To drive or not to drive. That is the question on the minds of many gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, particularly those who are required by law to get a driver’s license in the country. If you live in urban centers such as Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka, you may not bother learning how to drive because you can always rely on Japan's efficient public transport system to bring you anywhere you want. In fact, even many Japanese locals who live in the big cities do not bother owning cars because not only is it expensive, but it can also be very challenging to get a license. Moreover, traffic in the cities can be horrible at times and side streets are very narrow, making it impossible for large vehicles to pass. But it's a different story if you live in the countryside, as driving your own car often becomes a latent necessity.
Before you decide whether or not you need to get behind the wheel, here are some things that you may want to factor into your decision:
The Elusive Driver’s License
In case you didn't know, the first thing anybody needs to drive anywhere in the world is a driver’s license. Although some tourists and short-stay visitors can drive with an international driving permit (covered later), foreign residents are required to get a Japanese driver's license. Countries that have bilateral agreements with Japan can easily get a valid license to drive in the country even without taking a practical or written exam (いいなあ～). These countries include the United Kingdom, Norway, South Korea, Canada and Sweden. Just visit the nearest licensing center and bring your license issued by your home country and your passport to avail of this privilege. Still, you will be required to undergo a physical and eye exam before being issued a new local license.
If your country (particularly the USA) does not have an agreement with Japan, then you're in for an arduous path of securing a license as the locals do. You will not only undergo a written exam, but also a practical test that can be very easy to fail. On average it takes three attempts before both locals and foreigners finally pass the test. This is true even with experienced drivers.
International Driving Permits
With an international driving permit, foreigners can drive all around the country for not more than one year even if the permit is valid for more than 12 months. Also, this permit is not issued in Japan but in your own country. If you want to drive around, be well-prepared and secure this permit before coming over to Japan. Generally speaking, Japan does not want foreign residents to rely on international driving permits; instead, they're intended for temporary visitor use.
Road Rules and Regulations
Only a few countries in the world drive on the left side of the street with the steering wheel and driver’s seat on the right, and Japan is one of them. Although the legal age for driving in this country is 18, people who are 16 years old can drive a motorcycle.
Driving rules and road signs in Japan abide by international standards. In big cities the road signs are in both English and Japanese. But if you are in a less-urban area, English signs become a rarer sight.
Although there are speed limits on the expressways, side streets, and urban areas, quite a number of Japanese drivers do not follow them. It is very common to see people beating the red light and speed limits. I don’t encourage you to follow the locals, especially because getting caught entails steep penalties. Unlike the Romans, do not do as they do when it comes to unsafe driving.
If there is one very serious offense for the Japanese, it's driving under the influence of alcohol (zero tolerance rule). Also, texting or using a phone while driving is frowned upon. Lastly, be sure that seat belts are fastened for both the passengers and the driver.
It is not rare to see confusing lines on the road. Typically, you will see yellow, white, solid and even dashed lines. You have to know what those lines mean so your driving will be out of harm's way. Dashed white lines mean you could overtake, while solid white lines allow you to overtake while taking caution. A hard yellow line indicates no overtaking unless it is accompanied by a white line on your side of the road.
For your own safety, be sure to stop at intersections and at train tracks, even if there are no blaring lights or warnings. Be sure to halt before pedestrian crossings too.
Things to watch out for while driving include
1. Cyclists coming from different sides of the road: Japan is infamous for cycling on the wrong side of the road while wearing headphones.
2. Speeding drivers beating the red lights at intersections
3. Parked vehicles that block narrow streets
4. It is against the law to turn left when the light is red even if there is no oncoming vehicle.
If you encounter accidents, you must pull over and call 110 (the police) on your phone.
Parking at the Metro
In less-populated areas parking is easy and oftentimes free. If you are in the urban areas, you will not only find it burdensome to get a parking space, but you can also expect to pay a steep price for parking your vehicle.
There are two unique types of parking lots common in Japan. The first one looks like a typical parking lot but if you look closely under your parked vehicle, you will see that there are low barriers that will prevent you from leaving the area without paying your fee. Don’t attempt to disregard this barrier because you will be fined and your vehicle might suffer damage (unless you drive a monster truck).
Another interesting type of parking in the country is elevator parking. You will be instructed to park your car inside a lift, which will take and keep your car in a parking tower. The lift will bring your car back to you after paying the fee. Some of the lifts even resemble a Ferris wheel.
There are loads of gas stations all over the country. The most common type is the traditional full-service station, which reminds me of 1950s America ("ding-ding!"). Here you can expect an attendant to fill up your gas tank while you can relax. Other services that you can expect from your attendant include taking out your trash, giving you wet towels for cleaning your dashboard, assisting you as you get back on the road, or giving you a soothing body massage (just kidding). They do wear professional-looking uniforms, though.
Self-service stations are also on the rise. Unfortunately for foreigners, the signs here are usually in Japanese. There's no need to worry because there are attendants who will show you which nozzle to use. The next time you stop at a self-service station, you should pay attention to the color of the nozzles or nozzle covers. The one in yellow is usually high-octane or premium gasoline, the red one is regular octane, and the green is diesel or light oil.
Driving During the Winter Season
It's very important to inquire about road conditions when you plan to drive during winter in Japan, especially in the countryside where roads can be icy and dangerous. Although driving in Tokyo may not be as treacherous as in other parts of the country, you might still need to bring snow tires or chains, particularly if you plan to drive on markedly inclined roads.
Aside from making sure you have proper equipment, it's also a good idea to fill your tank before leaving for a ski trip in the countryside. You may encounter traffic or road problems along the way so you need to be prepared and ensure that you will stay warm inside your car. Getting stuck in a traffic jam while blasting your car's heater and head-banging to 80s heavy metal has a nasty tendency to empty your tank more rapidly.
A snow removal kit should also be kept inside your trunk. You will never know when you need to scrape ice from your windshield, and you may also need a shovel to dig your tires out of the snow. Last, don't eat yellow snow--especially while driving!