Checking out car events is all good and well, but what if YOU want to get behind the wheels of something? We talk you through your options...
Because of Japan’s brilliant public transportation network, you definitely don’t need a car to get around there. However, there are some instances, for example, like going to a race track in a fairly remote location or visiting Daikoku Parking Area, where you really do need a car. And then of course, there’s the fact that if you’re reading this, you’re a ‘car person’ so you’re probably going to want to drive in Japan at some point anyway!
Having a car will give you a completely different experience in Japan. You’ll have more freedom to explore and visit hard-to-reach places, and get to see things you otherwise wouldn’t see when only getting around via public transport. Roads in Japan can be hectic, confusing and amazing. The giant expressways that link all of Japan’s major cities together are intense too; they literally go through skyscrapers and underneath the sea, and in some more rural areas, they’re like elevated pathways through the sky, cutting through mountains and winding through deep tunnels. There’s also the skinny, mountain roads, known as touge that Japan is so well-known for…
Whether you’re planning on driving a cross-country road-trip, you want something small and cheap to zip out to rural location for a day, or something more performance-orientated to have some fun in, you’ll be pleased to know that there are options for all of these. As long as you’ve got a valid driver’s license in your home country and an International Driving Permit (which you need to obtain from you local driver testing station in your home country before going to Japan), and you’re over the age limit required for the car to be insured (which may vary with different rental companies), there’s no reason why you can’t make you dream of driving in Japan a reality!
NOTE: Don’t miss our Intermediate Guide #2: Transport and Accommodation Guide for more on this subject.
Renting a car.
The first and by far the easiest option for driving in Japan is hiring a generic rental car. In Japan, this process really isn’t any different from hiring a rental car anywhere else – it’s pretty straight-forward. In the past, we’ve always had pleasant experiences with Times Car Rental, a company with heaps of different locations around Japan and an easy-to-navigate website where you can make your reservations. There are many different rental car companies in Japan, so it’s really up to you which one you choose, but this is just what we’d recommend from experience.
This is Japan we’re talking about, so there are often some weird JDM-spec cars you can rent, like kei cars (which you would’ve read about in our Beginner Guide #2: An Introduction to Japanese Car Culture!) which are generally the cheapest option. As long as you don’t have a huge amount of luggage (you’ll only be able to fit two suitcases in the back, and that’s with the rear seats folded down!) and you’re not extremely tall, kei cars are great commuter cars and there’s the added benefit of cheaper road tolls too. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more grunt or more space, it’s probably better to upsize.
PRO TIP: BOOK YOUR RENTAL CAR IN ADVANCE! Don’t book it when you arrive at the airport – what a pain! You might miss out too!
Renting a sports car.
The only problem with a generic rental car is, well, the usual problem: you’ll generally be driving around in something completely gutless with an automatic transmission – boring! The good news is that there are companies that rent sports cars, and good sports cars at that. ‘Fun 2 Drive‘ is a rental car company based in Hakone, and they have some seriously cool cars available for hire for day trips around the area, which includes the touges around Mount Fuji! They have a Nissan Fairlady 240ZG, a Skyline ‘Hakosuka’ GT-R replica, an FD3S RX-7, a Panda AE86, a Honda NSX, various GT-Rs and much more!
Fun2Drive recommend different scenic driving routes for you to take, as well as specific roads that feature in the Initial D series – yes that’s right, Yokoyama-san who’s the owner (pictured in the centre) is a huge Initial D fan! They even have an information sheet they can give you with all of these specific roads mapped out. Cars can be rented for different periods of time depending on how much you want to spend – for example, if you wanted to go for a 3-hour-long drive. This is pretty affordable but prices get quite steep for anything longer than 6 hours.
The general process is that you have to become a member of their driving club to be able to rent their cars, but exceptions can be made for foreign tourists wanting to enjoy this experience as a one-time thing. The staff can respond to emails in English, and you can get in touch with them at email@example.com – also check out their website below…
Alternatively you could swing past there and say hello and ask the staff what cars they have available that day, but you might risk missing out if they’re all fully booked!
Click here for the address location on Google Maps.
Getting there by public transport – you can actually catch a train and then a bus here if you don’t have a car, although having a car is probably a bit easier! But if you make it to Odawara Station, you can then catch a local bus route which can drop you off just before Fun2Drive – this bus trip will take around an hour.
There’s also another option, a company called Omishiro Rent A Car; they have a few different locations but their main head office is in Chiba, although it’s more toward Saitama and still quite close to Tokyo (about an hour by train). Their cars are spread throughout their different shops but the majority of them are kept at the Chiba location. They also rent out cars for varying time periods, but if you’re taking a car overnight, you’ll need to make sure you have a suitable place to park it! You might want to think twice about this if you’re staying in the inner city, as some of the ridiculous parking situations in Tokyo will have you sweating bullets and this might be a bit stressful.
For enquiries, get in touch via their contact page on their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Buying a car at Ebisu Circuit.
If borrowing a sports car to drive on public roads doesn’t sound like it’s going to be quite enough to satisfy you, there is another option – although your bank account might not be a fan of this one! If you’ve always dreamt of doing some track driving in Japan, there’s a company which is actually based at Ebisu Circuit in Fukushima Prefecture which can help you with this. Power Vehicles can source you a drift-capable car and have this ready and waiting for you up at the circuit (well, it’s actually a complex high up in the mountains with seven tracks, and you’ll get to read more about it in our Awesome Guide #1: Japanese Race Tracks and Circuits guide!)
They can find something for any budget, although generally a very basic, entry-level practice car would set you back around ¥500,000 – ¥600,000. The idea with this is the car is stored at Ebisu for you, and most people visit there once or twice a year to drive in the triannual Drift Matsuri (festival) events. If you’re wanting to visit Japan more than once and you’re a keen drifter, this truly is an amazing experience and it’s totally worth the money! Even if you’re a beginner driver and you spend some time at Ebisu during their quieter periods, you’ll get so much track time and it’s an ideal place for learning.
If you’re going to do this, you’ll at least a basic understanding of how to work on your own car (you’ll need to change your own tyres and be able to ‘deal’ with any issues that might arise with it, as the Power Vehicles workshop can often get very busy and sometimes can’t help out on the spot), plus it would be a good idea to invest in some of your own tools, which you can store in the car. Buying a car at Ebisu does require a decent amount of commitment, and you’ll need to keep in mind that the car won’t be street-registered. But the upside is that this overall process is actually quite easy. If you’re seriously interested, get in touch with Emily at email@example.com
Buying a street car.
Lastly, unless you know someone who can personally let you borrow a car in Japan, your final option would be to purchase your own car there. Just a warning: as a non-resident this is really hard, but it is possible if you have a close friend or contact in Japan that is willing to help you (as the car will have to be put under their name).
We think that ideally, your dream Japan experience should include making the most of Japan’s public transport and driving at some point too. So if you’re in the position to do any of the above, even if it is just renting a little kei car and going on an adventure, you should definitely go for it!