Driving in Japan
When you mention diving in Japan to most people the first thing that comes to mind is tangle of narrow streets, endless traffic, street sings in kanji, high priced gas, and driving on the left. While some of these things are true diving in Japan is not difficult at all once you get used to the differences. Driving around the countryside also allows you to experience a totally different side of Japan that is almost completely inaccessible any other way. From the trains Japan looks like a crowded, endless city, but in a car you can experience the joys of finding small local onsen (public paths), roadside farmers markets, spectacular vistas, hidden shrines, neon-lit love hotels, and more. This article is indented as an outline for what is required to drive in Japan, tips and tricks that will make your life easier, recommendations on where to drive in Japan and where not to, and my experiences of owning a car and driving in Japan.
First off, I am an ALT (assistant language teacher) teaching English with my wife in Chiba City. I have been in Japan for over a year and a half now and I decided to buy a car after taking the public transportation for about a year. Chiba is directly east of Tokyo and it takes about 35 minutes on the train to get from Chiba to Tokyo station and as such is largely a commuter city for Tokyo. The public transportation connections are excellent, run on time, and are relatively efficient. So why in the world would I need a car? To start with taking public transportation is VERY expensive. It cost me 350 yen to ride the bus roughly 8km to work EACH WAY. That's 700 yen a day. The train to Tokyo is about 800 yen each way and if we wanted to go to southern Chiba prefecture it cost about 2500 (about $20). The Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto is around 12,000 yen each way. All that adds up quickly with two people, even for local trips. Also, you have to rely on the schedule of the train and once you get to your destination you either have to walk, take a REALLY expensive taxi, or try to coordinate with the bus schedules. This isn't a problem in Tokyo, but try going to a cozy little onsen in the country and it quickly becomes a major pain (especially if you miss the one bus going where you need to go because you where trying to figure out where you where and where you needed to be). Finally, public transportation can be famously crowded. Those stories you've heard about train conductors literally pushing people into the trains are TRUE (but this isn't such a huge problem unless you have to travel on commuter routes at rush hour). So after dealing with this situation for a year (and much cursing at the crowded bus every day) and finding that we didn't really travel around, even in our area, because of the expense and hassle of public transportation, we decided to buy a car.
Legally Driving In Japan
Once we decided to buy a car I started looking into what exactly the legal requirements are to drive in Japan. Before I came to Japan I got an international diver's license. You can dive legally in Japan on an international diver's license for UP TO one year after the date you FIRST ENTERED Japan. However, you MUST obtain a Japanese driver's license if you are in Japan for more than one year EVEN IF your international license is still valid. You CANNOT leave Japan, renew your international license, and return to Japan hoping to drive (unless you are out of Japan for more than three months). This policy is a recent change to the law because many foreigners were constantly renewing their international licenses and never obtaining a Japanese one. Also, some Japanese people who had had their license suspended or revoked were going abroad for a vacation (mostly to Hawaii and California) getting an international driver's license and returning to Japan able to drive legally again. Since I had already been in the country for almost a year I knew that I would have to get a Japanese license before I even set foot in a car.
I hope this article has been helpful for anyone planning on driving in Japan. Please let me know what you think of it on the feedback page.