tips and thoughts on driving in Japan

Jun 25th, 2006, 09:11 AM
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tips and thoughts on driving in Japan

Just thought I would share some observations from my recent trip to Japan about the pros and cons of renting a car and driving. We are a family of four (two parents and two adult children) and decided to rent a car instead of taking trains for two reasons: first, we wanted to go to some rural areas that were not well served by public transport, and second, the price for a rental car for a week was competitive with the price of four one-week railpasses. For what I wanted to see and do, it worked out well. We were going into the mountains and wanted to see rural countryside. However, if I were just going to major centers like Osaka or Kyoto, I would stick with the trains. The shinkansen would be much faster and more convenient, and the major cities have excellent subway and bus systems (we did use the Nagoya subway, for example, and found it reasonable and effective).

Here's my thoughts/observations:

1. The car rental set-up is not like at major US airports (no shuttle buses to huge lots of cars serviced by dozens of people). I reserved a car through Hertz for about $550 for a week, and Hertz does not have their own offices in Japan - they pass the reservation to Toyota Rental. In Narita Airport Terminal 1, there is one small counter about 6 feet long staffed by two woman. This counter services all rental companies (Toyota, Nissan, and one or two others). The car return location was off airport and was staffed by one guy who closed the office temporarily to give us a lift over to the airport.

2. Buy a bilingual road atlas ahead of time and plan your routes, including writing out the names and numbers of roads and the cities you are heading to, so when a road sign comes up that requires you to choose one direction or the other, you can quickly figure out which one you need.

3. It is my understanding that most car rentals come with built-in GPS navigation systems now - ours did anyway. They don't have English instructions, but it's nice to have a display of where you actually are to compare with the road atlas.

4. The roads are well marked with route #s and most major roads have English labels for the city names and major intersections.

5. If you want to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time (particularly in the Tokyo area) stick with the expressways and toll roads. Non-expressways in the cities have LOTS of stoplights and LOTS of traffic.

6. Be prepared to bite the bullet and pay lots of money for the expressways. For example, $70 for the Tomei Expressway from Nagoya to Tokyo.

7. They have good rest areas at frequent intervals with decent rest rooms and restaurants.

8. Japanese drivers are generally well mannered, even in Tokyo. I don't think I encountered more than one or two drivers in a week of driving who tailgated or cut me off or something like that.

9. Police presence appears to be minimal. I never saw a single police car the whole time. On the Expressways with posted speed limits of 80 to 100 kph, I drove 110 to 120 with no problem. I passed many people but was not the fastest either.

10. Big trucks are generally well mannered and usually stay in the slow lane except to pass.

11. You will get lost from time to time, but you can usually figure it out (I admit that I had my Japanese-speaking son with me, which certainly helped figure things out quicker). Getting around Nagoya was easy because it was rebuilt on a rectangular grid system after WWII. I stuck with the expressways through downtown Tokyo, but sampled some side roads in Yokahama. Based on that, I don't think I would try driving in the heart of Tokyo off the expressways.

12. For those with claustrophobia, be aware that there are LOTS of tunnels - they would rather go through mountains than over them.

13. Don't get spoiled by the reverent service from full-service gas stations! They even help you get back into traffic and bow as you drive off.

14. Although the steering wheel is on the right side of the car like in the UK, the turn signal lever is on the right side of the steering column - I spent the first day or two flipping on the windshield wipers when I meant to use the turn signal!

15. Expect to pay for parking almost everywhere.
RDUMan is offline  
Jun 25th, 2006, 11:18 AM
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That's a great report, unique. Where did you go in the mountains?
mrwunrfl is online now  
Jun 25th, 2006, 12:05 PM
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We went to Matsumoto and then west over the high mountains to Takayama. Very beautiful, rugged country.
RDUMan is offline  
Jun 25th, 2006, 02:17 PM
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I've done the route in the opposite direction by bus. How was traffic in the mtns? When did you go?
mrwunrfl is online now  
Jun 26th, 2006, 06:47 AM
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I am very impressed that you attempted this! Glad it worked out well for you.
travelgirl2 is offline  
Jun 26th, 2006, 09:10 AM
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thanks for all the useful info. How much was gas and how many times did you have to fill up?

hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Jun 26th, 2006, 09:47 AM
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I love the part about the gas station attendant helping you get back into traffic and bowing as you drove away. That is so Japanese.

emd is offline  
Jun 26th, 2006, 03:08 PM
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Regular gas averages 136 yen per litre ($4.45 per gallon) and high-octane around 147 yen ($4.80).
Alec is offline  
Jun 26th, 2006, 03:16 PM
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I wonder if gas is more expensive in Tokyo or if you were using the much more expensive full service stations or stations along the highways. I filled my car yesterday morning in Kanazawa at a self serve with regular unleaded for ¥121/liter.
KimJapan is offline  
Jun 26th, 2006, 05:30 PM
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We drove from Tokyo to Matsumoto to Takayama to Nagoya and then back to Tokyo. I filled up 2 1/2 times and seem to remember the equivalent of about $120 worth of gas. Total tolls were around $200 and rental $550, for a total of about $870 transportation costs for 4 adults for a week.
RDUMan is offline  
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