You need an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in Japan. IDPs are available from the American Automobile Association. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver's license, are universally recognized; having one may prevent problems with the local authorities. By law, car seats must be installed if the driver is traveling with a child under six.
Major roads in Japan are sufficiently marked in roman type, and on country roads there's usually someone to ask for help. However, it's a good idea to have a detailed map with town names written in kanji (Japanese characters) and romaji (romanized Japanese).
Car travel along the Tokyo–Kyoto–Hiroshima corridor and in other built-up areas of Japan is not as convenient as the trains. Roads are congested, gas is expensive (about ¥160 per liter), and highway tolls are exorbitant (tolls between Tokyo and Kyoto amount to ¥10,550). In major cities, with the exception of main arteries, English signs are few and far between, one-way streets often lead you off the track, and parking is often hard to find.
That said, a car can be the best means for exploring cities outside the metropolitan areas and the rural parts of Japan, especially Kyushu and Hokkaido. Consider taking a train to those areas where exploring the countryside will be most interesting and renting a car locally for a day or even half a day. Book ahead in holiday seasons. Car rental rates in Tokyo begin at ¥6,300 a day and ¥37,800 a week, including tax, for an economy car with unlimited mileage.
Avis. 0210/31–1911; www.avis-japan.com.
Budget. 800/472–3325; www.budgetrentacar.com.
Hertz. 800/654–3001; www.hertz.com.
National Car Rental. 800/227–7368; www.nationalcar.com.
Gas stations are plentiful along Japan's toll roads, and prices are fairly uniform across the country. Credit cards are accepted everywhere and are even encouraged—there are discounts for them at some places. Many stations offer both full and self-service and may offer a discount for pumping your own gas. Often you pay after putting in the gas, but there are also machines where you put money in first and then use the receipt to get change back. The staff will offer to take away trash and clean car windows. Tipping is not customary.
There is little on-street parking in Japan. Parking is usually in staffed parking lots or inside large buildings. Expect to pay upward of ¥300 per hour. Parking regulations are strictly enforced, and illegally parked vehicles are towed away. Recovery fees start at ¥30,000 and increase hourly.
Roads in Japan are often narrower than those in the United States, but they're usually well maintained. Driving in cities can be troublesome, as there are many narrow, one-way streets and little in the way of English signage except on major arteries. Japanese drivers stick to the speed limit, but widely ignore bans on mobile phone use and dashboard televisions. Wild boars are not uncommon in rural districts, and have been known to block roads and ram into cars in the mountainous city of Kobe and in Kyushu, especially at night. From December to April northern and mountainous areas are often snowy.
Emergency telephones along highways can be used to contact the authorities. A nonprofit service, JHelp.com, offers a free, 24-hour emergency assistance hotline. Car-rental agencies generally offer roadside assistance services. Mobile phones are now so widespread that local drivers can call for help from the middle of nowhere.
Fire and Ambulance. 119.
Rules of the Road
In Japan people drive on the left. Speed limits vary, but generally the limit is 80 kph (50 mph) on highways, 40 kph (25 mph) in cities. Penalties for speeding are severe. By law, car seats must be installed if the driver is traveling with a child under six, while the driver and all passengers in cars must wear seat belts at all times. Driving while using handheld phones is illegal.
Many smaller streets lack sidewalks, so cars, bicycles, and pedestrians share the same space. Fortunately, considering the narrowness of the streets and the volume of traffic, most Japanese drivers are technically skilled. However, they may not allow quite as much distance between cars as you're used to. Be prepared for sudden lane changes by other drivers. When waiting at intersections after dark, many drivers, as a courtesy to other drivers, turn off their main headlights to prevent glare.
Japan has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drinking and driving, so it's wisest to avoid alcohol entirely if you plan to drive.