We searched the internet, read travel guides and asked Japanese friends. All of them advised us not to use a car but to go by train: too dangerous, driving left side of the road, hard to understand the signs, when you go off the highway you will be helpless, etc.
But we are Dutch and stubborn so we did rent a car and we do not regret. Instead, we loved the freedom and we were able to visit the Japanese countryside which is absolutely worthwhile.
And looking back now after driving for 2 weeks in Japan it was sort of piece of cake WHEN you have an English speaking navigation system. This is really essential to find your way around the place, especially when you need to find an address (hotel, ryokan).
Japanese people drive very carefully, they hardly ever speed but are rather slow drivers compared to us Europeans and they sometimes indicate a bit late when they wanna turn left/right, but overall it's ok.
Most traffic signs have English text so that is not a problem either.
Although gasoline is cheap (for me as a European: 140 Yen/liter), you have to take into account that you pay a lot of money for using the tollways (we drove 2300 km and paid 33.000 Yen, only using the tollway for longer distances). And you do need tollways, coz the other roads are sooo slow: so many traffic lights, sometimes every 500 meters, and many slow driving Japanese and only one track available (and most of the time you are not allowed to take over). So, you should not be in a hurry, it takes hours to get somewhere.
OR take the tollways: easy driving because relatively few cars take the highway. The speed limit is 80 or 100 km/hour and hardly anybody exceeds this limit.
Addresses in Japan are very hard to find if you don't have an English navsystem (even for Japanese). There are hardly any house numbers and if they exist they are not sequential. And street names are definitely not available on every corner. The incidentely available maps along the road are hard to read (and again: even for Japanese). There is NO standard available to present geograpical information on a map. So, every map has to be studied carefully (first indication: look for the North!). They use important buildings, temples, etc as reference points.
Driving in big cities like Tokyo wasn't that bad as almost everyone uses public transport so there are not many cars around.
So, don't be afraid to drive around in Japan, even if you don't speak a word of Japanese.
Some usefull information:
- Instead of an address the Japanese use telephone numbers to find locations (telephone numbers and GPS locations are connected)
- Don't forget to put the car on the 'handbreak' (which is a 'footbreak' in a Japanese car with automatic transmission) to be able to enter a telephone number as a destination for your navigation system.
- Pay attention to cars not using their lights in tunnels (half of them do).
- Most business hotels in cities do have a parking. And sometimes it is a 'multi-storey elevator parking':
And some less usefull information:
- Keep a fair distance to other cars and be very polite, like all Japanese do.
- The road atlas from Shobunsha (1:250:000; ISBN 4-398-20104-1) is a valuable road map.
- There are many road works and guards regulating the traffic. Red flag or red light = stop. White flag or blue light = go.
- The meaning of a license plate: upper-left = prefecture (Kyoto); upper-right = category (500 = medium size); down-left = rental car
- Most Japanse cars are very clean and at fuel stations you might get a towel to clean your dashboard.
Have fun driving in Japan !!