Hiring a car in Japan is a great way to explore the country at your own pace and itinerary. Here are some tips on how to hire a car in Japan and what to expect.
We love driving ourselves around when we travel. It gives us that feeling of independence you can’t get with a tour or even relying solely on public transport.
We decided to hire a car on our recent trip to Okinawa in Japan’s sub-tropical south. Okinawa doesn’t have much public transport and taxis can be quite expensive. In fact the price of a week’s car hire was the same as a return taxi ride from our hotel in the north of Okinawa Island to Naha Island in the south.
For all these reasons, we decided to hire a car in Japan. It turned out to be the best thing we could have done.
Here are the things we learned from our experience we think will help you if you decide to hire a car in Japan too.
How to hire a car in Japan and what to expect
Car hire in Japan is relatively inexpensive, and the roads are well maintained and safe. People obey the road rules here quite strictly even though there aren’t as many highway cops visible as other countries.
International driver’s licence
You’ll need an international driver’s licence to drive in Japan. This is a registered certificate to say that your domestic driver’s licence is valid and you’re able to drive in other countries.
You don’t need to take a test; you just pay for the licence from your country’s national auto association as part of the 1949 Geneva Convention. However, Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Taiwan and – ironically – Switzerland do not have this agreement.
Booking a car
We booked our car online before we left Australia. There are lots of car hire companies in Japan; most of them offer services in English.
If you’re picking up a car from the airport, make sure you find a rental company that has a free shuttle service.
Picking up your car
In the office, the staff will go through your rental agreement and paperwork. They will ask for your international driver’s licence, domestic driver’s licence and your passport.
They will also give you a huge amount information about the car, the road rules and the local area.
After you’ve signed for the car and chosen your insurance level (we risked it and didn’t take the extra cover as our travel insurance covers a lot of rental car stuff).
Next the staff member will probably point to where you need to go to collect the car… and then go with you to it to inspect it. They’ll go round the car checking for existing damage the same as you do with all rental cars.
Make sure you get them to set up your car’s GPS – ours was set in Japanese at first, and changing it to English was confusing even for her!
Japanese GPS systems
I don’t know if this is normal, but our car’s GPS didn’t work by street addresses or locales. It worked by ‘map references’ – whatever that is – and phone numbers!
I honestly don’t know what you do if you don’t have the map reference or the phone number.
Parking in Japan
Parking in Japan is tricky. There’s no such thing as free street parking here away from shopping centres, supermarkets and tourist sites.
If you get a parking ticket, you need to pay it or the rental company has the right to fine you! The rental company is very clear about what the parking tickets look like and will show you a picture of one when you sign for the car.
There are even parking metres that come with clamps! You park over the clamp, a bar comes up under the car and when you go to leave, you pay and the bar drops again. Scary stuff – because if you forget to pay, the clamp will basically rip the bottom of your car out!
Getting gas in Japan
Most gas stations in Japan are full service, so you just stay in your car and a little fella comes out and pumps the petrol for you. There are usually 3 types of petrol available: diesel, premium and regular – green, yellow and red pumps.
The attendant will probably try and get you to pay with cash, but you don’t have to. Be persistent if you’d prefer to pay by card. They will be able to do it.
You can even try asking in Japanese: “Credit Card wa tsukaemasuka?”
Returning your rental car
Usually you need to return rental cars with a full tank of gas – though we’ve had ones where we had to return the car with the same amount of petrol as when we picked it up.
When you fill up, make sure you keep the receipt from the gas station. The car rental company will want to check it when you hand your keys in.
Driving in Japan is really a great experience. I would be less keen to drive in other countries in Asia, but in Japan the road rules are very clear, the drivers are (mostly) polite and careful, and it’s pretty easy to work out where you’re going.
Car hire companies
There are lots of rental companies in Japan – it’s kind of overwhelming. There are some that are quite clearly for locals only, but most are happy to load to ‘gaijin’ too.
Our recommendations for car hire companies – and this is only from what we’ve experienced and isn’t sponsored – are Europcar for an international company, and Times Car Rentals for a national one. These guys seem to be affiliated anyway.
We hope this has encouraged you to drive in Japan. It really does open up this fascinating country more.
If you’ve driven in Japan or have more tips on hiring a car there, please let us know. It’s always good to hear more from you.