Updated: Aug 20, 2020
If you don't speak Japanese (or at least, not well) and/or you don't usually drive a car back in your home country, the thought of driving in Japan probably terrifies you - just as it did with me. However, when you do finally get the nerve to do it, your instincts will absolutely kick in and it will be worth it!
This may be your 2nd or 3rd time traveling to Japan, and you want to really get out of the big cities to explore in your own pace. Or maybe you're traveling with a small group of friends, and wanting to save/share costs on transport. Whatever the reason, here are some things to think about before you decide to rent a car.
1. Driving Between Places CAN Be Slower and More Expensive Than Just Taking the Bullet Train
On major routes like Osaka to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Sendai where there are frequent Shinkansen service, driving non-stop between these routes can actually take you much longer than just riding the Shinkansen. The roads and highways along here run between densely populated cities, so it's very easy to get caught in a traffic jam or road block.
One way drop offs, if they allow it, will always be much, much more expensive than dropping off in the same location you picked up from. Most car rental companies don't usually offer one-way drop offs outside of their "region" anyway (Osaka in Kansai region, to Tokyo in Kanto region)...
If you are trying to get from Osaka to Tokyo, and want to pit stops, it maybe more affordable to do a one day or overnight car rental at the pit stop city/town and then hop on a Shinkansen to do the journey between Osaka to Tokyo. Of course, always do your own research!
2. Drive With a Friend, If Possible
Especially if this is your first time driving overseas, you drive on the right side in your home country, and you have zero Japanese language skill, I highly advise against driving alone. Most signs in Japan have English, so it's not too difficult there. However, it's always nice to have a friend as the navigator to remind you to keep/stay left, or to look out for some narrow Japanese roads you have to turn into.
3. Remember Some Japanese Lingo and Rules
The two you will absolutely want to remember is 左(ひだり hi-da-ri) which is left, and 右(みぎ mi-gi) which is right. The JAF has a good website on other common signs you'll see on the road and some rules on the road which will be different than your home country. One in particular is the "stop sign" that say 止まれ on it. Sometimes this 止まれ will appear painted on the road with white paint, and a white line - which also acts as a stop. So do be careful!
4. Drive Defensively
I think this is just a general driving tip in general, but I think this is really important in Japan. There are a lot of narrow roads in Japan, lots of pedestrians and lots of cyclists or people on scooters - it's very easy to get into accidents in big cities where all these things exists. If you're used to driving in big cities, this will be a breeze -
BUT PLEASE REMEMBER: if you get into any sort of accident, even if it's not your fault (eg, cyclists rides out on a red light and you hit them), you can still get a small percentage of the blame for not being careful enough. So prevent yourself from getting into trouble in the first place, and drive defensively.
5. Save Phone Numbers of Places You Want to Visit
This isn't for calling! Though it wouldn't hurt to look at what some emergency numbers in Japan are. Here you go.
Before your trip, go on google maps and check to see if the locations have a phone number attached to them. This is so that you can use the GPS in your car. You can input phone numbers into the GPS and they will 80% of the time pop up as the location. Sometimes you may end up with a phone number that doesn't work, or they may send you to the City Hall or some general facility. So double check as you are inputting the number. If the location doesn't have a number, a nearby cafe or restaurant will probably have one. So you can use that.
Inputting addresses require you to know Japanese, as you must enter them as such. I think most people will opt to use their phone to navigate, but I personally still like the in-car GPS more as it's easier to see.
Last tip for my fellow non-drivers (but have a license). If you are terrified of the fact of other people on the road, like myself - pick an island like Shodoshima (Kagawa Pref) or Ishigaki (Okinawa Pref) as a practice run. These islands are usually big enough with some wider main roads, and there's guaranteed less traffic and people. Less things to worry about!
There's also no toll roads on either island, so you can't accidentally get led onto a speedy toll road that's out of your league (though that's usually fixable as you set your GPS and choose the "ECO route").
On Ishigaki at least, which was my first drive in Japan, people are generally more chill and aren't in a rush to go places, so it wasn't all too stressful for a first-time run in Japan as long as you're willing to drive above the speed limit at least a little.
Lastly, your rent-a-car company should have some English pamphlets of Japanese rules and emergency numbers to call if you get into accidents, so ask for them if you are unsure. It should all be explained to you before you hop into your car, so make sure you understand the basics before you head off onto the road.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to driving or anything, but some of my own observations in a car while taking numerous trips around Japan.
If you have driven in Japan, what are some of your tips on the road here?