Public transport in Japan is generally amazing; trains run on time virtually all the time, buses are regular and easy to use, and flying is also a reasonable option if you’re traveling far. However, a car can grant you freedom you don’t get from public transport.
Rules when hiring a car.
Unlike hiring a car in your home country, hiring a car in Japan can mean a few extra steps. Most countries are required to provide an international drivers license along with their regular license. This essentially translates the information on your license into several languages (depending on the country you’re from), and usually has a validity of at least a year. Be sure to check before you travel.
For UK license holders, you also have to show a copy of your driving history. To do this, go to the DVLA website and generate a code. This is only valid for 21 days, so do it right before you leave. You can either write the code down and show it when you collect your car, or you can print off a copy of your driving history with the code attached. To obtain an international drivers license, you can apply through the AA or through the Post Office. Just follow the simple steps online.
For USA license holders, you can apply online for an international license. Check the DMV website for more information and to apply.
Traffic laws to be aware of.
Japan drives on the left side of the road, the same as the UK, opposite for almost the rest of the world, The steering wheel in the car is on the right side, pedals work the same as everywhere else in the world.
Speed limits in Japan are in km/hr and are much slower than the USA and Europe. For example, the Expressway (a toll road found all over Japan) is 80km/hr (around 50mph). Most standard roads are 40-60km/hr, with some as slow as 25-30km/hr in congested areas and around schools.
Most road signs can be found with English on them as well as Japanese, though some smaller towns and rural areas may not have this. Times Car Rental has a good list of basic road traffic rules on their website. Be sure to familiarize yourself before you go.
There are a lot of positives to having a car vs. using public transport.
- More freedom on where you go and when.
- Not reliant on public transport.
- Can travel earlier or later than public transport runs.
- Can go to places public transport doesn’t cover.
- Save money on constantly using trains or buses.
- Cheaper than flying.
- See parts of Japan you wouldn’t see from a plane, train or bus.
With anything in life, there are also downsides.
- Parking in major cities and even smaller towns is generally not free, even at hotels, so it can be very expensive to have your vehicle sat for any length of time.
- Traffic in major cities can suck, and even smaller towns and cities have congestion issues.
- The expressway is a great way to get around quickly, but it is also expensive.
- If you book last minute, it could cost you more than if you book in advance.
Despite the costly parking and traffic, I preferred having a car vs. using public transport, simply because of the freedom it allowed. It’s definitely worth considering as an option if you ever find yourself in Japan.
Happy and safe travels,