How to hire a car in Japan

Japan has one of the best public transport systems in the world. However, there are still places in Japan which are more easily accessed via car. Hokkaido and Okinawa for example, are some of the most beautiful places in Japan, but the public transport is a little scarce if you want to venture out of the main cities. But lucky for you, hiring a car in Japan is a fairly simple process!

Step 1: Choose a car rental company

We usually use Toyota rent-a-car where you can book in English online. However, there are a lot of other companies such as Times, Nippon and Europcar who also have English booking options.

Step 2: Choose a pick up location, a car type, your insurance type and whether you would like an ETC card.

If you can, try to choose a pick up location on the outskirts of the city so that you don’t get stuck in traffic when you’re trying to get back in time to return it.

The smaller the car, the cheaper it is for fuel and the vehicle hire itself. We’ve driven some great small cars, but if you have lots of luggage and more than 3 people, perhaps opt for a bigger car.

Make sure you get an ETC card! Most highways in Japan are toll roads and if you don’t get an ETC card, you’ll have to stop at every single toll booth to pay. With an ETC card in the car you can drive straight though the ‘ETC gate’ at the toll gates, it will announce how much it cost you (in Japanese) and then the rental place will charge you the tolls when you return the car.

You can also usually request online which language you would like the navigation system in.

Step 3: Pick up the car

Head to the hire place a little earlier than you’ve booked to allow for the paperwork signing. Make sure you have your international licence and passport, or Japanese licence ready to show them. If you don’t have one these, you won’t be able to hire a car, so make sure that you organise an international licence before you leave your home country. If you’re from Australia, you can get your international licence from RACQ /NRMA/RACV etc. It is usually valid for 1 year, so if you’re moving to Japan, after the 1 year you will have to apply for a Japanese licence. We’ve written about our experience getting a Japanese licence here.

Ensure you have a credit card with you. You have to pay by credit card and can’t pay in cash.

Some hire places don’t have English speaking staff, so just have your Google translate ready in case you don’t understand their questions. Most of the questions are just confirming your booking choices that you made online anyway.

When you have finished signing the paperwork the staff will take you to the car. You will need to check for any scratches or dents in the car and point them out so that you don’t get charged for any damage upon return.

Check that your navigation system has been set to English and set your destination before you leave.

Step 4: enjoy your road trip adventure!

Enjoy hitting the roads less travelled in the beautiful Japanese countryside. Some of our favourite places to visit via car are Lake Chuzenji and Nikko, Hokkaido and Hitachi Seaside Park.

Some things to note about driving in Japan:

Hiring small cars in Japan is very affordable, but the tolls are not. It is quite often that you will hire a car for $80 a day but end up paying over $100 in tolls for the day/weekend. Just be prepared for that.

You drive on the left-hand side of the road in Japan and it’s worthwhile going over the road signs and road rules before you take to the streets.

Good luck and have fun!

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