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we're hoping to drive the Japan "Romantic Road" to Nikko in late Feb/early March 2015, starting and finishing by train. E.g.

  • Tokyo to Sakudaira via Shinkansen
  • One-way rental car from Sakudaira
  • numerous "onsen" along "Romantic Road"
  • Train from Nikko back to Tokyo.

We are mom, dad and a baby. I can read rudimentary Japanese (i.e. sounding out words in kana). I have plenty of international driving experience so adapt to observed conventions pretty quickly. I have a valid IDP. We would likely take our own baby carseat which attaches via seatbelts.

Question is simple: Is there anything really stupid about this plan? or any suggestions specific to this route? As far as mountain weather this year; or the cost effectiveness of one-way car renting; scheduled local festivals along my route around 1-5 March; or rail-car-rental bundles I should know about?

Note: I have seen http://www.ekiren.co.jp/phpapp/syouhin/index.phtml?syouhin_cd=008 but I can't perfectly understand the requirements or even how to order. I have inquired for the order form and will see if I can understand/translate that more fully.

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Yes, it should be doable. If you don't want to navigate the web sites, then go to a larger JTB travel or "Green Window" (Midori no Madoguchi) at the larger train stations where they speak English and make your train+car reservations there.

Getting a GPS with English is very, very difficult. I haven't found one and GPS units in Japan are built-in, so they can't be swapped out. They are usually domestic brands (i.e, not Garmin or TomTom based) and don't have language options -- at least as far as I've seen. There are two solutions:

  • Use your phone or tablet and your own navigation program (google maps, waze, etc.)

  • Have someone show you how to use the GPS by searching by telephone number. This is the easiest and fastest way to addresses in Japanese GPS units. Even Japanese don't know how to read some address name Kanji, so they use the telephone search capability.

I've found traveling in Japan by car very easy since people are polite and follow the traffic rules -- it's been less stressful than when I've driven in Spain/France. Don't speed, there are numerous speed cameras on the highways. Highway tolls will kill you so traveling lower roads is a good idea.

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    Thanks. Nissan Rent A Car tells me they are providing a GPS that speaks in English, but must be programmed in a japanese interface. I never would have thought of telephone number! Thanks for the tip. – Douglas Held Feb 22 '15 at 8:15
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    It worked out exactly as you say, Karen. GPS speaks very polite English, and the Nissan man showed me by rote, how to initiate a telephone number map search. He was indeed unable to search for, for instance, a nearby town name in the GPS. Only phone numbers. So, my advice to others is make sure you have a working mobile phone and use Google Maps to identify the phone number. – Douglas Held Mar 2 '15 at 0:59
  • If you would like to validate the phone numbers before leaving, you ca search by phone number on for instance, maps.google.co.uk (e.g. google.co.uk/maps/place/… ) – Douglas Held Mar 2 '15 at 1:00
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Your plan sounds otherwise OK, but you're going pretty early in the year: it's still going to be cold and wintery in Feb/March, with lows below freezing and occasional snow. I suspect the scenery would be better later in spring or in autumn. However, the roads should be open, so this isn't a blocker.

Your IDP will be fine. For Japanese car rental agencies including a variety of English "wrappers" around Ekiren, see this answer. English road signage is pretty much universal in Japan, but cities can be tough to navigate (in any language!), so try to ensure that your rental car's navigator has an English mode. Also double-check that your child seat will be compatible, Japanese cars do not generally have ISOFIX points.

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    Thank you for the Ekiren wrappers (japan-experience.com/car-rental-japan?ap=j0095g and japan-experience.com/car-rental-japan?ap=j0095g). As stated we won't be driving through large cities, only small towns on Romantic Road. The carseat as I stated is seatbelt based, not ISOFIX. Interestingly, we are finding warnings that GPS will speak english but data entry will need to be in Japanese. Should be interesting. – Douglas Held Feb 18 '15 at 22:40
  • My favourite English Japanese road sign is the one where they inform you that "kingsize" cars have to pay more toll. (I think they meant "trucks") So prepare for some funny moments^^ – fifaltra Feb 21 '15 at 0:03

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