The public transportation systems for many cities, along with the Shinkansen, eliminates the need for most tourists to rent a car. However, some tourists may want to explore smaller towns or specific areas of Japan that are not as easily accessible by plane, bus, or train. Renting a car requires a few steps along with understanding the basic driving laws.
Acquire a International Driving Permit (IDP)
Japanese law requires tourists to have a IDP prior to visiting the country and renting a car, It is a fairly easy process in the United States through AAA. The requirements are filling out an application, obtaining two passport photos, having a valid driver's license, and a $20 processing fee. Pay attention to how far out you can get one before visiting Japan.
Secure a Car Rental
There are multiple companies to choose when renting a car. Toyota Rent a Car and Nippon Rent-A-Car are two rental companies with many options and locations available for a pick up. Prices for cars vary by size, location, days of use, and drop off. You should expect to spend $50 to $60 a day for a sub-compact or compact vehicle rental.
Rules of the Road
In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road. This may be confusing for many tourists that are used to driving on the right side. You should follow normal driving practices such as stopping for pedestrians to cross and obeying traffic lights. If an action is against traffic law in the United States, it is probably against the law in Japan. Road signs in Japan are in Japanese and English. Some of the common road signs can be found here.
Expressways and Tolls
One of the most convenient options traveling by car from city to city is using the expressways. They are similar to the multi-lane, national highways in the United States such as I-95 and I-85. The Central Nippon Expressway and West Nippon Expressway websites are great resources for planning routes and learning more about using the expressways. While expressways are a great way to travel across Japan, their tolls can get expensive. Tolls are collected between cities and can cost almost $100 each way. According to the Central Nippon Expressway website, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto requires a ¥9,900 ($90) toll. Expressway passes are available offering a discount for multi-day travel across Japan.