Trails and tunnels: Driving in Japan

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Clearly I took these shots while my travel buddy was driving – it would’ve been impossible to shoot anything with my hands on the wheel, wouldn’t it?

I promised an update, and here it is. I decided that it might be better to break it down by sharing some key lessons I learned while on the road.

So here you go guys – an unofficial guide to driving in Japan.

It’s not as bad as you think.

First and foremost, get past the fear that driving in Japan is a challenge, because it’s not.

So what if we drive on the left side of the road, or the steering’s on the right. So what if the signs are a little different. It’s mostly instinctive.

The legendary levels of courtesy and grace extended by these Japanese drivers are also not without truth. They really are very kind, no matter how many wrong or last minute turns you make.

Plan ahead. 

Just like how you wouldn’t want to buy a 7-day or 14-day JR pass at the last minute simply because you weren’t sure how many trains you were going to take, start thinking where you really want to go. Are there places in Japan that you want to visit but have such irregular bus or train schedules that it drives you into a corner? (no pun intended.) If there are more places that you want to visit that are out of reach, explore the self-drive option. Who are you going with? A significant other? A group of friends? An extended family? Do they want to visit places that are only accessible by car?

The truth is – no matter how you try to reason that a JR Pass will be undoubtedly cheaper, the hassle of checking schedules and routes and fares is just not worth the trouble. As long as you don’t mind driving for 2-3 hours at a stretch from one location to the next, you are free to go anywhere you want.

It matters where you pick up your car.

It’s one thing to drive the car out of Tokyo and into the suburbs. It’s another to return it the same location, and having to drive through Tokyo traffic.

Akabane was a pretty good location for us, because we were driving up to Karuizawa and into Nagano. But we were supposed to pass Shinjuku on the way back. We were supposed to be three hours ahead of our scheduled return appointment, but ended up significantly delayed by two hours on the Chuo Expressway en route to Shinjuku. We re-caliberated our routes away from Shinjuku and the expressway, and saved ourselves any further hassle.

Travel with at least two people. The more the merrier. And it’s not just because it’s cheaper.

We rented our car through, and we paid over S$500++ for about 7 days worth of driving a Nissan Note hatchback, including an English navigation system.

If you and your travel buddies know how to drive, it’s an added bonus. You can share the drive. It doesn’t matter whether you’re experienced or not, because the freeways are literally that free – cars were going at 140kmh on a 90kmh stretch. What’s important is that you drive at your comfort level.

You also don’t need people to know how to drive to split the cost of the tolls. A drive from Nagoya to Tokyo can easily cost S$80-$100. And that’s not the only toll stop you’ll be making.

Gas costs about the same everywhere. Just be sure to return the car with a full tank. Our car only needed regular gas, not diesel.

If there’s one area of concern that you  may legitimately have, it’s that:

Language is (mostly) not an issue, but be prepared to get slightly lost.

When we picked up our car at the Nissan rent-a-car stop in Akabane, the service providers spoke no English. For sure, they have charts and instructions in English. But that’s the most communication they can do at their level.

You can request for an English navigation system in advance when you rent your car online, but don’t be surprised if it spews English, but the screen is in Japanese. Fortunately, some key terms were in English – like taking economy routes.

Always, always, ALWAYS have the full address and telephone contact number of your destinations on hand,no matter how remote. And if you can help it, in both English and Japanese. While it’s a bonus to have a companion who’s familiar with Japanese, being over-prepared will actually save you when you don’t have this luxury.

Parking lots are parked by a rotating vehicle elevator wonder of a machine.

If you’re staying in hotels at major cities (like we did in Nagano and Nagoya), be aware of parking charges. Many of them don’t come with the cost of your hotel, and for a three night stay, this could cost up to JPY4,500 depending on where you go – the farther away from cities like Tokyo and Osaka, the cheaper.

Also, their parking garages look like this:

You will be instructed by the parking lot attendant to (1) move your things out, (2) close your side mirrors, (3) drive slowly into the allocated “shelf” for your car, (4) step out of the car, and (5) retrieve a ticket. Most of these garages have operating hours too, usually between 7:00am to 10:00pm. Additional charges apply if you don’t make it within this period.

This process might confuse and make one feel lost at first, but you’ll get the hang  of it – and also feel slightly better that should you leave any personal belongings in the car, they will most certainly be intact when you retrieve the car the next day.

There’s a lot more I could share, but if you forget everything I write here, remember:

Enjoy the ride, and your company. 

Nobody wants to be with a stressed driver, nor does the driver want to be stressed. Some people are just made differently, and take stress differently. Know your company, and find out where their pain points are first before you actually cause the pain. But when you do, apologise, acknowledge your sin, and move on with love in your heart and a better understanding of the strange ways of the human mind.

Some routes will be steep and winding like hair pins and ribbons. You will encounter tour buses competing for space. And some routes don’t have barriers, and if you’re fortunate, your driver just wants to be really, really careful and ensure everyone’s safety. So be nice.

The best experience for anyone is to come away feeling empowered. Because while most people will take the train, you can most assuredly add “driving in Japan” to your list of accomplishments. And most likely, you may not want to take the train again.

Have any thoughts or experiences to share of your own? Feel free to leave them here in your comments!

Until the next post~


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