How to rent a car in Japan

If you are looking to explore the rural parts of Japan in your own time then renting a car is a must. However, if you are only exploring the cities then public transport is very convenient, efficient, clean, and will be your best choice for urban exploration.

When most people think of Japan they only think of the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Getting around the cities in Japan is very easy and the public transport there is excellent. Not only is it easy for foreigners to navigate around the bus and train systems but they are very frequent and fairly priced in most cases.

Narita international airport in Tokyo car rental counter

However, if you are looking to explore life in Japan outside of the big cities then you may struggle if you are going to rely solely on public transport. As you get further away from the cities the public transport becomes less and less of a mode of transport as well as infrequent and can quickly become increasingly difficult. 

If you are planning to explore the countryside in Japan a rental car is a must-have. However, knowing exactly how to go about getting one in Japan and all of the ins and outs of the process can be confusing.

Requirements

The very first thing to consider before you even start looking at rental companies is whether or not you are actually eligible to rent a car in Japan. This will even require some preparation before you arrive in the country as in Japan you must be at least 18 years of age and hold an international drivers license.

Nippon Car Rental Tokyo

However, these permits cannot be obtained in Japan but must be prearranged in your home country before you arrive.

Typically, in order to get an international driving permit, you will need to get in contact with your national automobile association and pay a fee. (AAA in the USA)

American Automobile Association

The length of time that these international permits are valid can vary, however, within Japan you can only use the license for one year, even if the permit is “valid” for longer.

That means that if you are planning multiple trips to Japan, but they are more than a year from each other you will need to obtain a new international driving permit if you wish to rent a car.

Additionally, permits must be valid according to the Geneva convention of 1949 and so you should check with your country’s rules before this as several countries issue permits outside of this.

For example, Monaco, Switzerland, France, and Germany are all examples of countries whose standard-issued international permits do not meet these regulations. Instead, you will need to obtain an official translation of your driving license that will allow you to hire a car in Japan. 

Rental companies

Within Japan, there are several leading car rental companies that are trustworthy and usually highly recommended. These include Nipppon rentacar, Ekiren, Toyota rentacar and Orix rentacar.

Nippon Rentacar

Ekiren

Toyota Rentacar

Orix Rentacar

Each of these companies has numerous branches across Japan and has a wide range of different types, sizes, and models of cars in stock to ensure that you can make your rental with them as easy and convenient as possible.

If you do not speak Japanese then do not worry. The vast majority of these companies are able to operate in English via online booking systems or a phone system for English-speaking customers.

If you would rather not go directly through a rental company but would like the additional help from a middle man, then companies such as Japan Experience can help you with your rental experience as well as additions such as English GPS and roadside assistance. 

Japan Experience Official Site

There are also international companies operating car rentals in Japan. These include Hertz, Avis, and Budget. Unfortunately, their rates are not very competitive and so unless you want to deal with these companies for a specific reason such as loyalty or convenience then you will be better off opting to rent a car from one of the Japanese rental companies. 

Rental rates

Exactly how much you can expect to pay to rent a car in Japan will depend on the type of vehicle that you want to rent. Naturally, the bigger and more expensive cars will be more costly to rent. As an average you can expect to pay the following for a 24-hour time period:

  • 5000 yen for a sub-compact car
  • 7500 yen for a compact car
  • 10,000 yen for a mid-sized car
  • 15,000 yen for a full-sized car
  • 20,000 yen for a van

However, these rates are not set in stone and can fluctuate depending on the demand. For example, in Hokkaido, there are seasonal rates. Additionally, most companies will rent for a minimum of 24 hours but there are some that will rent for 6 or even 12 hour periods. 

The above prices will typically include everything that you should expect from a rental car, such as damage insurance, fees, taxes, and mileage. However, normally you are expected to return the rental car with a tank completely full of gas. 

Tokyo gas station with Tokyo Tower in the background

If you are traveling across Japan in your rental car then you are going to want to leave the car in a different location to where you picked it up. In most cases this is possible but you will be charged a fee. If you are dropping the car off in a location not too distant from your pick-up location then this fee may be waived.

Unfortunately, these fees can be rather high, especially if the drop-off location is very far away. For example, if you pick up a car in Tokyo and drop it off in Kyoto then you can expect to pay well over 10,000 yen for the option. 

If you require any additional features in your rental car, such as a child’s car seat then let the company know in advance and they should be able to arrange this for you. It is also worth noting that in Japan snow tires come free of charge with the car during the winter where necessary.

Driving conditions

Some areas of Japan are known to get a lot of snow and although snow tires come free of charge with your rental car during this period, if you are not used to driving in snowy conditions then you should probably avoid these areas.

Snow on Both side of the road in the Commercial area of Aomori

If you are unsure about the driving conditions of where you intend to go, get in touch with your preferred car rental agency and they should be able to answer any questions that you have.

Gas stations

Once you have your car all set to go one other important thing to consider is where to fill up. Luckily, there are many gas stations all across Japan and both self-service and full-service versions can be found. In some cases, you may find that the gas stations are closed, but note that there are also many that operate around the clock. 

As a rough guide gas in Japan costs on average 140 yen for a liter of normal gas and most gas stations will accept either card or cash as payment. 

Many Tokyo Stations are full service

If you arrive at a full-service gas station then it will definitely be in your favor to have some basic Japanese language skills. When you pull up at the gas station you will be instructed to park your car and roll down your window.

The information that you will need to give the attendant is the type of gas, (grade) how much, and how you will pay. So, if you can master these words in advance then you will have a much easier experience.

Note that gas in Japan is sold in liters and not in gallons as is in the USA.

Kanazawa Gas Station

If you arrive at a self-service gas station then you should remember that the screens are only available in Japanese. If you are struggling then there is usually an attendant who can help you to navigate the menu.

If you are paying with cash at these types of gas stations then remember that the change machine can be inside.

Conclusion

If you are looking to have a fantastic and memorable trip to Japan then visiting the countryside is a must. However, getting there can be tricky unless you have a car as public transport cannot really be relied upon to be on time and can end up causing unnecessary stress and delays in your exploration of Japan.

Renting a car as a foreigner in Japan has become easier over the years with many companies operating in English and offering competitive and affordable rates.

However, there are many things to keep in mind such as obtaining the correct permit to drive before you embark on your trip to Japan.

Once you are on the road the trip is still as smooth as long as you have a very basic knowledge of Japanese. This will help you both to navigate your way along the roads as well as to fill up when you reach a gas station. If you have any questions about driving in Japan ask your rental car company.

The Japan automobile federations website has a wealth of information on driving in Japan, such as rules of the road and many other safety tips and helpful information while your on the road in Japan.

Japan Automobile Federation Official Website

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.