Driving In Japan (And Best Place to Rent A Car)
Driving in Japan is quite a pleasant experience. Japan, like most of South East Asia, drives on the left side of the road. Most drivers are very polite and you will hardly hear anyone horning, even at traffic jams. We rented a car to drive around for a few days. If you are travelling with young children and the elderly, having a car will be so much more convenient as it will cut down the amount of walking.
Yet, driving in a different country is almost the same with the same safety rules as you would follow in your own home country. However, they do come with different quirks, so here is our experience and a list of things to look out for.
Get an IDP
This is mandatory. Renting a car in Japan is much like anywhere else in the world. However, unless you have a Japanese driver licence, you will need an IDP, International Driving Permit. It is a legal requirement. Having an Aussie license and having driven mostly in America and Singapore, I had forgotten the need for an IDP when driving in non-english speaking countries. Without it, you will not be able to rent a car. I was bummed out when I tried to rent a car in Okinawa some time ago. I didn’t get my IDP in time. So make sure you give yourself plenty of time to apply for one before you make the trip. Usually takes 1 - 2 weeks. Fortunately there are online sites you can apply for an IDP, especially when you can’t do it in person in your own home country.
Americans - https://www.aaa.com/vacation/idpf.html
Small Japanese Streets
Depending on where you drive, most roads will look the same. Roads further out of city areas tend to be smaller and narrower. Especially in residential zones. You won’t be able to avoid them because some of the sightseeing spots do drive through some form of residential and small streets. Hence, rental cars are smaller than usual. You do have the option of renting a larger vehicle for a bigger travel party, however, you will have to be extra skilful when navigating some of these tight streets. We have driven under small tunnels and small streets that are two-way traffic. Some carparks are also very small, though not unreasonable.
Seat Belts & Smart Phones
Seat belts for both passengers (including back seat) and driver is mandatory and enforced. As is the prohibited use of smart phones while driving (for the driver, of course). This is a safety issue and it's pretty much standard practice is most countries now anyway. So, be smart, be safe.
Traffic can get really bad, we were told, especially during peak holiday season or rush hour. We were there at the start of Golden Week - that 10 day ‘Showa’ period in late April/early May when the entire Japan goes on holiday. We were bracing ourselves for crowds and there certainly were at some malls and sights. But on the roads, though crowded, hardly had any deadlock traffic situations. Cars were mostly still moving, at a 20 to 30km/hr speeds on highways.
Rush hour is usually 7 - 9 am mornings and 5 - 7pm in the evenings. But during Golden Week, morning traffic was a breeze. Because I guess no one was rushing to work!
This one is a grey area. One of the first things we notice is that speed limits on highways are very low. Like 50 or 60km/h low. The highest speed limit we've seen is 80km/h and they last for short stretches on the highway and then it goes back to 60km/h. Yet, we notice everyone goes above the speed limit, sometimes by up to 40 km/h above limit!
I know Aussies reading this are probably grabbing their pearls gasping right now. For those unaware, speeding is pretty much zero tolerance in Australia. Anything 5km/h above the speed limit is considered an offence carrying a fine of several hundred dollars with demerit points. At 30km/h over speed limit, you lose your licence on the spot!
Some online forums are saying that Japan is very tolerant when it comes to enforcing speed limits. It sounds incredible but it seems there is a collective understanding that speed limits are more of an advisory, hardly enforced and drivers can go as fast as they need to, as long as it is safe. I find it hard to get my head around that. It seems the speed limit signs posted are more like a minimum speed you should be going?
According to wikipedia, speed cameras in Japan have an over the limit tolerance of 40km/h on highways and 30km/h on other local roads. Police enforcement also have a tolerance of 15 to 20km/h above speed limit. Now I don’t think this should be your licence to speed. As with common sense, be safe.
Well, I decided to follow the speed of the locals when driving. Because I noticed that when I try to follow the speed limits, I am hogging the road. As they say, do as the locals do and you should be alright.
ETC are highway tollbooths. It stands for Electronic Toll Collection. These are small gantries you would see when entering or exiting highways. Highways are known as an IC, Interchange. There is no way to avoid them unless you avoid driving on highways altogether. Most rental cars would come fitted with an ETC card reader. The best thing to do when renting a car is to rent an ETC card from the rental company. Get them to insert the card to make sure it's properly engaged. That way you don't have to stop at the tollbooth and fumble with cash to pay for tolls.
To pay by cash, use the green lanes with the Japanese characters “一般”. Paying by cash is more expensive than with an ETC card.
If you have an ETC card, you can drive through the purple lane that says “ETC”. Slow down to 20km/h as you enter the ETC tollbooth as instructed. When the sensor has successfully debited the card, the boom gate will open and you're on your way.
Some rental companies charge you extra to rent an ETC card, but local rental companies like ToCoo! will rent you the card for free, only charging you for the tolls you placed on the card at the end of the rental.
The cost of tolls can add up. Of course, taking the IC/highway with tolls should make your journey faster. Our 3 day drive, including wrong turns, resulting in extra toll charges, added up to about ¥6000. Works out to be an extra AUD$78. That's about AUD$26 toll fees a day and while it doesn't seem like much, when you factor in the rental cost and fuel, it could add up. We were also a little prudent when determining our routes and choosing in some instances to avoid tolls and drive a little longer. I guess you have to decide how much time you actually save by paying for tolls before taking on the fastest route. If the difference is only 10 minutes longer and you are not in a hurry I'd take the option without tolls. But if it saves you more than 30 mins, perhaps paying for tolls might be a good idea. If you don’t already know, Google Maps can search for routes with or without tolls. It also gives you real time traffic conditions to show you how long you expect to be driving based on chosen routes.
Based on our experience driving in Fukuoka toll roads, fees per toll start from ¥550 (AUD$7) and in some case go up to ¥1300 (AUD$17).
This is actually one of my favourite experiences, strangely enough. There are generally 3 types of parking in Japan. Street parking, multi-storey parking and automated parking systems (also known as vertical parking).
Street Parking is the most common form. Unlike how the name suggests, it is more off street parking in a designated zone, usually off street corners. There are also no time limits to how long you can park. There is usually a maximum amount stated for long term parking, such as overnight parking. Cars are parked in parking bays that have a ramp that raises and locks the car in place after about 3 minutes. These usually are about ¥100 to ¥200 yen per hour. Overnight parking at these parking lots usually charge a maximum of ¥800 to ¥1000 yen. As with most parking, you park and pay later. In this case, there is a machine at the entrance to the carpark where you enter your park bay number and pay the required amount. The ramp will unlock and lower itself giving you probably another 3 - 5 minutes to remove your car.
Multi-storey parking is common in malls and shopping centres. It would be familiar with most people who live and drive in city dwellings. Again, payment is taken when you leave the building. You take a ticket when you enter. You pay when you drive out, at the exit booth, by inserting the ticket and paying the required amount. Some malls have free 1 - 2 hour parking if you spend a minimum amount. So do look out for those. Although it might be in Japanese. But chances are, if you read Chinese, you can kinda make out what it means.
Automated Parking System is one of those Japanese inventions. The mechanism literally parks for you. We parked at IWATA in Tenjin and all we had to do was drive into one of the platforms with rollers underneath, engage handbrake, put the transmission in park, turn off engine and lock the car, grab a ticket from the attendant and the car gets swallowed up into what looks like a compactor machine. Exiting the carpark was also a breeze. Insert ticket into machine right outside the platform where we last left the car, make payment and wait for our car to be rolled back out from the vertical parking thingamajig.
Parking at your accomodation? Depending on your hotel, you may have free parking within the property. Some hotels charge an overnight fee which isn’t exorbitant. If you are at an airbnb, chances are you would have to park at a street parking nearby.
When you return your car, it is common knowledge that you need to fill it back to a full tank. Assuming you picked up the car with a full tank of gas. Gas stations are all local Japanese run and we see very few international brands like Shell. At least in the Fukuoka, Kyushu area. Idemitsu and Eneos are just some of the common local gas stations you will see. Gas prices are about ¥140 - ¥150 per litre (SGD$1.80 or USD$1.30). Some come with convenient stores with even onsen baths! Some are full service with an attendant to help you fill it up. To say full tank of gas, say ‘Mantan’ and the attendant will do the necessary. In service stations that are self serve, you need to insert cash into the machine first. About ¥5000 will be more than sufficient if you have about half a tank to fill up. Don’t worry if it seems you are overpaying the machine, you will get back any excess in change. If you are stuck, you can always wave to the attendant inside the store for help.
Final Thoughts - Booking Online or Walk Up rental?
Our experience was met with detours. Usually we book rental cars online and had no troubles. One of the things we were told by a certain online rental agency we chose, that when booking and picking up the car, the driver has to present a credit card (not debit) that is in their name.
Now, in our experience, most car rental companies just require a credit card and it doesn't matter if it is in the driver's name, as long as they are part of the travel party. This has been the case in almost all of the rentals in the past. I don't have a credit card and mostly used my partner's card when we travel together and it's always worked.
In a strange turn of events, 10 days after booking and paying a deposit for the car rental, we were told by that same online rental agency that they've run out of cars due to the holiday season in Japan. It was 3 days out to our holiday in Japan and we desperately needed a car because we were travelling with my partner's mum, who is in her 60s. Upset but determined to rent a car, I subsequently found a local japanese company, ToCoo, that had more favourable rental terms. The prices were cheaper by 25% compared to the former rental agency whose tagline suggests they have the cheapest rentals in the universe.
Our experience with ToCoo! was way more straightforward. We picked up the car without any dramas and they accepted my partner's credit card without question. The only issue was communication. As they are a local Japanese company, no one could speak any English (or mandarin), so it was a hilarious 15 minutes of pointing to brochures, folders with instructions and lots of 'Ok? Ok ok Ok? Ok… ooooh, ok, OK!'. Fortunately, all of the collateral and rental literature was in English so we knew what we were signing. The lady who helped us kept apologising for not being able to speak English, to which we said 'Daijoubu', meaning, 'It's alright'.
They even helped us insert and make sure the ETC card was engaged properly in the reader which was mega helpful. Cos the voice feedback from the reader was in Japanese, which we didn't understand.
So if you are looking at renting a car in Japan, try ToCoo! If you are in a similar situation where the driver does not have a credit card but someone in your travel party or family member can use their credit card for the booking, this could be a good choice. You don’t want to rock up to the rental agency and be left without a rental car and wreck your holiday. ToCoo! are also significantly cheaper than international rental car websites. Highly recommend ToCoo! if you are renting a car in Japan.
PS; Really not trying to shout but ToCoo! really has an exclamation to their branding. How cute is that!
Have you driven in Japan before? What is your experience like? Did I miss anything in this blog? Let me know in the comments below!