6 Petrol stations aren’t as confusing as they look
Sometimes the pumps in Japan are hanging down onto the forecourt so on first appearance you might think the garage has no petrol. Quite often there are staff who will service your car at the pumps, including washing it for free and taking away your rubbish. If you have to use an automated pump, there is usually a button that will give you an English translation of the steps you have to go through. Don’t be put off that the machine is shouting at you in Japanese or showing you unintelligible cartoons at the same time. Enjoy the free entertainment.
Each type of fuel has a colour. It is the same across the whole country. Find out the color of pump that you need. For example gasoline is red; and you can point to anything red, like their jackets if appropriate. If you have a petrol pump attendant you can’t communicate with, show them the word for ‘full’ (pronounced ‘mantan’) in Japanese on a Google translate app and they will fill it up for you. Don’t forget to bow and don’t be surprised if after filling up the attendants go out into the road to stop the traffic for you and all line-up to bow and wish you a safe journey. It is utterly charming and I miss it terribly.
7 Car parks are different but fun to use and work out
Car parks in Japan are fun if you have the right attitude and treat it all as a big Japanese adventure. Many car parks are pay as you leave. Don’t be alarmed if a metal barrier locks your car in from underneath once you have parked. It will release it again after you have paid. If you find yourself anywhere where you can’t figure out the rules, try googling car park etiquette or just sit back and watch what others do. In Japan you will find some of the most imaginative car parks in the world. Like multi-story blocks where your car shoots upward on a lift or mall car parks where your vehicle disappears into the ground and another car is parked on top. Embrace these. They are all part of the experience. But do remember to get everything out of your car before it disappears into the underworld. And practice your reversing into small places under pressure; you’ll likely need it.
If you rent a black or white car, take a picture of it on your phone. In a car park full of black and white cars with their registration numbers just a series of wiggles, it might not always be easy to recognize yours. Coloured cars are rarer here, apparently something to do with not wanting to stand out.
8 Work the price of car parks and road tolls into your holiday budget.
Car parks aren’t cheap and charges are in place 24/7. On average it cost us between £10 and £20 a day to park, even when we were staying in a good hotel. Don’t be tempted to park on the street. Paying a parking fine is complicated involving the police and the city authorities. Most likely your car will get towed. We weren’t going to fall for that again after our car got towed away in Barcelona. On the plus side this practice makes cities feel very spacious as there is no traffic cluttering up the roadside and you never feel you are going to be knocked off your bike by a car door opening.
9 Be ready for the tolls
Sooner or later you will probably end up on the toll roads, at least if you want to cover some miles in a reasonable time frame. You can always travel toll free on smaller roads, but do leave extra journey time. It can double or even triple your journey time. Most sat navs will give you route options with or without toll roads and will also calculate the total toll for you. They won’t pay it though, you need to budget for that. Some long travel days cost us £40 or more in tolls but probably saved our lives as 12 hours in the car would not have been good.
The expressways are very efficient with regular service stations for all kinds of culinary and cultural adventures that usually involve ordering something random from a vending machine then figuring out which random counter you need to collect it from. Some tolls accept credit cards, others only take cash so make sure you have both with you. Depending on where you arrive you may encounter a toll shortly after leaving the airport so order some yen before you leave your home country so you can get on your way without an embarrassing hold up at the first toll booth. Ask your rental firm for a briefing on how the tolls work and what you need to do. Many booths are automated but there is always one that is staffed and will take cash or credit cards. The staff are unlikely to speak English but you will see the amount to pay on a display so you know how much to hand over.
10 Watch your speed
There are cameras everywhere in the cities and the culture is to drive safely and slowly. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the open road. Above all, don’t be afraid to give it a go. Even in the capital, driving in Japan is as ordered and polite as the rest of its culture. Much easier than driving in London or Paris. Enjoy it. We did.
More on our Japan Experience
Fancy spending some time in Tokyo? Here’s 27 reasons to visit Tokyo with teens.
If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to read more about our experiences in Japan, check out these posts in which we captured our experience in a weekly collection of haiku. Or follow this link to search our site for all Japan posts.
Haiku Travel Diary: Adventures in Japan Week 1. In which we introduce you to purikura, lantern festivals, geisha tea parties and shrine etiquette.
Adventures in Japan: Haiku Journal Week 2. Poetic musings on hiking Japanese style, cat cafes, robot love, Tokyo gold and more.
Another Week in Haiku: Adventures in Japan 3. In which we get poetic about maglev trains, participatory dance festivals, the spirit world, pumpkins and atom bombs.
Yet Another Week in Haiku: Adventures in Japan 4. On bamboo groves, industrial incineration plants, car factories, ancient Buddhist cemeteries and more.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Japan Experience who supported our journey in Japan by negotiating a discount on our car hire and providing accommodation for us in Kyoto. As ever the research, experience, opinions, tips and views expressed in this post are all our own.