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A Comprehensive Guide to Rent a Car in Japan

Rental cars are convenient for traveling in rural areas with limited transportation links. This article covers how to rent a car as well as things to keep in mind when driving in Japan.

Convenient for Regional Travel

Rental cars are by far the most convenient mode of travel when visiting areas with limited public transportation. They enable you to see a larger area and easily access remote locations. They also allow you to travel at your own pace in places where the number of trains and buses are limited. Rental cars are also convenient for travel with luggage and small children.

Recent Trends (1)

The use of rental cars by foreign visitors to Japan is increasing yearly, and surpassed 705,000 users in 2015. It is particularly popular in Okinawa, where there is limited public transportation. It is also widely used in Hokkaido, where tourist destinations are spread out.

Recent Trends (2)

There has also been an increase in rental car accidents involving foreign drivers. Some of them may be due to unfamiliar cars, steering wheels, traffic rules and road signs. To avoid ruining your trip with an accident, be sure to check traffic rules and road signs in advance if you plan to rent a car. Please reference the All Japan Rent-a-Car Association website for useful information on traffic rules for foreign visitors.

Driver's Licenses

The minimum age to get an ordinary driver's license in Japan is 18, so if you are not 18 or older, you cannot drive in Japan even if you have a driver's license. To rent a car in Japan, you will need to present a valid driver's license as described below as well as a passport.

Driver's licenses that are valid in Japan
・Driver's licenses issued in Japan (for residents of Japan)
・International driving permits
International driving permits issued by a signatory country to the Vienna Convention on International Traffic, to be issued by the home country's traffic authority before traveling to Japan.
・Driver's licenses with official Japanese translations
A valid driver's license issued by Switzerland, Germany, France, Taiwan, Belgium, Slovenia or Monaco is acceptable to drive in Japan with if accompanied by an official translation (by Japan Automobile Federation or the issuing country's embassy or consulate.)

The Basics of Japanese Traffic Rules

Here are some Japanese traffic rules you should know before reserving or driving a rental car in Japan.

Driving on the left, speed limits and parking rules
・Pedestrians have the right-of-way over cars
・The steering wheel is on the right side of the car and cars are driven on the left side of the road
・If there are no signs, the speed limit for a standard-sized automobile is 60km per hour on an ordinary road and 100km per hour on a highway
・Parking is prohibited in the following areas:
 Where there is a no parking sign or notice
 In intersections and within 5m of the edge of an intersection
 Where there is a combination of a solid and dashed line on the side of a narrow road (this indicates that parking is prohibited)
 Where there are two solid lines on the side of the road indicating the pedestrian area
 Inside tunnels
・Drinking and driving is prohibited
・Use of cellphones and navigation systems while driving is prohibited
・The driver and all passengers must wear seatbelts
・Children under 6 must be in a child seat

Road signs you should know
Japanese road signs are not multilingual. To drive safely, be sure to memorize some basic signs such as 一方通行 (one-way), 一時停止 (stop), 進入禁止 (no entry), 駐車禁止 (no parking) and 最高速度(speed limit).

What to do when an ambulance or police car comes
If an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance, fire truck, or police car comes with flashing red lights and sirens, check your surroundings and give them right-of-way as quickly as possible. If you are near an intersection, avoid driving into the intersection and stop your car on the left side of the road. If you are not near an intersection, or are already in an intersection, there is no need to stop your car. Instead, drive to the left side of the road and take the appropriate action. If you are on a one-way street and parking on the left side will block traffic, you can stop the car on the right side of the road.

Rental Car Rates

Most rental car agencies will allow you to rent cars in units such as "up to 6 hours", "up to 12 hours" and "up to 24 hours". Base rates differ by agency, but prices for light and compact cars are generally in the ranges listed below:

Up to 6 hours/Up to 12 hours: 5,000 JPY - 8,000 JPY
Up to 24 hours: 7,000 JPY - 10,000 JPY
Additional day: 5,000 JPY - 8,000 JPY
Additional hour: 1,000 JPY - 1,500 JPY

*In addition to the base rates, there may be damage waiver fees, option fees and various handling fees depending on the package.

Types of Rental Car Agencies

There are numerous rental car agencies across the country, ranging from major ones that rent out new cars, to ones that specialize in used cars. Each has its pros and cons, so it is prudent to do your research and choose an agency that suits your travel plans and budget.

Characteristics of major rental agencies
・Generally rent out new cars
・Offer a wide selection of vehicle types
・Most cars come with navigation systems
・Offer extensive options
・Are in convenient locations close to airports and stations
・Offer free pick-up and drop-off
・Many allow drop off at other locations
・Offer extensive services

Other rental car agencies
There are many other rental car agencies, each with its own strengths. For example, some offer cheaper prices by renting out used cars and others offer localized services.

Rental Procedures - from Reservation to Return

To rent a car, first make a reservation online or at a branch of a rental car agency. It is possible to request a car on the day you want to use it, but many rental agencies will not be able to offer the car type of your choice due to reservations. So, it is better to make a reservation between a week and several days in advance. Here is how to reserve online so you can make arrangements before traveling to Japan.

1. Go to the rental site

First, access the official website of the rental car agency. Agencies such as NIPPON RENT-A-CAR, TOYOTA Rent a Car, NISSAN Rent a Car, and ORIX Rent-A-Car have multilingual sites, so first-timers can easily make reservations.

1. Go to the rental site

2. Choose the rental area

Next, choose the area to rent in. Branches near airports and stations are often chosen as the pick-up location. Although cars are typically returned to the same branch, some agencies allow you to drop the car off at other branches. This will enable you to travel more efficiently, although the rates are usually higher if you wish to drop off at another location.

3. Choose a car type

Select a car to suit the objective of your trip and the number of people traveling. Traveling with the maximum number of people indicated for each car type may feel tight, so be sure to choose a larger car. The lineup of cars will depend by agency, but here are some recommendations for type of car to suit different situations. *The number in brackets indicate the recommended number of people in a car.

A car with good maneuverability if you are seeing the sights in a city in a small group.
Examples: Daihatsu MOVE (2-3 people), Nissan March (2-4 people), Toyota Vitz (2-4 people), etc.

A roomy car if you are traveling with children or planning to do a lot of shopping.
Examples: Honda N-WGN (2-3 people), Honda FREED (4-5 people), Toyota WISH (4-5 people), etc.

An eco car suited for long-distance driving if you are covering a large area.
Examples: Toyota Prius (2-4 people), Toyota AQUA (2-4 people), Honda Fit Hybrid (2-4 people), etc.

4. Select options

Select options such as insurance/damage waiver, navigation systems, and child seats.

Insurance/damage waiver
Major rental agencies will have car insurance protection included in the base rate. However, if you cause an accident, you will need to pay for the deductible. There may also be a "non-operation charge (NOC)" payable to the rental agency if the car requires cleaning or repairs due to accident, theft, breakdown, staining, etc. There are options to add waivers or insurance that covers NOC to reduce such potential liabilities.

Car navigation systems
Most cars rented out by major rental agencies come with car navigation systems, but some agencies that offer discounted packages may offer them as an option instead. Most car navigation systems can only be controlled by voice command in Japanese, but some can be controlled in other languages such as English, Korean, and Chinese.

Child seats
Japanese law requires all children under the age of 6 to be in child seats when traveling in a car*. Most rental agencies offer seats for babies, toddlers and children, so be sure to select the one appropriate for your child's height.

*Exemptions may apply when it is difficult for the child to be in a child seat due to illness or physical limitations.

5. Register at the branch

On the day of reservation, go to the branch to register. To register, you will need a driver's license that is valid in Japan and a passport. The base rate and options must be paid for in advance, and most agencies require that they be paid by credit card. You may be liable for repairs if you damage the car, so be sure to check that there are no scratches before taking the car.

6. Fill up before returning (or have it charged by distance)

The fuel tank must be filled up prior to returning the rental car. In some cases, the agency designates a gas station, but usually you can fill up at any gas station near the place you are returning to. You may be asked for the receipt from the gas station, so be sure to keep it.
Gasoline stands close at night in some provincial areas. In that case, you can opt to be charged at the agency's rate for gas but it tends to be more expensive than filling up yourself.

7. Return the car

The rented car is usually returned to the branch you rented at. However, if you choose the option to drop it off at another location, it can be returned to the designated location. If there are any charges that have been incurred after first renting the car, such as a late fee, your credit card will be charged when you return the car.

Hints for Smooth Driving

How to enter a highway

Highways are convenient when you are traveling long distances. Entrance/exits to highways are called "interchange (IC)" and have two types of gates. If you are charging an ETC*, use the ETC gate, and if you are paying by cash or credit card**, use the gate marked 一般 (general).
The speed limit is maximum 100km per hour and minimum 50km per hour for an ordinary car unless otherwise noted.

*ETC (Electronic Toll Collection System) is a system that allows cars to pass toll stations without stopping. To use it, the car must have a special card reader installed and ETC card inserted.
**The toll is determined by a ticket that is issued at the booth when entering the highway. When exiting the highway, show the ticket at the booth and pay the required amount.

How to fill up

Gas stations in Japan can generally be divided into two types: Full-service stations where the staff take care of everything from filling up the car to cleaning the windows, to self-service stations where you fill up yourself. The method of filling up using self-service pumps is similar to other countries in America, Europe ,and Asia. There are three gasoline options—regular, high octane, and diesel—so be sure to get the right one.

How to use parking lots

Roadside parking in Japan is restricted, and you can be fined if you park in a prohibited area. It is therefore prudent to park in a parking lot when you reach your destination. Parking fees are paid differently depending on the type of parking lot. Here are some common methods.

Gated parking lots
Larger parking lots often have gates at the entrance and exit. At these lots, get a ticket indicating the time of arrival and present it when leaving to make the payment. Parking lots connected to shopping centers can be free or discounted with purchases beyond a certain amount. The direction of lanes in parking lots are specified, so be sure not to drive in the wrong direction.

Parking lots with locks
Parking lots called "coin parking" often have locks. When a car is parked, the lock on the ground automatically comes up and locks the car in. When entering the lot, simply drive the car into an open space. To leave, pay for parking at a machine. Enter the number of the space your car is in, pay the indicated amount and the lock on your car will be released.

Vertical parking lots
Many parking lots in cities are multi-storied or vertical. The multi-storied parking lots are usually gated lots where you drive the car up multiple levels to an open space.
Vertical, machine-operated parking lots have machines that take the car up to a space. Drive the car to the designated spot and the rest, including payment, is handled by the staff.

How to use car navigation systems

Car navigation systems are helpful to smoothly reach a destination in an unfamiliar location. Here are some examples of how to set the destination in a car navigation system. *Operation may differ by system

Use a telephone number
1. Select "phone number" in the destination menu
2. Enter the phone number of your destination
3. When the results show up, choose the one you want
4. Select "start navigation"
5. Select the route of your choice from options such as "recommended", "include toll roads", and "avoid toll roads"

Use an address or name
1. Select "address" or "name" in the destination menu
2. Enter the address or name of your destination
3-5. Follow the same steps as for telephone numbers

What to do when there is snow

Roads that are frozen or have snow on them must be driven on slowly and carefully. They are slippery, so do not accelerate or brake suddenly. Speed up or down slowly, and leave plenty of space between yourself and the car in front of you. Your vision may be impaired by snow falling or blown up from the ground or by mist, so if you have difficulty seeing, slow down. Refrain from driving in the snow if you do not feel comfortable doing so.

Studless tires
If you plan to drive on snow covered or frozen roads, be sure to get studless tires that have large indentations to pack the snow down and prevent ice forming on them.
When you are renting a car, you can choose the option to have the tires changed to studless. Cars may already be fitted with studless tires in snowy area.

Snow chains
Snow chains give you the most driving power on snow-covered roads. Snow chains may be required on highways when there is a heavy snow warning or unusually heavy snow. The chains can break when driven on regular roads without snow, so they must be taken off in accordance with driving conditions.
Studless tires, which can be driven on regular roads, are recommended for winter driving. However, if heavy snow is expected, it is prudent to have snow chains as well.

It is common to feel nervous about driving in unfamiliar conditions, with traffic rules and signs that are different from your own country. The information in this article is intended to help you drive more comfortably and confidently.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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