The most inaccessible places are usually the most memorable — difficult terrain leading to (relatively) untouched nature, far-flung areas that aren’t close to any form of public transport, or a quiet countryside where no one speaks your language.
Likewise, even with Japan’s advanced public transport system, sometimes the best way to uncover the country’s beauty is via car.
Some of my favourite spots there are hardly visited by foreigners, such as the hot springs nestled in the foothills of Niigata, a quaint family-run soba shop and “frozen bread” store in Nagano, and the vermillion torii gates of the Motonosumi Inari seaside shrine in Yamaguchi.
Although some locations are still doable if you take the train-bus-taxi/foot route, the time, effort and money spent travelling could far outweigh the cost of renting a car. Plus, with your own transport, it is so much easier to cart heavy luggage around and to make as many detours as you please.
Got a driving license or know someone who does? Here’s a quick guide to picking out the best car rental option in Japan to get the best out of your next holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun:
The bare essentials
Before you can even begin to consider the possibility of renting a car to drive in Japan, here’s a preliminary checklist:
- Do you have a local driving licence for the correct vehicle you are renting?
- Have you applied for an International Driving Permit? In Singapore, the application is via the Automobile Association of Singapore and will cost you S$20. The IDP will be valid for a year and cannot be renewed. If your trip is coming up real soon and you urgently need the IDP, your best bet would be to apply at the counter as the IDP can be issued on the spot, within an hour.
- If you are from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan, a slightly different arrangement is required.
- Are you planning to stay in Japan for an extended period of time? In that case, what you need may not be an IDP, but to convert your driving license.
- How confident are you driving in a foreign country? The AAS website has some comprehensive tips.
- How good are you at reading maps or following instructions on the GPS?
- Any conditions to look out for that warrant additional equipment or preparation? For example, harsh weather conditions like icy roads, fog and snow storms, long-distance driving, mountain roads, off-road, etc.
- Are you aware of Japan’s road laws and etiquette? For example, cars drive on the left side of the road (same as Singapore), what to do when at a railway crossing (come to a complete stop prior), paying the toll and other considerations such as honking, giving way, speeding and so on. Japan’s National Police Association has also come up with a guidebook for foreigners driving in the country.
- Is a car really needed for your Japan trip? In congested cities or if you are only planning to go about town, the subway or shinkansen would be your best bet.
- Do you have a credit card issued under your name? Some car rental websites only accept credit card payment/bookings from the lead driver.
- Other resources to check out include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, the Metropolitan Police Department (Tokyo) and the Japan Automobile Federation.
Planning your route
Can’t I just use the car’s GPS or Google Maps? Sure, that works too, but you’ve got to do all the prep work first, like figuring out which spots to hit in a day, and in what order, to maximize your time spent traveling, fuel consumption (because the car rental companies expect you to return the vehicle with a full tank) and just to make things easier for yourself when you’re on the road.
Of course, don’t let that deter you from being spontaneous — although we definitely do not recommend driving from Tokyo to Osaka just because you can (the shinkansen is much faster and less tiring).
Try to mark out key landmarks on your map as well, such as petrol stations, toilets, parking lots, tolls, and the like, and estimate beforehand the time you will need to travel from Point A to Point B.
Not clear how to use the car, its GPS system or how to navigate?
Another good app to help you along is Maps.me, which works offline (yay). Tips from drivers include using Google Streetview to check out turning junctions and landmarks, checking the width of a narrow road, as well as inputting the phone number (yes, you heard me right —phone number instead of address, and do include the area code so you’ll get a 10-digit number) into the GPS to make navigation a cinch.
And just in case the GPS system is in Japanese and you don’t understand a word, check with the car rental staff and memorize the sequence of buttons to press to reach the navigation or input menu.
Do also indicate the car rental companies on your route and the times you need to return or pick up the car. Most of them allow you to rent the car from Point A, then drive it and return it to Point B.
Some hacks to pay less
Always exercise due diligence and do your homework (i.e. research) before you book any rental car.
Hack 1: Don’t just buy insurance for the sake of it. Double-check with your existing insurance agent if you are already covered when you are driving overseas and what exactly is covered. Already covered? Skip the insurance. Not covered? Go ahead and top-up.
Hack 2: Search for e-coupons or special deals when booking your rental car. At the time of writing, I did a cursory search on Google and found that TOYOTA Rent-A-Car has 10% discount for bookings made in Okinawa, Japan till 30 October 2018, as well as other promotions. Some credit cards offer discounts for car rentals as well.
Hack 3: Does the car rental site offer free cancellation? Make sure that option is available and check its validity before you try this trick. Book multiple cars but cancel them when you find a cheaper rate or a discount code. Ta-da! Money saved.
Hack 4:…Is not a hack, but common sense. Always pay attention to your GPS or map app, or make sure a travel buddy is your designated navigator. For example, in Hokkaido, if you miss a turning on the expressway, you might have to drive as much as 25km to make a U-turn, and then drive 25km back! That’s a lot of petrol money you could have saved.
Choosing your vehicle and add-ons
How many people are going on the trip? Will there be co-drivers? How many children or elderly folk? What’s the season and terrain of your holiday destination? Will you be driving throughout or only for a leg of the journey? How long, on average, will you be spending in the car each day? Are the drives to each destination a few short minutes or many tedious hours? Will you need to constantly transport your luggage bags in the car?
Every car rental company provides a selection of vehicles, from the most basic to the more luxurious; from a standard sedan to a roomy SUV, and so on.
If you are just a party of four with no special needs and just want something that has four wheels and can get you to your destination, by all means, go for the cheapest option, especially if you have budget constraints.
But if there is a baby on board, for the sake of the little tot’s safety, please rent an age-appropriate child seat as well.
Likewise, if it is snowing where you will be, make sure the car has winter tires/snow chains. Need something more stable? Get a 4WD. Will your route have tolls? Make sure you have the ETC (Electronic Toll Collection System) Device installed.
If you are a larger family, get a larger car — you might even want to rent two vehicles or more if there is more than one driver in the group. A roomier or more luxurious ride can be more comfortable, especially if the journey is long.
Check out Times Car Rental, which has a recommendation page to help customers find a car to suit their needs.
But do note, however, that the photo of the car you see may not be the car you eventually will drive. A lot of websites cover themselves by saying “or similar” next to the car model’s name, just in case they run out of that particular model and make when you pick up the ride.
Car rental companies
Here are some quick links to some of the top car rental companies in Japan:
|COUNTRY-WIDE?||SAMPLE PRICE||ADD-ONS AVAILABLE||
|TOYOTA Rent a Car||Y||From 5,000 JPY/day for a P0/P1 Class||Child seat, ETC Device, Winter tires, English GPS||Easy-t0-use website with helpful info.|
|NISSAN Rent a Car||Y||From 7,776 JPY/day for a P0/P1 Class||Child seat, Winter tires, English GPS||Clean website, but options feel rigid, loading time seems slow, sample experiences available|
|Times Car Rental||Y||From 5,508 JPY/day for a K0 Class||Child seat, ETC Device (limited), Winter tires, English GPS||Easy-to-use website, has various car brands/models to choose from, provides recommendations.|
|NIPPON Rent-A-Car||Y||From 6,696 JPY/24 hours for a K-A Class||Child seat, ETC Device, English GPS||Has a price table (general/by prefecture) so you can check when the rates are cheaper, shows you all the options so you can pick the cheapest/best option.|
|JR Eki Rent-A-Car (Ekiren)||Y but some offices don’t accept internet bookings||From 6,690 JPY/day for a K Class||Child seat, ETC Device, Winter tires, GPS (language unknown),||Website feels buggy, user needs to jump through an e-mail verification hoop just to get started, to restart, you will need to re-do the e-mail verification. You only get to see the price at the end and cannot compare with others.|
|ORIX Rent-A-Car||Y||From 4,617 JPY/day for a KSS Class (includes Internet discount of 5%)||Child seat, ETC Device, GPS (language unknown),||Buggy site, date/time kept jumping, gave me an error message.|
|Hertz||Y (203 locations)||From 8,100 JPY/day (after sales tax) for a Mini (Group O) Class||Child seat, Winter tires||Relatively simple to book but the rates seem quite high|
|ToCoo! (aggregator)||Y||From 4,900 JPY/day (after 9% special discount) for a K-A Class||Child seat, ETC Device, English GPS||Simple and easy to use, but few options for add-ons, pay when you pick up the car|
|Rentalcars.com (aggregator)||Y||From 5,339 JPY/day for Mini Class (Daihatsu Move or similar)||Child seat, English GPS||No credit card fees, no amendment fees. Site seems to take a while to load. Annoying that the operating hours of the outlet isn’t specified upfront. Free cancellation up to 48 hours before your pick-up.|
|HONDA Rent-A-Car||Limited to 4 branches in Hokkaido||From 7,020 JPY/24 hours for Honda FIT S Class||Child seat, English GPS,||Good that the rates are easily available upfront, free cancellation up to 7 days before reservation.|
|Tabirai Japan (aggregator)||Y||From 7,000 JPY/24 hours (tax included) for Mini Class (4 pax occupancy).||Child seat, ETC Device (card not included),||Basic, easy-to-use site. Easy to modify booking. All car rental products provided by Tabirai Rentals are insured (with basic insurance) and include disclaimer compensation (CDW).|
|Budget Rent a Car||Y||From 5,265 JPY/24 hours (25% discount on online reservation) for JSS Passo/March or similar||Child seat, ETC Device, GPS (language unknown)||Site has an AI chatbot ready to assist. Pay with credit card at the pick-up location. Free cancellation 7 days before departure date.|
|Europcar||Y||From 7,560 JPY/day for Mazda 2 Demio 1.3 or similar||Child seat||Site loads so slowly…but well-structured and clean. AI chatbot on the site to attend to queries.|
|Omo Shiro Rentacar||Limited, 9 outlets||From 9,980 JPY/24 hours for Honda Integra typeR or similar||ETC Device (card not included), GPS (Japanese), Child seat only available at Bancho shop||Site quite easy to navigate and rather comprehensive, with a detailed e-guide. Drivers must be 23 years or older. Vehicle must be returned to the same outlet it was rented from.|
But before you drive off…
- Check the bodywork for scratches, dents etc and record them down with the staff around to acknowledge. Take photos if needed.
- Familiarise yourself with the vehicle. This includes the controls, the GPS system, the ETC Device and so on. Test drive in the vicinity if needed.
- Check the type of fuel the vehicle uses
- Check the engine. Any strange noises?
- Check that the air-conditioning etc are in order
- Adjust your mirrors
- Check your e-brake
- Double-confirm the drop-off time and location (if selecting different location)
- Double-check that all documents are in order and that you got what you paid for
- Check the tank, especially if the terms specified full-to-full
- Make sure you have all your maps on hand, with the petrol kiosks marked out
- Get any emergency contact (i.e. towing service) from the staff, just in case
Happy driving in Japan!