Japan Road Trip

Driving in Japan: Practical Tips for a Japanese Road Trip

Tokyo at Night Shinjuku District
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Driving in Japan: Tips for a Japanese Road Trip

Taking a Japanese road trip is like taking a swim in a Mount Fuji Lake. You plunge in headfirst, gasping for air and paddling like a supersonic duck. But once you right yourself and start to swim, it can be a reflective, Zen-like experience, blessed with amazing views and rippling with interest. After a month on the road in the summer, here are some of our thoughts on driving in Japan and practical advice for going it alone and getting support on the road. Whether you are planning a trip to the Olympic Games 2020, a business trip to Tokyo or a family holiday in Japan, read on…

Matsumoto Castle, Japan

Matsumoto Castle, Japan. Once you get your bearings and relax there are plenty of Japanese Zen moments to discover.

Driving in Japan is easier than you might think

I’ll be honest with you. I found the idea of driving in Japan quite terrifying. And I wasn’t even planning to be the driver. How on earth were we going to understand place names written in one of three alphabets, let alone decipher another language? I thought all Japanese cities would be like the Tokyo I’d seen in films; neon and crazy with heaving zebra crossings and crammed traffic junctions.

People crossing the road outside Osaka Japan Rail Station

People crossing the road outside Osaka Japan Rail Station. But it’s not all like this.

My worst fears prove to be just that

Of course, when travelling, the things that you fear usually turn out to be just fears. And so with Japan. Getting in a car and driving around is a brilliant way to see this intriguing country. Why? Because you really see it, at your pace, in your own time, with your bags safely stored away in the boot. Certainly for a family of five or more, hiring a car is more economical than buying tickets for everyone for the bullet train and paying for taxis to get you to hotels at the end of your journey. You can catch the early morning sunlight filtering through bamboo stalks, and the evening sun setting on a shrine out at sea. You can stay for whole day or whole night festivals, rather than scrabbling around for late night buses or to catch a train you know will leave at the second it is scheduled. You see the country and the city and the coast and everything in between. And get this; they have traffic bollards that are shaped like frogs, monkeys and Geisha. Amidst the white and the grey, there are all sorts of these unexpected splashes of imagination, colour and full-on cuteness on Japanese roads – well this is the country that created Hello Kitty!

Manga Style Japanese Roadworks Marker

Manga style Japanese roadworks marker. With these you will start to look forward to roadworks.

A pleasure to drive

To say that Japan is an ordered place is an understatement. And this applies to its roads. Drivers are polite, they give you space, and you won’t get road rage from taxis. When we hear a beep of a horn it so rare that we all jump in our seats. And you can get some roads to yourself as a driver. Check out this innovative beach highway…

Well behaved drivers

In the cities, and much of the rest of the country, jay walking is pretty much non existent. Almost no one moves in Japan unless a green light tells them to. Space is a premium in Japan so pedestrians and cars can share the same spaces. But everyone is so well behaved that it’s not an issue and you never feel like you’re going to be run over.

Taxi makes its way down side streets of Osaka, Japan

Now, is this a pedestrian zone or a road? Sometimes it’s hard to know, at least at first. Taxi in back streets of Osaka, Japan

Slow but orderly

On the downside, the speed limit is low (60km/hr on main roads) which can make journeys very long if you are trying to avoid paying tolls. If you want to go on an expressway, you pay for the privilege, but you do get to avoid traffic jams and go a little faster, 80-100km/hr. A drawback to driving in Japan is the language barrier, especially outside the cities and away from the expressways. Street names can be in Japanese, not just language but written characters too. And while the sat nav can speak to you in English, maps and some messaging are in Japanese and you can’t communicate back. And if you get lost….

There is roadside help

Don’t panic. If you do get lost or you run out of petrol or you just stall in your journey for whatever reason, there is a company that can help. Japan Experience has been helping people do organised tours and independent travels here since the 1980’s. It has an extensive website with detailed information on activities and great route suggestions. But it can also provide on the ground, English speaking help. There’s a video talking you through using the sat nav. And a person at the end of the line if it all goes wrong. It’s really comforting to know there’s a real person at the other end of the line when you need urgent help at 11pm on a back road on Obon weekend. Trust me; I know from experience! Japan Experience sourced cheap car hire for us, and an apartment in Kyoto. Take a look at their self drive tour video.

Our top ten tips for driving in Japan

We learnt a lot about setting up and enjoying an independent road trip in Japan from our month in the country. So here are our top 10 tips for a safe, happy and relatively zen like Japanese road trip. Click below to go to Page 2.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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