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I'm planning a trip through Japan at the moment and stumbling over the question of transport. I read that I (from Germany) need a translation of my driver's license (which should not be a problem), but also that apart from major highways, it might be difficult for foreigners to navigate the Japanese back-country.

Therefore I wanted to ask whether it's more viable to scratch that plan altogether and instead focus on railways and other public transport to go from place to place. The only obstacle I see in this plan would be that this might "skip over" interesting sights along the way, since you cannot just make a small detour along the way.

Am I wrong on any of those things? Am I putting too much thought on the topic?

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It depends where you want to go! If you want to stick to the cities (big and small), a car would only be a hindrance. But if you want to specifically aim for the countryside (of which there is less than in Germany), you might want to rent a car. –  Gilles Nov 4 '13 at 19:15
    
If you on main public transit lines, you'll probably find the frequency is high enough that making a short stop is no issue (especially if you have the JR-pass where you can easily hop off/on trains). Double-check the schedule of course. The issue may be more of one of there not being an easy way to get to where you want to from the station, but that'd typically only be an issue in the countryside. –  Jeff Bridgman Jan 27 at 16:08

1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In general, you will want to use public transport as much as possible in Japan. Trains travel throughout the country and are clean, punctual and affordable, whereas with cars, driving on highways is very expensive (Tokyo-Osaka is ~US$150 in tolls), driving in urban areas is painful (very narrow roads, expensive parking), and gas is expensive everywhere.

Bihoro Pass, Hokkaido, by me

The main exception is if you plan on exploring the deep countryside. Hokkaido outside Sapporo, in particular, is definitely best explored by car, as are the Japan Alps and rest of Japan's mountainous spine.

The easiest solution is thus to combine the two: take the train out to the general area you want to explore, then rent a car at the station. JR's Ekiren service (aka "Trenta", as in train-rental-car) is the best way to do this, and they often have promotional packages that combine train tickets and rental car. Unfortunately Ekiren's site is Japanese only, but Japan Experience and ToCoo! offer English wrappers around it, with English roadside support as well.

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Great suggestions, I'll take a look at the combination, thanks :) –  Scorpio Nov 5 '13 at 18:03
    
Just for reference, here is a map of all JR lines in Japan -- in addition to these, there are many local railways which are not displayed on the map. The point is that you can see virtually anything via public transportation. Unless you have a very specific destination you want to go that isn't accessible by a train line, you can definitely organize a trip with small detours off the beaten path using only trains. –  jmac Nov 6 '13 at 3:56
    
Is Ekiren still the best option if you're a JR pass holder, and therefore not purchasing a combined train ticket and car rental? –  Andrew Grimm Nov 6 '13 at 10:22
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Ekiren's rates are pretty competitive, but it won't hurt to check the other big boys like Toyota rent.toyota.co.jp/en and Nippon nipponrentacar.co.jp/english -- both in English too! –  jpatokal Nov 6 '13 at 11:38
    
I entirely agree. If there's a train service, use it. –  Pitarou Nov 25 '13 at 23:36

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