Driving in Japan: Q&A

  • Kei cars can reach anywhere
  • There is room for people and room for small cars
  • A buzzing city center at night
  • Narrow ways for kei cars
  • A typical intersection
  • A Honda kei car

Japan is an amazing country. Apart from centuries-old cherry blossom trees, castles, tranquil temples and other famous landmarks located along the tourist track, there are lots of hidden beauties that are somewhat difficult to reach with public transportation alone. Renting a car is the first solution that comes to mind. Follow along as we share a few things you will want to know before you take on driving in Japan.

Is it useful to rent a car in Japan?

A buzzing city center at night

It depends. If this is your first time in Japan and you plan to stay for not over thee weeks, the answer is no. The most interesting things to see in Japan are concentrated between Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, with a number of day trips that start from these cities. Logistically speaking, the most comfortable thing to do is to use these cities as hubs, traveling between them by train. If, on the other hand, you wish to see the less traveled areas of Japan, a car is essential because public transport does not always reach these places, and also because moving daily on a train with a suitcase or a backpack is not very convenient.

Where to rent a car?

If you are in less-traveled areas of Japan, we recommend using well-known car rentals (Avis, Hertz, etc.), as there is a higher chance to find someone who speaks English well in order to have answers to any doubts you may have.

What car should you rent?

A Honda kei car

Kei cars are a type of car that can have a maximum dimensions of 3.4 x 1.48 mt and 660 cm³ of engine size. They are narrow and short but they are quite tall, with back seats that can flatten out to load stuff you need to carry with you. By hiring a kei car, you will save yourself a lot of trouble: considering that outside the big cities Japanese roads are extremely narrow, and that the maximum speed limit on the highway is 100 km/hr, these are the perfect cars to drive. However, you can opt for a kei car only if you are alone or up to two people, and have little luggage, since the room in a key car is indeed limited. If you are a party of three or more, you will need to rent a different car, suitable to the amount of seats and space you will need. Bearing in mind that you will be in a foreign country with road signs and road markings different from ours, with very few people who speak English, and that you will be driving left-hand over narrow roads: the last thing you want is to have to worry about driving a car that is too big. Consider also that if you are not used to having the steering wheel to the right side of the car, checking your side mirrors may be tricky: the bigger the car, the harder it will be to evaluate its dimensions at a glance.

Another important thing: ask ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) as an optional. Some tollgates will not allow you to exit without an ETC.

Narrow ways for kei cars

Is it difficult to drive in Japan?

Let’s say driving in Japan is possible but it’s not easy. The nice thing is that the speed limits are low and the drivers are disciplined. On the negative side, you must always be attentive as sometimes tasks like entering a lane or  interpreting road signs correctly can be tricky.

How do Japanese drive?

Let’s debunk a myth: it is not true that Japanese people strictly respect the speed limits. It is true, however, that they drive slowly (speed limits are very low) and that they would not overtake a car in front that is driving within the speed limit. Instead, they will follow it diligently at a safe distance. 

Very important things you should know

In Japan, free on-street parking is practically non-existent, especially in the cities. It is always advisable to program the legs of your journey by setting the address of the car park where you want to leave your vehicle on the navigator. If you book hotels in advance, ask them if they have a parking space on-site, or where is the most convenient parking place to use. Also consider that hotel garages can often only accommodate cars with a maximum height of 150-160 cm., so first check the height of the car you rent and any height limits at the establishment you intend to use.

Kei cars can reach anywhere

Almost all cars in Japan have automatic transmission: if you have never used one, it is useful to at least check on the internet to find out which gears are to be set for driving, parking and reversing, and remember that there is no clutch. Also, the Japanese have foot handbrakes: to engage and disengage it, you need to find a small pedal to the left of the brake pedal and push it down with your left foot.

Again, if you come from a country that is left-hand drive, you will find the steering wheel controls in the opposite position: indicators on the right and wipers on the left. During our whole holiday, we set the windscreen wipers every time we wished to set the indicators.


We hope these tips will be useful when you are our there driving in Japan.

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About the author

Graziano Montanini is East Asian Cinema Festival's Artistic Director. He works in Italy at the Reggio Emilia library, and he is a passionate traveler.

View all articles by Graziano Montanini