In Japan, most people do not have cars, despite this physically small country being home to the headquarters of a lot of the global car industry (and arguably the leaders in technology as well). And most people do not need a car.
If you are making a long trip, say going from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka or Sendai, or anywhere in the same radius, there is no discussion: taking the Shinkansen train is by far the most economical and fastest way of getting around in Japan. As a matter of fact, there is no alternative. There are no flights from Tokyo to Nagoya any more.
Beyond those cities, however, the train time-wise breaks even with flying. It takes about the same time to fly from Tokyo to Osaka as it does to take the Shinkansen if you include the transit time to and from the airport.
When You Want To Rent A Car
The other alternative is renting a car, but until your children turn 6, they travel free on the train. And until they are 12 the tickets are half price. So renting a car for long distance travel does not actually pay, unless your children are over 12 or you are going somewhere that does not have easy train access - yes, those places exist. Probably the most famous is Kusatsu Onsen. And if you want to bring luggage, skiing equipment or surfboards will be a hassle to take on the train and expensive to send ahead.
Going to Hokkaido or Kyushu, the southernmost and northernmost of the main Japanese islands, airlines are time-competitive with the Shinkansen - and more. If you are going to the outlying islands in Okinawa, to Minami Oshima or the Ogasawara islands (formally a part of Tokyo city), there are no trains. And taking the ferry takes a day. At least.
Okinawa Is Car Country
But when you are in Okinawa, you need a car to get around. There are long-distance buses, but then you have the problem of getting to your final destination. And that is true for many other places in Japan as well. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are criss-crossed with subways and trains, but you only have to go to Ibaraki prefecture, 45 minutes north of Tokyo, to find yourself as lost without a car as if you were in Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. While there is public transport, it is scarce and takes detours. Even in Tokyo prefecture there are places where the bus only comes twice a day.
When You Need Car Seats
So you need a car, if that is where you are staying. But if you do, you also have a lot more freedom to move around. Just remember that until the age of six, your kids have to be in child seats or booster seats, and they all need seatbelts. If you are a family of six, a seven-seater is a perfect fit (because you also need somewhere to put your luggage).
Makes No Sense Before Age Six
Renting a car does not make sense if you have children under six for long trips. Until the age of six, which is when children in Japan start school, they travel for free on trains. If you want them to have a seat of their own, the seat reservation is half price. Unless you take the fastest Shinkansen trains. I wrote about the convenience of taking the train in Japan before, as well as taking the train in Tokyo. But I am not sure I mentioned that the kids pay half price between six and 12.
Cheaper Without Children
So how does the train tickets compare to renting a car? Let us say you want to take a three hour train ride, which usually will cost in the area of 3000 yen per person one way (depending on distance). So you pay 18000 yen for a family of three grownups and three kids under six (you have to go back as well). The cost of renting a car is about 5000 yen per day, but of course it depends on size and model. And you have to pay for gasoline and parking, if it is not included in the rent for the place where you are staying.
Not Economical In Urban Areas
In the metropolitan areas, the pricing means even for short distances, car travel is not economical. For short distances, you rarely pay more than 500 yen on the train, and there are trains almost everywhere you want to go. If you are staying within walking distance from the station, you have to make 10 trips (20 if you need a car as big as we do) around central Tokyo. Not counting gasoline and parking, both of which can be pretty expensive, especially in the dense metropolitan areas.
Again, if you are going to stay in a part of the country where distances are more of a factor than central Tokyo or Osaka, you will probably find a parking spot available at your house or apartment. Even in those comparatively sparsely populated parts of the country, short-term public parking is comparatively expensive. Rent a spot for a year and it is much more reasonable. The reason is that you are not allowed to buy a car before you can show that you have a spot to park it in.
No International Drivers License
Apart from the credit card you need to pay for your car rental, you need one more thing. And it is not just your drivers license. For people from most countries, you need an international drivers permit, often known as an international drivers license - although there is no such thing.
What you get is an International Driving Permit (IDP) according to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. This is a paper booklet with your photo in it which you have to show together with your national drivers license when you rent the car, and to the police officer if they should ask you. If you do not get the IDP from the police or drivers license office at home, you will get it from the automobile federation or similar.
That is the only formal documentation you will need to drive in Japan. There is no extra training to help you drive on the left, or to handle some of the Japanese-specific traffic rules.
Two Car Seat Exceptions
One of those rules concern car seats. Children up until the age of six must be in a child seat, which can be a booster seat if they are big enough. The law is flexible about the age where you go from a forward-facing seat to a booster seat. All passengers must wear seatbelts regardless of age and how big they are, with two exceptions: If the child is ill, so she has to lie down; or if you are breastfeeding or changing diapers. It is not clear how new diapers would stop a child from being catapulted forward if the car comes to a sudden stop (like runs into something). It is safer to find a rest stop.
You will not get fined if you are caught with a child without child seat, but you will get a point struck from your license, which may not affect you as much as an international visitor as it would a Japanese driver.
Renting Spotless Seats
Rent the seats from the car rental company. They are guaranteed to be spotlessly clean - no Japanese rental car company would consider providing seats which were dirty or had wears or tears. As is the car, by the way.
Do not bring your own car seats unless you want your children to sit in them on the plane. You will not be able to use them in trains, buses, or even taxis. Japanese taxis are exempt from the otherwise stringent requirement to have children sit in car seats. The reason, supposedly, is that the drivers are so well trained that they have no accidents.
Local Traffic Signs
Japan is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, but it is not a member of a number of other international conventions on road traffic. The traffic signs are completely local, and the stop sign is an inverted red triangle with a white border and the word 止まれ (tomare) which means stop in Japanese. It makes sense to know some of them, even if most of them will be evident from the context. You will not need any assistance to figure out that two crossed yellow bars with black chevrons on them mean “railway crossing”, but you will need to know that all crossing cars have to stop before the crossing and that the driver is supposed to look and listen (opening the window if you have to). This is strictly enforced.
One other rule you may not be used to is the strict prohibition against the driver using a mobile phone - for whatever purpose. Talking while driving is strictly forbidden, even using handsfree. Trying to use Google Maps or texting is even more forbidden.
Unharmonious Speed Limits
Another thing that may surprise you when you drive in Japan is the speed limits. And that people do not follow them, if the traffic moves more smoothly at some other speed.
Japanese cities are densely built and there is not much space for cars, so the speed limits inside cities are often 30 kilometers per hour, or even 20. But evrn bigger roads have a speed limit of 50, and the maximum speed - even on the excellent freeways - is 80 km per hour.
Except when it would be unharmonious to drive that slow. This is Japan, where a nice surface and smooth operation has higher priority than formal rules. So when cars start lining up behind you, you had better speed up. Nothing makes a Japanese driver as angry as being stuck behind a road hog, even if you are sticking strictly to the speed limit. If you pick up enough of a train the police may even wave you to the side. As a foreigner you will find it extremely difficult to know what speed you should really drive at. And sometimes the speed is way above the legal speed limit. On a recent trip to Sendai I drove from Fukushima to Sendai, even though I was driving 120 km per hour, I was overtaken several times.
Avoiding Older Drivers
Apart from that, you have to be careful about seniors wandering out into the road in unpredictable places. They are a much bigger danger than kids running out into the road. Senior drivers, who feature a mark like a flower on their cars, tend to have bad eyesight and hearing, and overestimate their reaction speed and driving skills. They are involved in a disparate number of accidents, sometimes really stupid ones like mistaking the accelerator for the brakes and ramming convenience stores. If you see a car with a tag like the that, avoid it.
No Foreign Driver Sticker
The senior driver tag is not the only one you will see on cars, by the way. While there is no sticker saying “the driver is a foreigner” that would be really helpful in defusing the road rage you may cause by sticking strictly to the rules, there is a tag that you can put on your car which lowers the expectation threshold of Japanese drivers and make them more forgiving of your bad driving. That is the “new driver” tag which you have to put on the car until you have had your license for a year. It looks like an arrow pointing down, the left half yellow, the right green.
Absolute Beginners Brand
In Japan, this mark (the 初心者 or shoushinsha mark) is used to show that something is intended for beginners, often appearing on websites or in brochures where they give the basic explanation of a concept, or a super-easy explanation of how to fill out a form. It can be used in any situation where you are a beginner - not just on cars - as a shorthand for where to go. A pair of magnetic marks will cost about 500 yen. You can order from Amazon, or if you like, fill in the form below and I can send you a pair.
This post is part of my ongoing series helping parents make the most of Japan with their kids. I collected links to other useful articles on a separate page (link coming soon), but meanwhile, fill in the form below to get fresh updates.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.