With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

Highways and Byways

Posted by Heliocentrism on March 27, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Look at all those fools trying to go to Tokyo.

The Long Drive

On this day we just drove from Tokyo to Kyoto. Rather than write an entire entry about how we, “drove for 3 hours, then stopped to use the bathroom, then drove for another hour or so, then stopped for lunch…”

I will tell you all about driving in Japan in general. When to do it. When not to do it. What are the best driving options and so on.

The next train will arrive any day now.

Why should I drive in Japan?

Because public transportation outside the big cities suck.

When I first got to Kyushu I did not have a car. To get to work I had to catch the first train that left the station nearest my home at 6:00 in the morning. This train took me downtown where I would wait 30 minutes for the train that would take me to work. Then I would walk 20 minutes up hill and get to my office all sweaty and ready to start my day almost an hour before I really needed to be there. (A later train would get me to work an hour too late.)

To get home I would sneak out of work, 15 minutes before I was officially allowed to leave, and run to the station. Most days I would get there in time to catch my train; on other days I had to wait an hour for the next one. This train took me back downtown just in time to see the second train I needed pull out of the station. I would wait an hour for the next one.

To put this in perspective, it took an hour and 20 minutes to get to work and 2 hours to return by train. The drive to and from work took 20 minutes with traffic. To walk to and from work; 2 hours. Yes, walking home from work took the same amount of time as taking the train!

Plus, the train isn’t cheap. I got transportation money from work and it never covered the cost of taking the train everyday to work. But once I got a car, that same amount of money covered the cost to fill my tank every month including my driving on the weekends (as long as I didn’t take a long road trip somewhere).

A Japanese driving test course

Who can drive in Japan?

Anyone with an International Driver’s License can drive in Japan for up to one year. You can use an International Driver’s License for another year if you go back to your home country for at least 3 months and re-enter Japan on a new visa.

An International Driver’s License is very easy to get if you live in a country that uses them and you already have a regular driver’s license. It took me about 20 minutes to get one.

As an American, I simply went to the nearest AAA office. (You don’t need to have AAA membership.) I brought my valid US driver’s license, $15, 2 passport photos of myself, and a completed application form. Everything was done right there and I walked out 20 minutes later with my International Driver’s License which did not become valid until the day I planned to arrive in Japan.

After a year of living in Japan, I had to get a Japanese driver’s license. The citizens of some countries just need to show up at a Japanese DMV, show their license from their country, and that’s it. Americans have to take a driving test.

The driving test is mostly non-sense and has nothing to do with proving that you are a safe driver at all. I won’t get into it here, because I wrote about the process in a previous entry.

Now he can’t drive.

Do not drink and drive!

Japan has a zero alcohol tolerance for drivers. You will be fined, thrown in prison, then kicked out of the country if you caught drinking and driving.

You can also get your friends in trouble too. If you got drunk at someone’s house, or with someone at a bar, that person can also be fined and thrown in jail. At the very least, that person could be fired from his or her job and deported.

Even if you are at a party and you know of someone there who drinks alcohol and plans to drive and you do nothing to stop it, you can be held responsible. This too can result in your being fired and deported.

A car slightly bigger than yourself

What can you drive?

You could drive a scooter, a kei car, or a regular car.

I know nothing about driving a scooter in Japan other than it’s a huge death trap. Why don’t you just hand the grim reaper your business card? Scooter drivers believe that most of the rules of the road don’t apply to them causing them to do things like overtaking cars on the left during traffic. (We drive on the left here in Japan.) They ride the knife’s edge of being annoying little two-wheeled trolls of the road and the cause of needless traffic accidents.

So, the two sane options are the kei car or the regular car. The kei cars come with yellow license plates and the regular cars come with white ones. Here are the pros and cons of both types of cars:

Kei-cars Pros:

  • Generally cheaper
  • Generally more fuel efficient
  • They have cheaper fees:
    • taxes are cheaper
    • tolls are cheaper
    • license fees are cheaper
    • insurance is cheaper
  • Smaller and easier to park and find parking
    • Sometimes smaller parking spots are cheaper. SOMETIMES

Kei-cars Cons:

  • You can fit at most 4 people in one.
    • More than that and you are breaking the law.
  • Hills are a problem for older kei cars.
    • Turning off the a/c until you get to the top helps.
  • It doesn’t matter what the highway speed limit is, you will never come close to going that fast.
  • The trunk is a joke.
    • Travel light and don’t buy too many groceries at once.
  • You’re screwed in a serious car accident.
    • Try to only get hit by scooters or other kei cars.

Regular cars Pros:

  • Look at all the trunk space you have!
  • You can blow off that speed limit and have your a/c cranked all the way up at the same time.
  • You can have 4 friends or more depending on how many seat belts your car comes with.
  • Everybody gets an airbag!

Regular cars Cons:

  • You have all this horse power, but with the cost of gas, tolls, insurance, taxes, and price of the car itself, you can’t afford to go anywhere other than work (to earn money to pay for your car).
  • Many of the roads in Japan are slightly wider than your car.
    • Watch out for death ditches.
  • You have to look for the special big-car parking spaces.
  • Snow tires cost more money for regular cars.

Watch out for the cliff on the right!

Where can I drive? (The picture above is of a 2 lane road.)

On the left! For god’s sake, stay on the left!

You gotta pay extra for a median.

What roads should I take?

If you’re not going too far (any trip less than 2 hours) don’t take the expressway. The expressway is a toll road. It has a higher speed limit, less traffic, more signs, and most of the time there are 2 lines for each direction of traffic. The roads are nicer and there are plenty of rest stops to gas up, eat, and use the bathroom. You can even take a nap in your car at the rest stop, if you’re into that sort of thing.

But the expressway is expensive and for short distances, it might not be worth it. You shave off 30 minutes on your commute time, but you pay $20. It might be better to leave earlier or later to avoid traffic.

If the time saved is several hours and taking the expressway means not spending money on a hotel, then it’s definitely worth it. If you plan on using the expressway often, you should get an ETC card. This is easier said than done.

There are many benefits of having an ETC card. The tolls will cost you less at certain times and on certain days. There are even days when the tolls are free only to ETC card holders. You don’t have to stop to pay your tolls. And, there are extra toll exits and entrances that only ETC card holders can use. Best of all, no scooters are allowed on the expressway!

The problem is that it is easier to get into MIT than to become an ETC card holder if you are not Japanese. My friend, Freda, has one and she recommends applying for a Japanese credit card and forcing the person helping you with the credit card application to apply for the ETC card as well. Getting a Japanese credit card is slightly less hard than getting an ETC card.

You don’t have to get a Japanese credit card to get an ETC card, but if you are a foreigner, it is damn near impossible without one.

On the free roads, you are guaranteed nothing! You may get 2 lanes of road for each direction, you might get one lane to be shared by both directions of traffic. You might have a tunnel that goes through a mountain, or you might have to drive up the mountain on windy roads with death cliffs. Most likely you will get stuck in traffic.

If Mark and I did more trips like this one each year, I would have put the effort into getting an ETC card. But we don’t, so…


How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.

Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.







  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • InternationalATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask whatATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with the most international cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan; I’ve never been a tourist here.)



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