Top 10 tips for driving in Japan

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Despite spending four years living in Japan (as well as plenty of visits back since), Senior Travel Consultant Amy had never gone behind the wheel before. Here, she offers her top 10 tips for swapping that famously efficient public transport to take to the “wrong” side of the road.

Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan cars

As public transport in Japan is simply fantastic, there wasn’t any reason for me to drive when I lived in Japan. The closest I ever came to renting a car was when my parents were visiting and I gave my dad a very simple choice: I could either drive said rental car, or be in charge of the Japanese-only GPS. His choice. I ended up in charge of navigation…!

That said, there are places in Japan where trains, or even buses, are not a viable option, and so for my most recent trip, I challenged myself to do something I had never done before. Drive from place to place.
Based on my successful completion, I present my “Facts and Tips for Driving in Japan”.

1. Pre-Departure: Get your IDP

Driving in Japan landscape

You must get an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) before you travel to Japan, otherwise, no rental car for you! Fortunately, these are easily obtained from any AAA office and if you have all the necessary items—application, 2 passport pictures, money for the permit (around $20), and a valid driver’s license—the process takes less than 10 minutes. It’s good for up to a year after the start date you pick, so handy if you have another foreign driving-trip planned.

2. Yes, in Japan they drive on the left side

Driving in Japan road

The thing that worried me most is that the Japanese drive on the… er, *other* side of the road to what Americans like me are used to, so a right-hand turn becomes a left-hand turn. Not going to lie, this was VERY weird the first few days, as I had a distinct drive-like-I’m-on-my-learner’s-permit mentality and was hyper-aware I was driving on the opposite side of the road.

But after those first days, I eased up. Before I knew it, I was an old hand at staying on the left, even when there was no traffic to follow, so you do get used to it. I got so used to it, in fact, that I’m glad I didn’t have to drive home from the airport when I returned home!

3. No turning right on red

Unlike in the US, it is illegal to turn “right” (meaning left) at a red light! So, keep your foot on the brake and resist the urge to creep forward as you anticipate a light-change as this is societal no-no.

4. Parking Woes and/or Wows

Driving in Japan

The Japanese might just be the world champions of parking. Or at least, they’d certainly give anyone a run for their money. We are not exactly known for our parking finesse in the US, so prepare to be awed and humbled as almost every Japanese car you see backs up with ease into that “way too small” parking space on the first try. (That said, after the first few times of this futility, I pulled into parking spaces normally and didn’t get any sideway glances).

5. Gas stations (aka, Petrol Stands)

It used to be that every gas station in Japan was “Full Service,” which is definitely my preference. I had enough trouble remembering which side of the car my gas cap was on, but increasingly there are “Self Service” places as well, so choose wisely. I recommend trying to find a full-service station if possible as the attendant will take care of the work for you, and you just need a small amount of Japanese. For example, “regular” (レギュラー) for the gas, genkin (現金) for cash vs. credit card, manten for “fill ‘er up”, etc.

6. ETC card

Driving in Japan landscape

When I picked up my rental car, the staff asked if I would like to rent an ETC card. I highly recommend taking advantage of this service, if for no other reason than you never know when the GPS will take you on a toll as the easiest/fastest route. The rental fee is very small (around $3) and you can use the special ETC lanes when you get on/off and don’t need to go fishing for yen change every time you use one. You then pay the tolls at the rental office when you drop off the car—easy peasy!

7. GPS

Driving in Japan road

Speaking of, most rental cars come with English as an option on their GPS, and the office staff can help set this to English, so it defaults for the entire time you have the car. This way no, or minimal, translation is required to get from Point A to Point B. Some icons occasionally come up in Japanese only, but not the “search destination by phone number”, so just be sure to have the phone number for your accommodation/museum/temple etc. handy.

8. Using your turn-signal… er, windshield wipers

Driving in Japan road

Let’s face it: Americans don’t use their turn signals are often as they could, should, or are technically required by law to do so. Another facet of Japanese driving is that almost everyone, with rare exceptions, will use their turn signals without question so it’s a good habit to get back into for your trip.

Fun fact: in Japanese cars, the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel and the windshield wipers are on the left, so you will probably spend part (or most) of your driving time running the wipers when you’re trying to signal your intention to turn. I was doing really well remembering, and for a moment thought I could make it through all five days without muffing this, and then… well, it only happened a few times towards the end, so I count that as victory!

9. Speed Limits

Driving in Japan landscape

All in kilometres, but so is the speedometer, so if you match the numbers, you need never fear being pulled over for exceeding the speed limit. Though to be honest I only recall ever seeing one police car. Still, keep yourself honest and you don’t need to worry. Although I did see quite a few Japanese cars on the expressway who seemed to think they were driving in Daytona…

10. Road-tripping (Japan-style)

Tree between Sakata and Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata

Although it was a minor relief to board a train again, I really enjoyed my days in the rental car. The overall scenery feels more real somehow and you can get closer to daily life than on trains, visiting parts of rural Japan that foreigners hardly ever see, or would be impossible to get to just by public transport. I have to give a shout-out to Japan’s awesome road stations (michi-no-eki); they’re similar to rest areas but with shopping corners for local goods/foods and usually at least one restaurant where weary travellers can grab a hearty meal before hitting the road again.

Happy driving in Japan!

Take to Japan’s open roads on our Romantic Road Self-Guided Adventure, or contact our Japan experts for some more options.

Fancy driving something a bit snazzier? Check out James’s blog on driving supercars through Tokyo.

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