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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? Can you help me with facts to base my choice on?

  • 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 'SO- stop being evil' 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 B Jan 27 '14 at 16:08
  • If you don't go too countryside (e.g. Okinawa, outbacks of Hokkaido), you will almost never need a car. Plus parking fees are rather expensive in the cities. – xuq01 May 23 '17 at 23:47
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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.

  • Great suggestions, I'll take a look at the combination, thanks :) – Scorpio Nov 5 '13 at 18:03
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    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
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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! – lambshaanxy Nov 6 '13 at 11:38
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    Just BTW I noticed in the answer here it mentions "gas is expensive everywhere [in Japan]". That strikes me as odd, Japan is a "cheaper prices" gas country, as opposed to the sky high prices in Europe. (Obviously, the US has the cheapest petrol prices.) (Maybe I'm out of date.) – Fattie Dec 21 '19 at 16:59
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    @fattie I live in Japan and I'm currently paying 136 yen/litre (US$1.24/litre or $4.70/gallon). It's certainly cheaper than the UK ($1.63/litre or $6.17/gallon). * Assuming ¥100 (JPY) = $0.91 and £1 (GBP) = $1.31. – John Jan 24 at 0:30
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About 3 years ago, I visited Japan for 3 weeks. For 2 of those weeks I used a JR rail pass to travel around. Around cities and to other cities. I then headed to Hokkaido.

In Hokkaido I rented a car for a week, and I found it surprisingly easy. Road signs were in Japanese and (mostly) had English as well for destinations, cities, attractions, etc. There were a few cases where important information was only in Japanese - a warning of a closed road ahead comes to mind, but it became pretty obvious what it was all about before I got too far. When I got the GPS navigation switched into English I found that easy to use as well, though it occasionally threw up a message in Japanese, which someone told me said something like "Make sure you drive carefully". As one of the other answers said, long distance toll-motorway travel was expensive - it cost me about €80 to go ~250 km - but most of the roads I drove on were toll free.

There are some great things I saw, that I would have missed if I had stuck to public transport. For me the beauty of driving was I could take my time. For example, I could wait for the sunset from the top of a (freezing cold) mountain and get some great photos; and then drive back down to the small town where my hotel was and make use of their hot spring bath. Another example, I drove along a dirt road to the middle of a nature reserve, parked for several hours and went for a walk to take photos of the wildlife.

Some tips:

Most large-ish train stations have a shop selling bento boxes. I would definitely recommend these. Most train seats have a little flip-down table.

Pre-book a car with GPS navigation that can support English (sorry, I didn't see German offered as a language). I booked my car with toyota rental before I left the UK, printed out necessary paperwork, and took it with me.

I would normally suggest getting an International Driving Permit, but for Japan, it seems Germany is on a short list of countries that need a Japanese translation of their license instead - I've no idea why or how you would get it translated.

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    After carefully piecing together my answer and posting it, I've just noticed this questions is over 6 years old! – Nick Jan 23 at 23:01
  • I noticed this after pointing out the expressway pass. Maybe you could incorporate it into your shiny new answer? :-) – John Jan 24 at 0:39
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It really depends where you want to go. I have been to Japan seven times and I have only needed a car once.

In urban areas, like Kansai (Osaka and nearby cities like Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Himeji) or Tokyo, public transportation is quite convenient. And navigating within an urban area (for example, from Osaka to Kyoto) is not expensive (there are actually various trains with different fares depending on how fast they go).

In rural areas, like Okinawa, a car is very useful. There are many beaches and places that cannot be easily reached by public transportation. Even going from Naha (the regional prefecture) to the famous Churaumi aquarium would take a lot of time without a car or booking a tour. I haven't been there yet, but I guess that the situation would be similar in Hokkaido, though it seems the train network is more developed there.

One element you should factor in your decision: parking lots. You should check if your accommodation has a parking lot, as it is usually not possible to park in the (narrow) streets and parking lots can be quite expensive.

I have no experience with going from one big city to another one (for example, Tokyo to Osaka) but, according to @lambshaanxy, it is quite expensive. Shinkansen is not cheap though.

but also that apart from major highways, it might be difficult for foreigners to navigate the Japanese back-country.

From my experience in Okinawa, navigation by GPS is really pleasant in Japan. You can find a place by using its phone number or using its Mapcode, a series of numbers that identifies it. No need to type an address using any Japanese alphabet! And most tourist maps (such as the ones you can find in the airports) have the mapcodes of touristic areas.

In addition to GPS if you want to go outside cities, you may want to rent a pocket wifi at the airport. Most of them are cheap and comes with unlimited data, a charger that you may use with other devices,...

0

As a train lover without a driving license I would never even have thought about using a car in Japan.

When I was there in 1994 navigation in cars was done by maps and roadside signs. I met several people who had lived in Japan for a year or longer and still did not care to drive outside the area where they lived, as reading the road signs and the names on the maps was too much of an effort.

These days you can get satnavs/GPS/maps on your smart phone to help you with navigation, so finding the route would be less of a problem.

That still leaves you with long distance driving on busy roads, tolls and hard to find expensive parking in the cities.

After I have used the fast trains in Japan I have been on fast trains in Europe, but I still remember their services as special. Worth trying out even when you are familiar with fast trains in Europe. Trains stopping on time, to the second, and on the spot. There are lines painted on the platforms which show where to line up and the doors will be just in front of you, but with space between the first in line and the train so people can get off.

While you may not be able to visit as many sites when traveling by public transport, you can certainly visit many more than you can fit into your holiday.

On the other hand, if you rent a car when away from the main cities and busy areas, you can visit a lot of small locations for short visits, bringing balance into your travel that way as well.
But do bring a trusted navigation device, check it will work in the area where you need it and in the language you are familiar with. Update maps and make sure you can use it offline, as you may be in an area with no phone network or spotty GPS coverage or something like that.

The Japan I have seen had many small places worth visiting, just outside the city on an easy walk. But I am sure you will find more of those when farther off the beaten track.

In short, do not avoid the trains but also be not scared of renting a car as long as you have a good navigation aid.

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Japan is known for making "fairly good cars", i.e. the best ever made on the planet, and subsequently, motoring culture in Japan is impeccable and a sheer pleasure.

(As a minor bonus, petrol is cheaper than in Europe.)

Regarding traffic, the one or two very central, most car-crowded central areas are far less car-crowded than the cliché any European is used to of central Paris, central Rome etc. If you're coming from say Germany you'll basically find Japan "empty" in comparison!.

Driving in Japan is a wonderful experience and the best way to see everything, from city to town to country.

It more or less goes without saying that driving manners and style in Japan are impeccable - I don't know anywhere that's more pleasant to drive as a social experience interacting with the population.

Going to Japan and not enjoying cars, is like going to Switzerland and not enjoying cheese, or going to Australia and not enjoying sunshine.

It's likely the most pleasant and wonderful place on Earth to enjoy motoring.

  • An astounding, endless, variety of fascinating things to explore which you need the immediacy and flexibility of motoring to do so

  • The amazing landscapes

  • The impeccable and easy nature of driving there

(Regarding trying one of the fast trains in Japan, if you're from a region which has no fast trains I guess there is a novelty. If you're from France or Germany, taking one of the fast trains in Japan is no more interesting than getting on any airplane or bus.)

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    "riving manners and style in Japan are impeccable" - it really depends on where you are. Some areas are famous for bad and dangerous driving habits... – xuq01 Dec 20 '19 at 20:25
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    You're welcome to your opinion, but Japanese cities are most definitely not "empty" and much of the joy of driving in the countryside is crippled by absurdly low speed limits: a pancake-flat wide country road in Hokkaido will be 50 km/h and even expressways are often only 70 km/h. – lambshaanxy Dec 20 '19 at 23:16
  • "You're welcome to your opinion" - um, ok - thanks? Strange comment! As it clearly says, and as is obvious, anyone comparing to central Rome or central Paris will find central Tokyo to have very little traffic. – Fattie Dec 21 '19 at 16:45
  • Putting in my five cents, while central Tokyo isn't that congested, I definitely wouldn't like to drive there. Hailing a taxi in the evening has proven itself to be a bad idea every time I make the bad decision to do that. Plus I'm not sure if it is really less congested than central Paris: I've been to both cities this year and as a matter of fact it doesn't seem that either one is much less congested than the other. – xuq01 Dec 22 '19 at 17:00

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