Renting a Car in Japan
Renting a car in Japan is quite easy and practical especially if you are only in Japan for a short trip. There are many car rental agencies around. They are usually affiliated with a specific car manufacturer like Nissan, Toyota, etc. and have a variety of cars by that manufacturer. The agencies are generally located within easy walking distance of major train stations and make it easy to arrive by train in a new city then rent a car. Most of these agencies are rather small however. It is possible to just walk up and rent a car, but they may not keep any extra cars on their premises. Calling in advance or arranging a car through a Japanese travel agency like JTB is advisable. Travel agencies will be able to check prices, availability, and convenience of all the different car rental agencies and they will call the rental agency for you and arrange all of the details. They will also give you a map and directions to the rental agency and may possibly get you a discount. If you do arrange a car through a travel agent you will probably have to pay the travel agent and they will give you a voucher for the car. The car rental agency will have your car waiting for you once you arrive if you have called ahead or used a travel agent. You simply have to show them your driver's license and sign the contract. Most of the cars now come with car navigation systems standard and they can be quite fun to play with.
Like everything else in Japan it is generally more expensive to rent a car here than it is in other countries. A compact car (1000cc) usually costs around 6000 yen for the first 24 hours and around 9000 yen for 48 hours. Every hour after that is generally 1000 yen. You may be able to arrange a weekly discount, however. A travel agent will have the best information about the different options. Even if you speak little or no Japanese and they speak little or no English this should be a fairly painless process (if you have arranged the car through a Japanese travel agent) and you will be off driving around Japan in no time.
Buying a Car in Japan
Buying a car in Japan is another adventure and you can read about our experience in our newsletter. When deciding to buy a car in Japan there are several things that you should consider. First, owning a car in Japan is highly regulated due to the limited space. Second, you MUST have a place to park your car (that is verified by the police) and the street doesn't count. Usually this space is rented from real estate agencies. Third, every two years (for older cars) every car must undergo a mandatory inspection and certification called shaken (and most likely expensive repair since private shops get to both inspect and fix your car). This inspection is likely to cost in the 40,000 yen range ($400). Fourth, you must buy compulsorily insurance, but you should also buy supplementary insurance. Finally, gas is expensive (around 100 yen a liter) and highway tolls are high (around 100 yen per km).
While owing a car is expensive ANY transportation in Japan is expensive. I personally find that it costs roughly the same to drive to work as it did to ride the bus including maintenance, gas, and parking and I have a car to go see Japan in. Another plus is that this is Japan, land of the automaker, and there is no shortage of high-quality, cheap, used cars.
Once you decided to buy a car there are many ways you can find one; at a dealer, used-car lot, newspaper, friend, etc. These different methods have benefits and drawbacks.
Car Dealers (Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc)
There are several benefits to going to a car dealer. Since their reputation is at stake you will receive excellent, honest, quality service. Their cars are of generally higher quality than those found in used car lots and they will not try to rip you off. They will also take care of all the nasty paperwork that is involved in title transfer, registration, shaken inspection, insurance, and can arrange financing if you need it. On the down side they tend to be more expensive. They also usually have a limited selection of used cars, basically only trade-ins of other customers. If you can find a good car at a good price at a car dealer I would buy it from them without any worries.
Used Car Lots
Another option is a used car lot. The same advice about used car lots in any country applies in Japan, be careful. Used car lots can be very honest, fair, and have great cars, but they can also try to take the shirt off your back with all sorts of hidden fees that come out only after you have made a deposit. Use your common sense and ask questions. Take someone who can speak Japanese and let them do the talking. The benefits of used car lots are that they tend to have a lot of cars in all price ranges. They will also usually take care of title transfer, registration, shaken, and other paperwork for you although sometimes for an additional fee. I bought my car at a used car lot and I have never had any problems with it.
Newspaper, Friend, Neighbor, etc.
If you look in the classifieds section of any English newspaper or magazine you will see a plethora of cars to choose from. Many foreigners who are leaving Japan sell their cars this way and you can find some great bargains since these people usually need to sell quickly. The MAJOR downside to this is that you have to arrange the title transfer, registration, shaken, parking, police inspection of the parking space, insurance, etc, by yourself. If you can speak Japanese or know someone who will help you this isn't impossible, but it will take some time. Also, if all of your paperwork isn't in order or you need to make a change it can be VERY difficult to do if the person selling the car has left the country. You will most likely have to pay tax on the car again unless the buyer and seller are in the same prefecture. If you are going to buy a car from the newspaper or friend make sure YOU know how to get the paperwork done as this is not a trivial process. Don't rely on the person selling the car to know what to do.
So what is the best option? Well it depends on who you are and what you are looking for. If you don't want any hassles and have a little more money to spend go to a car dealer. If you want a little more choice and have time to shop around at different used car lots by all means use them. If you are up for the challenge of navigating Japanese bureaucracy (which you should be good at after getting a Japanese driver's license) use the newspapers to get some great deals. Good deals are not restricted to the newspapers, however.
The Japanese idea of an 'old' car is something like 5 years and they must pay a disposal fee just to get rid of these perfectly good cars so most Japanese people sell them cheaply to car brokers and agents who ship them overseas (usually less developed countries) for resale. When I was looking there were reasonable kei-cars (super-compact) listed anywhere from $600 on up but you can expect to pay around $2000-3000 for a decent, reliable car.
Is it worth it? I most defiantly think it is. My wife and I have seen more of this country from our car than we ever could riding the train. At times it seems like we're in a totally different country 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.