Japan is a great country to drive in. The roads are excellent, the other drivers are polite and you can really see so much more of the country. Here are our top tips on how to drive safely in Japan.
Driving in a different country is one of my favourite things. However, the idea of driving in South East Asia is a different story. I’d never want to drive in Thailand or Malaysia for instance – it just seems that bit too chaotic.
Japan on the other hand is in fact a pleasure to drive in.
Roads are well maintained, the drivers are polite and obey the majority of the important road rules, and rental cars don’t feel like they’re about to blow up or fall apart.
When we were in Okinawa – in the very south of Japan – we hired a car for a week. The roads on this unique island are superb. They hug the coastline, bend and flex round mountains and cut in across the landscape like they have a will of their own.
There are also a huge number of beautifully built bridges and cool tunnels throughout the island that make this one of the great driving destinations for road tourists.
Here are our top 7 tips on how to drive safely in Japan
1. Which side of the road do you drive on in Japan?
You drive on the left side of the road in Japan. It’s the same as the UK and Australia, which was handy for us, but if you’re not used to driving on the left, don’t worry; it doesn’t take too long to get used to.
Cyclists don’t obey the road rules though. Don’t be surprised if you see someone pedalling towards you on the hard shoulder. Or maybe do be surprised, but don’t be alarmed; they do this all the time. Just give the bicycle a wide berth and everyone will be happy.
2. The speed limit in Japan and how fast you can drive
Speed limits in Japan are all in kilometres per hour and the fastest you can go is 100kph on expressways. We found that the locals live in two camps about obeying the speed limit – maybe three. On one hand they stick rigorously to the law and will not be pushed into going faster.
Most people tend to use the +20 rule; whatever the speed limit is, add 20 to it and you’re about right.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, there are people who are crazy and want to drive as fast as humanly possible. These Tokyo Drift wannabes are often quite funny though, because they’re still only driving a crappy little car that doesn’t really enjoy going that fast!
There are police patrol cars about, but I think they put up with the +20. In rural areas you probably won’t see any cops, but on the highway, expressway or when you come to busier towns, you might spot some.
There don’t seem to be any operational speed cameras on the roads – definitely not in Okinawa.
3. What are the roads and roadsigns like?
The roads in Japan are usually in excellent condition. Even somewhere as provincial as Okinawa, they’re well maintained.
Road signs are all in dual languages for places, which is very handy. However, there are lots of other signs that are only in Japanese. We kind of figured that if the signs were that important, they’d have them in English too… or have pictures.
Keep your eye out for some of these pictures – especially the bus stop signs and roadwork signs. The pictures can range between being very cute and funny to quite alarming.
4. Traffic lights and pedestrians
The Japanese tend to use traffic lights as somewhere between a general guideline and a challenge. The light has to be completely and definitely red before they’ll stop. You’ll see locals race to get through a junction while there’s the slightest still a hint of amber in the lights, so make sure you check before you pull away when yours goes green.
There are zebra crossings in Japan, but drivers do not stop at them, so if you’re walking, please remember this.
Before each zebra crossing is a big diamond painted on the road. I don’t know what this means. ‘Speed up’ perhaps. However, if you do stop for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing, they will be incredibly thankful to you. It’s very cute.
5. Courtesy and road culture
As with the rest of Japanese culture, you’ll find their manners and patience on the road beyond what you usually find elsewhere in the world.
People will wait for you to pass through a narrow road, they’ll let you in when you’re stuck in traffic or trying to come out of a junction, and they’ll thank you with a cheeky wave if you let them in too.
For motorway driving, they use their hazard lights to thank each other or to apologise, so don’t freak out if someone pulls in front of you and flashes both their blinkers.
If you’re parking or doing a three-point turn in the road, everyone will stop and wait patiently until you’re completely out of the way. They will never honk their horn at you or gesticulate.
People tend not to tailgate, but if they do, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The person will ignore it or they’ll just pull over to the side, let everyone pass them then carry on at their own pace. We saw this happen a lot in Okinawa where there are a lot of older drivers who don’t want to drive like the clappers.
6. What licence do you need to drive in Japan?
If you want to drive in Japan, car hire places are very strict about having the right licence. You’ll need your national driver’s licence and your International Driver’s Permit too. Here’s more info on Australian drivers getting the IDP, but not all countries can have this bilateral driver’s permit.
Check this list to see if your country is listed. If it’s not, you’ll need your national driver’s licence translated into Japanese by an official translator and you’ll need to show both licences and your passport at the same time.
7. How to use your rental car’s GPS
When you rent a car in Japan, you’ll probably get one with GPS built in. Make sure you get the clerk at the rental place to set it up for you in English. If the lady serving us hadn’t done it, we’d never have found our way through the menus.
GPS locations are not done via street addresses or landmarks in Japan. They use ‘map reference numbers’ – whatever they are – and (wait for it) telephone numbers!
Bonus tip: Paying tolls and getting gas in Japan
The expressways through Japan are great, but you will have to pay a toll. First you go through a ticket station where you take your ‘highway traffic ticket’ which registers where you started using the expressway. When you come to your exit, you’ll come to a toll booth area.
Your GPS should tell you how much it’s going to be before you get to the pay station (only use the cash gates), then you need to have your yellow ticket and money ready to give the staff member. If your GPS hasn’t told you the amount, the screen at the station will once the toll operator processes your ticket.
The more ready you can be when you’re going through the toll booths the better. There aren’t many high-stress times on Japanese roads, but this is one if you’re not prepared.
Petrol stations in Japan usually feature full service attendants, which means you sit in your car, they pump the gas, you pay through your window and drive away.
This is excellent… if you can speak Japanese. Most of the time though, you can work it out with the attendant fairly easily. They might try and get you to pay cash like they did with us in Okinawa once, but they can all take credit card.
We wondered if they were trying a scam we were nearly caught out on in Mexico, where the guy says you gave him a smaller bill when you didn’t. Or they just prefer cold hard cash in Japanese petrol stations. Maybe both!
I also have a good tip for making sure you’re approaching the pump for the right side of your car. This is an international feature on pretty much all cars now: if you look at the petrol gauge on the console, there should be a little arrow somewhere. This is pointing to the side of the car where the petrol goes.
Have you ever driven in Japan? Do you have any top tips for hiring cars? Tell us about it in the comments below!