Getting around Japan by car
Especially outside of the cities, long-time residents of Japan often own a car and each year more visitors to Japan are renting cars and driving themselves to the snow. This trend is very likely to continue. Hopefully our 'By Car' regional Travel Guides will be of help to those planning to drive. On this page we present an introduction to driving in Japan.
Driving in Japan is on the left hand side of the road with the driver sitting on the right side. Most roads in Japan are toll free with the exceptions of expressways and some special toll roads which are sometimes found in popular tourist areas. Road signs follow international standards and most signs on major roads - and also quite a lot of minor roads - are in English as well as Japanese, so it is fairly easy to get used to.
Having said that, it is definitely worth learning and remembering a bit of Japanese to help with safety and also from unwittingly breaking the law as well - 'I don't understand Japanese' won't be accepted as an excuse!
There is zero tolerance for alcohol (and drugs) - do not drive if you have had any alcoholic drink... the limit is zero. It is also actually illegal to be a passenger in a car if you know the driver is under the influence of alcohol.
To drive in Japan you will either need a Japanese driving licence or an International Driving Permit based on the Geneva Convention of 1949. Certain countries issue driving permits on different conventions and so it is best to enquire at your country embassy or automobile association for more specific information for your country. You need to get the permit in your home country before arriving in Japan - they are not available once you arrive in Japan.
For those based in Japan for longer periods of time, a Japanese driving licence (unten menkyo) is a good thing to get. If you own a driving licence from certain countries listed below, you will be able to get a Japanese driving licence without the need to take an exam or take a practical driving test - just an application procedure:
If you have a drivers licence from a country that does not have an agreement with Japan, unfortunately you will need to take a written and practical test.
Renting a car in Japan is often a great idea especially if you are keen to explore and are heading for the countryside - as most people reading this surely will be!
Public transportation in Japan is generally excellent, but it doesn't always get you close to the ski resorts in mountainous areas. A car will give you that convenience and freedom. You won't be tied to timetables either in a car. Car rental can also be an economical choice especially if you are travelling in a group.
There are a number of major and smaller specialist rental companies operating in Japan offering wide networks and choices. Expect a rental car to cost you around 5000 yen per day for a small car and around 15000 yen for large cars. Looks for snow tyres and car navigation system options if available (though be aware that English options on car navigation are not the norm). The major airports all have car rental options but it is recommended that this is sorted before arriving in the country.
Snow tyres are special tyres designed for use in colder and snowy weather conditions and they have increased traction on snow or ice-covered roads. They are not cheap but are essential for people living in the snow country regions of Japan, with most people also preferring to have four-wheel drive cars. Many locals own two sets of tyres for their car - normal and snow - and alternate between them as necessary.
Expressways have mandatory snow tyre restrictions in advance when snowfall is expected and you will often find checkpoints on the roads during these periods.
If tread grooves of the tyres are worn more than 50% of the original depth they need to be replaced by law.
Snow chains, which are attached to the wheels, are an alternative especially for those who do not drive on snowy roads regularly. Chains reduce fuel efficiency but do increase traction and braking. They're noisy too. Note that some roads do not allow chains - including the 11km long Kanetsu tunnel on the Kanetsu Expressway.
You may find that if you are renting a car you will have the option to have snow tyres. For snow resort areas... get them!
Buying a car in Japan is relatively inexpensive and smaller cars or second hand cars can be picked up for well under a million yen.
Unfortunately actually owning a car involves a lot more than just the cost of the car. There are a variety of taxes, insurance, and of course the running costs. There is also the dreaded compulsory 'shaken' （車検） car inspection which is mostly due every other year.
It is a good idea to get some specific advice and do the research if you are interested in owning a car.
Expressways are toll roads that allow you to get around Japan much quicker than the main Route and Prefecture Roads, though at a cost.... they are not cheap to use. Speed limits are not particularly high - usually 80kmh or 100kmh - though at times you may see special limits that are even lower than that. There are no traffic lights on expressways though and usually they will offer a much smoother and quicker journey. They are easy to use and the signage is all shown in English as well as Japanese.
Exits and entrances are called 'Interchanges' and often shown as IC (for example Yuzawa IC)
Paying for Expressways - Cash or ETC
There are some exceptions but tolls on national expressways are mostly based on the distance travelled.
If paying by cash, on entering the expressway the driver stops and collects a ticket from an automated machine. On exiting the expressway this ticket can be inserted along with the fare into a machine or handed to an attendant.
Increasingly, people are using an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) card system which is now installed in many cars. This allows for automatic payment at the toll gate without the need for stopping or bothering with cash. An ETC card-equipped car (associated with a credit card) is needed. If you are renting a car, ask about ETC for more details.
Be careful not to enter an ETC gate if you do not have an ETC system in the car.
Certain discounts are available to those using ETC depending on the day and time of day - for example 30% off during early morning and evening on weekdays, between midnight and 4am and holidays. Other regional discounts are available.
Below are details of most of the expressways that skiers and snowboarders will be using, listed in alphabetical order. Relevant details are also included in each of the Travel Guides.