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.
Tokyo, Japan is one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. As such, it requires a large-scale public transportation system to move people around. For tourists, the Tokyo transit system can be quite overwhelming. There are multiple subway lines, above ground rail lines, and Shinkansen lines. It is important to understand the different options available for planning activities and save money.
The main method of leaving Narita Airport is by taking the Narita Express into Tokyo. This rail line is fast and convenient to reach Tokyo's busiest neighborhoods as well as Tokyo Station. A one-way ticket from Narita Airport is around ¥3,200 ($29 US Dollars). You must go to a ticket counter to reserve a seat on the train. If you exchange and activate a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), the Narita Express fare is included. You will typically want to have one trip coming or going from Narita Airport covered by the JR Pass. If you are trying to reach a destination in Tokyo that the Narita Express does not stop at, you will need to transfer to another rail line.
The subway trains that run under Tokyo are one of the more convenient methods of travel. You can take quick trips and easily get to places without too much effort or line switching. There is a free Tokyo Metro App for Android and iOS that can be used offline and online. This makes traveling even easier and a recommended choice of transportation. If you plan to travel to multiple places in a day, you can purchase a one-day pass. Also, you can purchase a PASMO or Suica card to load money on for traveling on subways. This pass eliminates the constant trips to a ticket machine and allows you to swipe through gates. As a side note, the JR Pass does not cover fares on the subway lines.
Rapid and Local Service Rail Lines
There are multiple rail lines that run above ground connecting all parts of Tokyo and outlying areas. Some of these trains overlap stations with subway line access, but many do not. The rapid service lines have limited stops and are faster ways to travel. Be mindful that rapid service trains may skip a stop you need to depart from. Local service trains stop at each station marked on their route. The above ground railways are great to use when covering long distances across Tokyo. Many rail lines are operated by Japan Railway. The fares for rail lines run by Japan Railway are covered by the JR Pass. Some examples are the Yamanote Line, Chou Line - Sobu Line, and the Shonan Shinjuku Line. There are a handful of above ground rail lines that are privately operated that the JR Pass will not cover.
The Shinkansen line of trains come through Tokyo Station. These high speed rail lines reach all parts of Japan and are the country's most convenient way to travel from city to city. This rail line is not meant for local travel. The JR Pass covers rides on some of the Shinkansen trains such as the Sakura and Hikaru. Tickets on the Shinkansen can get quite expensive without using a JR Pass. The main way to get a seat is to reserve one at one of the ticket offices. The other option is to board one of the first three cars of a JR Pass approved train. These seats are non-reserved and first come first serve. If the seats are all taken, try the next car down or stand in the back of the car until a seat opens up.
Tokyo is a huge city. When factoring in population density and land area, it is one of the largest cities in the world. Seeing all of Tokyo in one trip to Japan is an unreasonable expectation. It is important to narrow down activity options and think about what are the highest priorities for you. Making a short list will help guide you as to what area of Tokyo is the best fit for you.
Follow the Narita Express
One of the easiest ways to decide where to stay in Tokyo is to pick a stop along the Narita Express (NEX). The express train from Narita Airport drops passengers off at major areas of Tokyo including Shibuya, Shinjuku, Tokyo Station, Ikebukuro, and Yokohama. There are plenty of lodging options around these stations. Getting back on the NEX to take a flight out of Tokyo is also convenient when staying near a station on the NEX route.
Stay Along the Yamanote Line
One of the best JR Rail transportation options is the Yamanote Line that runs in a full circle around Tokyo. This line stops at over 20 different destinations including some of the biggest tourism areas. Staying near the line simplifies navigating the complex transportation network of Tokyo. You can easily access the Yamanote Line by stopping at Tokyo Station after riding the NEX from Narita Airport.
Pick a Neighborhood to Explore
There are a few neighborhoods that cater to nightlife, shopping, and other interests for tourists. Do you want to experience a bar scene and some night life? Shinjuku or Roppongi may be of interest to you. If shopping is a high priority, then you may be interested in the Ginza area. There are certainly benefits to staying in a particular place such as saving travel time and close proximity for carrying shopping bags.
Other things to consider when choosing a location to stay is price, amenities, and even how many people are traveling with you. Also note that public transportation does not run all night long and taxis are expensive. Picking an area to make your home base can enhance your experience and allow time for more of your favorite activities.
Typically, during the last week of March is when you can view the cherry blossoms in full bloom around Tokyo, Japan. This cherry blossom tracker is a great resource each spring to see the expected blossoming time by region. The blooming times vary each year which makes it hard to plan correctly ahead. If you are fortunate enough to be in Tokyo during the blooming time-frame, then definitely take advantage of it. Here are a few suggestions for viewing spots based on personal experience.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park
This park is located in the heart of Shinjuku and features a large amount of cherry blossom trees. There is a small admission fee to enjoy the large park and its multiple gardens. You should definitely take your time and enjoy the beautiful landscapes in Shinjuku Gyoen Park.
Another great park with wonderful cherry blossom trees is Ueno Park. This park is very popular for picnics during cherry blossom season. You will find a large crowd of people in the park spending time with friends and enjoying the blossoms. The park also contains multiple national museums and a zoo. They are all worth visiting if you have the spare time.
A park located along the Sumida river covered with cherry blossom trees. It is a great place to stroll through. The trees are also illuminated in the evenings during Cherry Blossom season. Also, Sumida park is a less than ten minute walk from Asakusa Shrine.
Happy New Year everyone. I hope you had a nice holiday. I have combined the four part travel guide into an easy to navigate page on the website. If you have any questions or feedback on the guide, please let me know. I hope the guide is helpful for your next trip to Japan.