Car driving by Mt Fuji
Photo: Khobkhoon Ajwichai/Dreamstime

How to rent a car in Japan: where to go and what you’ll need

Driving is the best way to explore deeper into Japan. Here’s everything you need to know when renting a car

Kaila Imada
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Kaila Imada
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While public transport is great in most cities around Japan, renting a car can still be worthwhile depending on where you are going and who you are travelling with. If you plan on exploring the inaka (countryside) where trains, buses and taxis are less frequent, having a car is your best bet for getting around. 

But you don’t have to be heading to Hokkaido or Okinawa, to make good use of a rental car. Even in Tokyo, renting a car can help when moving house, or just going on a big shopping trip to Ikea or Costco. 

If you’re looking to rent a car in Japan, here are some things you should know in advance, including what documents you’ll need and how the rental process works, plus general road rules and some of the major car rental companies for English-speakers in Japan. 

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Requirements

To rent a car in Japan, you must be at least 18 years old and have a valid Japanese driver's licence or an international driving permit (IDP). Sounds simple enough, right? Here’s what you need to bear in mind.

Getting an international driving permit or Japanese driver’s licence

International driving permits are not issued in Japan, so you’ll need to get one outside the country before you come in. IDPs are also only valid for one year from the date of issue, so if you’re planning to be driving in Japan for a long time, it’s worth looking into getting a Japanese driver’s licence once you’re here.

You’ll also want to note that Japan only accepts international driving permits issued in countries that have signed up to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. You can find the full list of signatory countries here.

Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan do not issue IDPs under the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, but you can still use an official Japanese translation of your licence to rent a car. For more information on official licence translations, visit here

To obtain a Japanese driver’s licence, ​​Japan has agreements with 29 countries and regions, allowing you to easily acquire a Japanese licence without taking a written and practical exam. If your licence was not issued by one of the included countries, you’ll have to take a written and practical exam in Japan to acquire a Japanese licence. For more information on converting your licence in Tokyo, visit here.

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The rental process

Your best option is to book ahead online, so all you have to do is show up with your booking details, ID and driver’s licence to confirm your car rental. Once you get to the rental pick-up site, the procedure is quite similar to renting a car in any other city or country. After confirming your booking, a routine inspection is done, and then you’re set to go. 

If you have any questions, it's best to ask before you head out. Some important details you might want to check include the type of fuel your car needs, insurance details, and any add ons such as baby car seats and ETC (electronic toll collection) cards. Most rental cars in Japan also come with a built-in GPS navigation system, but do note that it’s not always available in English. And make sure to fill up the gas tank before returning the car.

Car rental services in Japan

Car rental places are most often seen around airports, large train stations and select pick-up spots in the city. You might recognise some familiar rental car brands including Avis, Budget, Times, Orix, Europcar, Toyota and Nissan. Most of these companies have English-friendly reservation systems which will help you easily book online. 

You can also book a car through other independent travel reservation websites such as Expedia, Kayak and Rental Cars.

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General road rules

In Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road with the driver sitting on the right hand side of the car. The general speed limit is 40km per hour in urban areas, 30km per hour through side streets, and between 80km and 100km per hour on highways. Everywhere else, the speed limit usually ranges from 50km to 60km per hour.

When taking the expressways in Japan, you’ll also have to pay tolls. These can be paid manually at the toll gates or with an ETC (electronic toll collection) card. You can nearly always avoid tolls by taking an alternate route through local roads, but it will take you a bit longer.

Where to?

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