Renting a Car in Japan

July 9th, 2018 by
Category: Information

Japan’s countryside is full of charm and wonder. But for many travelers, some of its sights are just out of reach! From beautiful mountain roads, hidden hot springs, and idyllic terraced rice fields, there are some spots that you just can’t get to without a car. But, renting a car is easier than ever. Figure out what you need to bring, what you should look out for, and where to go when renting a car in Japan.

Places to Drive in Nagano

Nagano by Car
Hot Springs and Waterfalls in Matsukawa Gorge
Seven Ways to Enjoy the Kiso Valley this Summer

What do you need?

©Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)
In order to rent a car in Japan, you’ll need a valid driver’s license. For most international tourists, that means applying for an international driver’s permit in your home country before your visit. If you happen to be from one of the following countries, you can use your home country’s driver’s license with an official Japanese translation: Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovenia, Moneco, or Taiwan.

You’ll also need to present your passport. It should have an immigration stamp with your date of entry into Japan.

Where should I rent my vehicle?

©TTTNIS (CC0 1.0)
Rental agencies that accept international driving permits include Toyota, Nissan, Nippon, Orix, and JR Rent-A-Car (among others). You can find counters for many of these agencies when you arrive at the airport. For most people, it is easier to travel by train out of the city and pick up a car once they’ve arrived in their countryside destination.

You’ll find many of these agencies near Nagano’s major train stations. You can see a map of their locations around the prefecture below.

Pick the most conveniently located store for your trip and place a reservation on their website. Pick your favorite style of car and any options (such as GPS, ETC card, snow chains), as well as your return location (some agencies, such as Toyota, offer free one-way rentals within Nagano prefecture). Once your reservation is complete, head to your pick-up location and get driving!

Things to Look Out For

©Laichuan Yinfu (CC BY-SA 3.0)
For some, driving around Japan may be intimidating. Complicated highways, confusing signs, and inclement winter weather can make driving a daunting task in a foreign country. But, if you keep the following in mind, driving in Japan isn’t so different to anywhere else. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery as you drive around the countryside.

Driving on the Left

Many travelers will have to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Consequently, the driver’s seat also changes places and the windshield wiper and blinker controls are reversed. As long as you check which way cars are going before you pull out onto the road, you’ll be fine!

No Turns on Red

Unless a red light is accompanied by a green arrow in the direction you wish to go, there’s no turning on red.

No Drinking and Driving

Japan has a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving. A BAC over 0% is against the law. Also, any passengers in the drunk driver’s vehicle may be penalized as well for abetting their behavior.

Snowy/Icy Roads in Winter

Japan can get pretty snowy and icy during winter. And many people are surprised when they find out that Japanese roads aren’t cleared quite as a well as roads in their home country. If you plan to drive during winter in Japan, winter tires or snow chains are a must—you won’t even be allowed on the highways without them! 4WD is also recommended.

Narrow Roads

Japan is an old country. Some of its roads have stayed the same for hundreds of years, back before cars existed. These roads are wide enough for people, carts, or horses, but not necessarily for two-way car traffic. If possible, skip the hummer and pick up a compact car instead. There will be times when you’ll have to yield to another car and pull off to the side of the road to let them through.

Roadside Hazards

Many of Japan’s roadways are flanked by gutters. Sometimes they’re covered, sometimes they’re not. They’re easy to miss regardless, and many a foreigner has accidentally driven into them. are open drains on the side of many roads in Japan. During winter, they may be hidden under the snow, waiting for their next victim…

8 Responses to “Renting a Car in Japan

  1. Pingback: Two Days of Driving Around the Roof of Japan – Go! Nagano

  2. We are from India and traveling to Japan. We want to rent a car in Japan. We want to visit the Nagano and Kanazawa area. We need following information.
    1. Names of the Car Hire Companies
    2. We will be coming to Nagano area from Tokyo. So is it advisable to hire a car in Nagano. We can then drive from Nagano and stay in Takayama for three days and then go to Kanazawa for three days.
    3. Where to return the car in Kanazawa.
    4. Approximate cost of hire for six days with pick up in Nagano and drop off in Kanazawa.
    5. Will it be difficult to drive as we understand the road signs are in English. We can take English GPS system.
    Please advise

  3. Hi Rajan,

    Thank you for your question. As you can see on the blog above, I have included numerous rental companies that operate in Nagano and throughout Japan, including Toyota, Nissan, Nippon, Orix, and JR Rent-A-Car. You can see all the locations of these rental agencies in Nagano in the map above. Each of these companies also has a location near Kanazawa Station where you can drop off your vehicle. Please see each rental agency’s website for pricing.

    I recommend hiring a car in Nagano as cars aren’t necessary—most likely detrimental—in big cities like Tokyo. The shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano takes almost half the time that driving would take as well.

    As long as you keep in mind the “Things to Look Out For” written in the blog above, you should have no issues driving around Japan. Roads have English signage and you can enter places you want to visit into your GPS using their phone numbers.

    I hope that helps answer your question!

    Best regards,


  4. Hi there and many thanks for promoting car rental in Nagano Prefecture.

    My name Is Stewart Adamson and I help run a car rental agency for international drivers in Hakuba. The company is called Freedom Car Rental Hakuba and our website is here.
    I’ve not made so many posts yet (today is March 1, 2019) but we also have an Instagram account with photos of Nagano.
    I’ve lived in Nagano for 18 years and can give lots of advice about where to go. I’m a keen cyclist, so I have explored the backroads between Nagano City and Hakuba and know many more routes and points of interest than lodge owners in Hakuba. Tiny villages with traditional houses, viewpoints, non-headline but still beautiful shrines etc. the kind of places only photographers and two-wheelers will know. We rent out of a Shell garage that has been renting cars to Japanese drivers for many years. Our cars are fully licensed, fully insured, and fully maintained.

    I’m sure Blair will agree, but many parts of Nagano prefecture can only been seen by car. Renting a vehicle will take you to places most tourists never see and will spread the benefits of inbound tourism to places that would see none of it otherwise. I personally believe that travel to Japan has been skewed by the national tourism association (JNTO) pushing the Japan Rail Pass, which inevitably leads to tourists concentrating on the Golden Route (Tokyo- Mt. Fuji-Kyoto-Nara-Osaka) along the Tokaido Shinkansen line. Even just the odd mention of car rental would open the country up and allow tourists to see much more of prefectures like Nagano.

  5. We hope to rent a car in Kanazawa in early January and return the car in Nagano after seeing Shirakawago ,Takamaya and Matsumo. Is there a specific company you would recommend for this experience. We will need the car for 5 days. Will there be an extravagant fee for a one way drive? Gather snow tires will be needed and perhaps 4 wheel drive, too?

  6. Hi Pat,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The one-way fee between Kanazawa and Nagano would be between 12,500 to 21,000 yen depending on the rental agency you use. The cheapest that I checked was Toyota Rent-A-Car (12,500 yen) followed by Nippon Rent-A-Car (15,000 yen). The prices were based on a one-way trip from the Kanazawa Station branch to branches in Nagano City.

    If you’ll be traveling during winter, snow tires are a must, and 4-wheel drive is highly recommended. Cars without snow tires or chains are often barred from entering the highway during winter.

    I hope that helps answer your question. Let me know if you’d like any other information.


  7. Hi Blair
    We are in Nagano for a couple of nights in late May and are looking to hire a car for a day hire from Nagano. We are stayin* at the Hotel Metropole, near Nagano Station. We are looking at the Nissan or aToyota dealerships and wondered if you had and knowledge on whether there are a English speaking staff? We are ok navigating language for most things but would prefer English speaking for car hire transactions if possible. We would pre book on line.
    Thanks for your help.

  8. Hi Kathy,

    It seems that neither dealership has fluent English-speaking staff, but Toyota has a call center where you can make reservations or inquiries in English. At the dealership, they may call the center and have them interpret for you when you visit.

    Both companies offer online reservations. See here: Toyota Rent a Car, Nissan Rent a Car

    I hope that helps answer your question!


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