In Japan, there is an expressway network, called Kōsokudōro (高速道路) and it covers 6213 miles or 10,000 kilometers throughout the regions of Japan. If you’re visiting from somewhere like the United States or Canada, this can be a daunting experience. Regardless, driving offers a more manual approach to Japan that you can’t get by taking public transportation.
There are many things to remember and different kinds of laws/regulations to follow. However, there are similarities to what you see in western nations.
Continue reading to get a basic primer on how to navigate this massive system while also enjoying your journey throughout Japan’s expressways.
The Major Expressways
This major expressway network has many roads, highways, and other passageways. However, the major expressways in Japan are:
- Hokuriki: begins at Nagoya and ends at Niigata; covering the western side of the main island.
- Tomei: from Tokyo traveling south to Nagoya on a small section on the eastern part of the main island
- Chuo: also travels to Nagoya from Tokyo, but it’s in the central section of the island
- Meishin: small stretch of road connecting Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka
- Chugoku: from Osaka, this takes you through the western parts of the southern half of Japan
- Sanyo: also from Osaka, this passes through Hiroshima and is more central
- Tohoku: northern section of the country, starting in Tokyo, this also covers Aomori and Sendai
General Driving Rules, Laws and Behaviors
Each direction of the highway or expressway usually has one or two lanes. Larger cities, like Tokyo, will have three. Japanese drive on the left side and pass traffic on the right. There is no parking or stopping allowed on the shoulder unless you have an accident or other emergency.
To gain access, drivers must follow interchange signs indicating entrances and exits. These will often feature tollgates.
When entering it’s not advisable to stop or go slow because it’s dangerous. Use the acceleration lanes to merge into expressway traffic.
Traffic Jams and Speed Limits
When there is a traffic jam, you must turn on your hazard lights. This is to signal the traffic ahead to the drivers behind you. Otherwise, everyone must stay with the flow of traffic while also maintaining posted speed limits.
These range between 40 and 100 kilometers per hour (25 and 62 miles per hour). However, vehicles with a displacement of 660cc or less, called K-cars, can go 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour).
These have a plate number in yellow to distinguish them from other vehicles.
Police watch roads, highways, and expressways in cars and by cameras. Violations incur steep fines and repeat offenders can land themselves in jail.
It’s imperative you learn what the traffic signs mean before attempting to drive on Japan’s highways and expressways. This is the best way to ensure your safety and the safety of others on the road.
The good news is that these signs are very visible and easy to follow.
Place names utilize the English alphabet and numbers alongside Japanese characters with a green background. Some of the most common signage you’ll see are:
- EXPWY (Expressway): Entrance to the expressway
- IC (Interchange): Exit and entry on a toll road that usually includes pay stations
- JCT (Junction): Expressway intersection
- PA (Parking Area): Much like a weigh station or rest stop in the US, there will be vending machines, food sales, restrooms and parking. These signs will accompany other symbols to indicate what’s available in the parking area
- SA (Service Area): As with the Parking Area sign, there will be things like restaurants, gas stations, restrooms and parking with symbols accompanying the sign to indicate what’s available there
Toll Roads, Prices and Distances
Like most other countries, there are toll roads that connect major cities and other destinations across Japan. When you enter the highway, you will see a price sign on the rightmost side. This indicates the price of the toll.
These usually cost ¥25 ($0.21) per kilometer along with ¥150 ($1.28) in fees and a 10% consumption tax. There are two methods accepted for payment: Japanese currency or credit card.
Residents have the option of electronic toll collection. The chart below indicates the toll along with the distance between major areas throughout the country.
|Tokyo||¥30,000 ($255) 1,350 km||¥25,000 ($212.50) 1,050 km||¥18,000 ($153) 800 km||¥13,500 ($114.75) 500 km||¥11,500 ($97.75) 450 km||¥8,500 ($72.25) 300 km||¥16,500 ($140.25) 700 km|
|Aomori||¥40,000 ($340) 2,050 km||¥34,500 ($293.25) 1,800 km||¥29,000 ($246.50) 1,500 km||¥25,000 ($212.50) 1,200 km||¥23,000 ($195.50) 1,150 km||¥21,000 ($178.50) 1,050 km|
|Nagoya||¥21,000 ($178.50) 1,000 km||¥16,000 ($136) 750 km||¥10,000 ($85) 450 km||¥5,000 ($42.50) 150 km||¥3,000 ($25.50) 100 km|
|Kyoto||¥19,000 ($161.50) 900 km||¥13,500 ($114.75) 600 km||¥8,000 ($68) 350 km||¥2,500 ($21.25) 50 km|
|Osaka||¥18,000 ($153) 900 km||¥13,000 ($110.50) 600 km||¥7,000 ($59.50) 350 km|
|Hiroshima||¥12,000 ($102) 550 km||¥7,000 ($59.50) 300 km|
|Fukuoka||¥6,500 ($55.25) 300 km|
Paying for Tolls
For cash and credit card transactions, you receive a ticket when you enter the tollway. When you exit is when you have to pay for the toll.
Either this will involve a machine you input the ticket into or you will hand it to an attendant. But, it’s best to assume that cash will be the only accepted form to stay on the safe side of things.
Electronic toll collection means there’s a bill due each month. These are faster because drivers can simply go on through.
Thing like cameras records the vehicle along with scanning a device installed in the car itself, which raises the gate. However, drivers cannot go any faster than 12 mph or 20 kilometers per hour when passing thru the toll gate.
Visitors to Japan can pay a one-time fee and this allows a pass for use of a highway in a particular region of the country.
Many cars and RV rental companies offer this as part of their package, making it easier to go sightseeing in places that are difficult to access by public transportation.
You get these from any one of the six companies that maintain the roadway system. The list below indicates the company, the cost (along with duration), and the coverage area.
- Central Nippon: ¥5,100 ($43.35) [2 days] to ¥16,300 ($138.55) [14 days] and covers the area between Kyoto and Tokyo.
- Hokkaido: ¥3,700 ($31.45) [2 days] to ¥11,500 ($97.75) [14 days] and only covers Hokkaido
- Japan Expressway: ¥20,400 ($173.40) [7 days] or ¥34,600 ($294.10) [14 days] and covers all of Japan except Hokkaido, bridges traveling between Shikoku and Honshu as well as metro areas like Tokyo and Osaka/Kobe
- Sanin-Setouchi-Shikoku: ¥6,100 ($51.85) [3 days] to ¥13,200 ($112.20) [10 days] and covers western Honshu and Shikoku but not the bridges between Honshu and Shikoku
- Tohoku: ¥4,100 ($34.85) [2 days] to ¥12,200 ($103.70) [14 days] and covers all of Tohoku
- Kyushu: ¥3,600 ($30.60) [2 days] to ¥11,700 ($99.45) [10 days] and covers all of Kyushu