC system cards so you won’t need to strop at toll gates. If you are planning to rent a car for your trip, there is a high probability that the rental company can provide a relevant Expressway Pass (for a price of course) that can help you save money throughout your journey.

Expressway passes

There are various passes you could choose from:

  • Japan Expressway Pass

It will enable you to use expressways in Japan as much as you like for a fixed price (only few expressway sections are excluded: Hokkaido, metropolitan Tokyo, metropolitan Osaka/Kobe and bridges between Honshu and Shikoku).

Prices:
7-day Pass: 20,000 yen
14-day Pass: 34,000 yen

  • Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP)
    Price range: from 5,000 yen to 16,000 yen
    Optional Area – Nagoya Expressway Pass (NEP): +2,000 yen


Source: https://hayatabi.c-nexco.co.jp/cep/en/

  • Hokkaido Expressway Pass (HEP)
    Price range: from 3,600 yen to 11,300 yen


Source: https://en.driveplaza.com/area/hokkaido/pdf/e_hokkaido_drive_03.pdf

  • Kyushu Expressway Pass (KEP)
    Price range: from 3,500 yen to 11,500 yen


Source: https://global.w-nexco.co.jp/en/kep/pdfs/english.pdf

  • Tohoku Expressway Pass (TEP)
    Price range: from 4,000 yen to 12,000 yen


Source:https://www.driveplaza.com/trip/drawari/tep2015/pdf/TohokuExpresswayPass_en.pdf#view=Fit

Parking and refueling

Parking rates

In large cities parking is quite expensive, especially if you want to park in the center. Usually the fees range from 100 to 1000 yen or more depending on your location, day and time. In general, nighttime fares tend to be two to three times cheaper compared to daytime fares, however many parking lots in city centers, with busy streets full of cafes, bars and restaurants set expensive nighttime rates. Often shopping malls offer free parking as long as you buy goods from them and get a receipt. Touristic spots sometimes charge a fixed fee (~from 200 to 500 yen). In countryside and small towns, you can often park for free.

Parking lot types

You might be familiar with some types of parking lots in Japan but they also have some “irregular” parking lots which at first might seem unusual:

Parking lots with gates – in this kind of parking lot you take a ticket in the entrance by pressing a button on a machine located in the entrance (can be done from inside the car). It is very common in shopping malls. When leaving, you can insert the ticket in the special machine in order to pay your parking fee (which will be calculated based on the time you spent there). Alternatively, you can hand in the ticket to the parking attendant together with the payment.

Parking lots with locking flaps – these are open parking areas without a gate. Once you park the vehicle, a special device raises from underneath the vehicle to lock your car in position. Once you decide to drive away you need to go to the payment machine and type your parking spot number. The price (calculated based on the time) will be displayed. Once you pay, the locking flaps will be released and you will be able to drive away.

Elevator parking lots (car towers) – in such parking lots you are supposed to park your car in a special elevator. Once you get out of the car, the elevator will automatically take your car up in the tower and store it in one of its sections. Once you are back, the car will be returned to you with the elevator. Some of these towers have 10-15 floors.

Paying via fare adjustment machine

In order to pay the parking via a fare adjustment machine you need to enter the parking space number and press the adjust payment button. You can use either cash or credit card when making the payment. At the end you will also get a receipt. Once the payment is finalized the locking plate under your car will close and you will be able to drive away. Make sure to leave quickly after making the payment. Otherwise, the locking plate will engage and your car will be locked again.

Parking violations

If you park illegally you will be notified by a notification sticker placed on your car. Parking officers (usually in green uniforms) check the streets often in order to spot the illegally parked vehicles. Additionally, police officers also look for parking violators. If they see your vehicle illegally parked they can also issue a fine. In some cases, they might lock the wheel of your vehicle and request a tow truck, which will then take it to the special parking (storage) area from which you can pick it up. But only after paying the fine, AND towing and storage fees.

Once you find out that you broke the rule, the best is to pay the fine immediately (you might need to go to the local police office). Keep all the documents collected throughout the process (including the ticket and the proof/receipt of payment). If you drove a rental vehicle you must present these documents at the rental counter upon returning the car. If you do not pay the penalty it will imply that you broke the Japanese law and your rental contract. You will be put in the “black list” of All Japan Car Rental Company Association. As a result, you will never be able to again rent a car in Japan.

Where not to park:

  • Intersections
  • Pedestrian/bicycle crossing zones
  • Bus stops
  • Fire hydrants

Refueling

Some gas stations in Japan are open 24 hours but many are closed at night. Most of the gas stations in Japan provide full-service (フル). Staff will help you fill up your tank. Often, they might suggest cleaning your windshield too. Knowing the basic Japanese words such as full-tank/half-tank, regular gasoline/diesel, cash/credit card etc. would be of great help.

The number of self-service (セルフ) stations is also increasing. Be aware that the instructions will be written only in Japanese. If you have some difficulties understanding the procedure, there should be a staff member available for help. Let him/her know that you require help. If you choose to pay by cash remember that the change is sometimes given by a separate machine, which in some cases can be located inside the gas station building.

The average price for gasoline (octane-95) during the period of Oct 2019 – Jan 2020 ranged from 142.60 JPY (US$ 1.30) to 147.40 JPY (US$ 1.34) per liter. To give you an idea, the world average price of gasoline for the same period was 162.97 JPY (US$ 1.48) per liter.


Source: https://www.globalpetrolprices.com/Japan/gasoline_prices/

Emergencies

Emergency phone numbers

119: Sudden sickness or injury / in case of fire
110: If you need a police officer
#7119: If you are not sure whether you should call an ambulance

All these numbers are toll-free. You can also use a public phone to call these numbers for free. Ambulances and fire trucks are free of charge.

Expressway/highway emergencies

If your vehicle breaks down on a highway, do not walk around on the road. Once you get out, set up warnings for the vehicles behind you, in case you want to change a tire or do another simple repair. Place an emergency warning marker (triangle), flare and/or hazard lamps behind your vehicle. If a simple repair is not enough and you are forced to wait for help, the best is to move away from the road and wait behind the guardrail (this applies to all passengers in the car).

If you do not have a cell phone you can walk towards the emergency telephone (walk from behind the guardrail, never on the road). On freeway these can be found every kilometer and in tunnels every 200 meters. You can communicate the accident via emergency telephone. Once you pick up the phone it will directly connect you to a traffic control center. Alternatively, you could press the button that best describes the type of your emergency. Needless to say, that the emergency telephones should be used only in case of an accident or a mechanical failure of your vehicle.

Neighborhood police – Kobans

In Japan you can find many Kobans. These are small neighborhood police stations where officers are available 24 hours a day. They have a number of responsibilities including preventing crime, regulating traffic, giving directions, dealing with accidents, dealing with incidents and so on.

What to do in case of an accident?

If you get into an accident you are expected to do the following:

  1. Stop the car immediately and do not leave the place unless you are injured.
  2. If somebody is injured call 119 immediately, to request an ambulance.
  3. Install warning marker, flare and/or hazard lamps. Choose their locations based on the position of your car.
  4. Call 110 to inform the police about the accident. Give them the information that they request.
    • They will file an accident report, which you will need to claim the compensation from your insurance company. Police will ask you to present your driving license, foreigner registration certificate (if you are not Japanese), vehicle inspection certificate (it must be up to date), vehicle insurance. They will classify the accident either as Damage Only Accident (busson jiko) or Personal Injury Accident (jinshin jiko). Later on, you will be able to obtain a certificate from the Japan Safe Driving Centre.
  5. If the accident involves another party make sure to get their personal and insurance details.
    • You will need other driver’s name, address, and insurance details.
  6. Take pictures of the scene and try to obtain the contact information of witnesses.
  7. Once police arrive follow their suggestions.
  8. Call your insurance company and give them the details of the accident.

If you get injured in an accident and are taken to hospital, make sure to obtain a medical certificate. If another person is responsible for the accident the bills will be charged from him/her.

Earthquakes

Earthquakes are very common in Japan. If an earthquake strikes while you are driving, maneuvering will become difficult, especially when cruising at high speeds (which is often the case on expressways).

It is important to take into consideration the following:

  • Slow down gradually and stop on the left side of the road
  • Make sure to leave a passage for emergency vehicles
  • Avoid stopping in places surrounded with steep hills due to the danger of a rock slide (especially near the entrance or exit of a tunnel)
  • Turn on the hazards and leave safe space between you and other vehicles
  • Follow the instructions from the police or expressway staff. Also, listen to the radio broadcast to get the updates about the conditions in the area
  • If you are on a seaside, be aware that a tsunami might also strike. It’s very important to know if/when it’s going to strike
  • Pay attention to information updates (i.e. from police, highway staff, displays on the road, highway radio)
  • If you have to leave your car, make sure to leave the keys inside, in case it needs to be moved by the emergency service personnel. Once you get out of the vehicle, do not stand on the road, move behind the guard rail.
  • If you are at the rest area, follow the guidance of the staff

Return

Once your journey is over, make sure to return the vehicle on time. Park the car in the designated area and carefully check your personal belongings before leaving.

What you should do:

  1. Check the statements

When dropping off the car, the staff will check its condition and print relevant statements. Please check them carefully to make sure no irrelevant charges are included.

  1. Clean the car

If there is any extensive odor or dirt in the car, please clean it before returning, otherwise you will be asked to pay the cleaning fees.

  1. Keep the gas receipt

If you selected a ‘Full to Full’ fuel policy, please keep the refueling receipt. You might need to give it at the store.

  1. Keep the contracts

Please keep all car rental contracts, documents and even pictures after returning the car, until the deposit is refunded to you in case of cost disputes.

Early or late return

  1. Early return

If you return your car earlier than the time that was agreed in the rental contract, the car hire company will not refund the money for unused days.

  1. Late return

If you would like to return the car later than stated in your rental contract, please contact the store and find out if you are allowed to extend your contract. At the same time confirm the addition fees.

Returning your car after the office hours

If your return time is not within the store’s business hours, please call the store or EasyRentCars to find out if that’s possible and whether there will be an extra charge imposed.

If the store agrees, please park the car in the designated area and take pictures of the oil meter, odometer and vehicle exterior, then put the car keys into the key/drop off box.

To avoid unnecessary trouble, it is strongly recommended to drop-off your vehicle during business hours.

After returning your car

Insurance claim (if any)

Required materials

  1. Passport
  2. Main driver’s license
  3. Car rental contract
  4. Car damage deduction documents
  5. Debit/Credit card (the one you used for deposit)
  6. Credit card deductions documents

To ensure efficiency, please submit the required documents to EasyRentCars. We will then organize the information and send it to the insurance company. Follow these steps:

  1. Fill in the information, upload and submit the claim documents.
  2. Insurance company will review them in 3 working days.
  3. Once the claim is approved, the compensation will be sent to your bank card.

Penalties

Demerit point system and types of fines

When it comes to penalties Japan is very strict compared to many other countries. You must respect the rules, otherwise you will face large fines or even jail!

Examples and consequences of various violations:

Over speeding by up to 40km/h: JPY 9,000 – 35,000
Breaking parking rules: JPY 10,000 – 20,000
Not paying attention to traffic lights: JPY 7,000 – 9,000
Drink driving: up to JPY500,000 fine or imprisonment for up to 3years
Speeding by 50km or more: up to JPY100,000 fine or imprisonment for up to 6months
“Hit and run”: up to JPY1,000,000 fine or imprisonment for up to 5years

In Japan they use a demerit point system for driving offences. Meaning that drivers are issued with demerit points depending on offences or violations they commit. License can be suspended or revoked based on driver’s offence records and accumulated demerit points in the past 3 years. Foreign nationals are subject to same penalties and fines for traffic violations as Japanese people.

There are three types of tickets:

White ticket – issued for minor traffic offences such as no child seat, no seat belt, etc.

Blue ticket – issued for moderate traffic offences such as not paying attention to traffic lights, illegal parking, etc. Together with blue ticket violators will be issued demerit points. Depending on accumulated points the violation might be considered as a criminal offence, however, driver’s can be exempted from the liability if they pay the fine by the deadline.

Red ticket – issued for serious offences such as drink driving and over speeding (by more than 30km/h). In such cases driver’s license will be immediately suspended, and the driver will have to bear criminal responsibilities.

How to pay a fine

If you violate rule and police stops you they will write a traffic offence document and hand it to you with a payment slip as soon as you sign on it. A fine must be paid at bank or post office before the indicated deadline.

If you violate parking rules and a ticket is attached to your car, or a camera records you over speeding, you must go to the police station. You have to take with you the papers, such as: yellow document that was attached to your windshield due to a parking offence, or an over speeding record that was mailed to you. Finally, depending on how serious your offence you will be given a ticket (of appropriate color) and demerit points.

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