You’re wondering if you should drive in Japan for your next trip as you’ve visited Japan many times and/or want to explore outside the cities and off the beaten path. Before you drive in Japan, there are a couple of things you need to know. I’ll be covering the below in this post.
• Japan is right-hand drive
• Driving in Tokyo
• Drivers in Japan
• Parking in Japan
• Speed Limits
• Petrol/Gas Stations
• Road Conditions and Weather
• Toll Charges and Expressway Pass
• Mountain Roads
• Service Area, Roadside Stations and Parking Area
• Driving in Snow / Wintry conditions
• Driving Stickers in Japan
Japan is right-hand drive
Japan is right-hand drive as in the driver sits on the right side of the car but drives on the left side of the road. This is the same as Singapore and for drivers from Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and most commonwealth countries that are also right-hand drive. Thus, driving in Japan should be less of an issue for us to get used to.
Left-hand drive is where the driver sits on the left side of the car but drive on the right side of the roads. For this group of drivers, more attention is needed while driving in Japan to ensure you don’t drive on the wrong side of the road and cause an accident. There’s also a chance of mixing up the turning signals with the wind shield wiper switch.
Drivers in Japan
Based on my personal experience, the drivers in Japan are generally quite polite and considerate, especially those in the countryside/small towns. They will signal right if they want to overtake your car, and I’ve also learnt to signal left if I want the car behind me to overtake me. To thank the car for allowing the overtake, drivers will flash their hazard lights or honk. I’ve only use the hazard lights thank you and not the honking. Do check what’s acceptable in the area you’re driving as honking is generally considered rude in Japan.
Depending on where you are, speed limits differ. In the countryside/small towns/residential areas, speed limits range from 30-50km/hr. Speed limits near schools are usually about 20-30km/hr, so remember to slow down. In some small villages, there is only a narrow lane that is for 2 way traffic. Drive slow and keep to the left to ensure enough space for oncoming traffic to pass.
In large city areas, speed limits are higher, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to drive at that speed as more cars cause traffic congestion. On expressways, the speed limits range from 80-100km/hr. Always check the speed limit of the area where you’re driving. Expressway speed limit signs are usually digital and can change depending on the time of the day and traffic conditions.
I kept to the speed limit for my first drive in Japan during my Izu Peninsula road trip. There were cars overtaking us, but I decided to play it safe since I needed to get use to the driving conditions and habits in Japan.
Since then I’ve done a few more road trips and have gotten use to driving in Japan. I noticed local drivers were going about 15-20km above speed limit on straight roads and expressways. There may be a need to keep pace with the speed of the other cars to avoid road hogging. I’m not advocating that you speed as I came across police car checking on speeding cars coming down from a hilly road. Just be aware of what’s happening and drive safely.
Road Conditions and Weather
Japan’s road conditions are generally very good and well maintained. I hardly saw any portholes. I’ve only came across gravel/sandy roads at more rural/countryside areas. Nothing much to worry about the road conditions especially if you’re sticking to populated areas. However, in bad weather, do drive carefully as visibility could be affected by heavy rain, fog or low lying clouds.
Some mountain roads have lots of turns and roads are narrow. Thus, more attention is required while driving. Driving downhill may seem fun but can be dangerous if driving too fast when making turns and when you’re not familiar with the roads.
Be careful on mountain roads as I came across one that had a drain on the inner side of the road. It was rainy and foggy the day I drove, we were lucky I didn’t drive the car into the drain!
Tunnels and roadworks
It is likely you will come across tunnels when driving in mountainous areas. Most of the tunnels are quite short but some can run for many kilometres. Driving in straight long tunnels can get monotonous and one may easily dose off. Do keep yourself awake and alert to prevent accidents.
There is also higher chances of roadworks in mountainous and rural areas. Keep an eye out for signs and slow down. 2 way traffic roads may be “converted” to a 1 lane alternate 1 way traffic during roadworks. There are usually workers around to guide the traffic, so follow their instructions.
Driving in Snow / Wintry conditions
I’ve not driven in snow or winter conditions before. Thus, the information in this section is based on what my friends tell me when I asked them about driving in winter.
One of my Japanese friends, who used to work at the Takayama Tourist Information, said, “If you have to ask if driving in snow/winter condition is safe, it’s best that you don’t drive.” This is the advice they generally give to tourists who ask about driving safety in snow/winter. Snow can be very thick in mountainous areas and in Northern Japan. Getting stuck or going off the roads isn’t fun in the middle of Winter.
Another Japanese friend expressed concern when I informed them that my family was planning to drive from Kanazawa to Shirakawago in December. On the way there, I realised why. The roads were hilly and if it was snowing or had ice on the roads, it would have been a very dangerous drive. We were lucky as it wasn’t bad winter conditions and roads were clear of snow and ice.
Feedback from friends who had driven in Japan winter season said driving in snow wasn’t too bad especially on main roads as they get cleared of snow frequently. Visibility will be limited when it snows heavily. What’s more dangerous is Black Ice – ice on road that you can’t see. This can cause the car to slide and skid if you hit a patch of Black Ice when driving too fast. Do be careful if you don’t have winter driving experience and choose to drive in Japan during winter.
Requirements for driving in snow / winter conditions
If you want to drive in snow/winter conditions, then make sure your rental car comes with either of the following:
Snow tires – rent a vehicle with snow tires. In some locations like Hokkaido, rental cars are all provided with snow tires during Winter season. While at some places, snow tires are not provided and must be requested at point of booking and are chargeable. Check with the rental car company when in doubt.
Chains – in some places where the snow/winter conditions can get extreme, it’s good to have tire chains as they provide further traction for the wheels to make driving in snow safer. Check with the car rental company when you’re booking and request for them if required. There may be a fee required for the chains.
Driving in Tokyo
I personally feel it’s best not to drive in Tokyo if possible. Sometimes this is unavoidable if you’re renting a car in Tokyo. I went on a road trip with my friend, BB, from Tokyo to Nikko, Nikko to Kawaguchiko and back to Tokyo. BB did the driving in Tokyo as I told her I didn’t want to drive in the city. My friend, BB, drives daily in Singapore and driving in Tokyo was an eyeopener for her and quite a stressful experience too.
Sometimes the roads split into 3 different directions at a junction with heavy traffic. It got a bit confusing as the GPS wasn’t clear. We had to be very mindful while on the road as we didn’t want to get caught making a wrong turn and cause an accident. When coming back to Tokyo from Kawaguchiko, we even had to filter into a tunnel expressway from the right. It was very difficult as we came in from bright daylight into a darker tunnel which affected our vision as our eyes couldn’t adjust quickly. We had problems gauging the traffic coming in from the left especially for BB who was in the driver’s seat on the right.
That was a driving experience I hope not to go through again if possible. Sorry no photos as we were too stressed out by the driving and needed to pay attention to the road changes.