Camping in a car or campervan is perfectly fine in Japan as long as you are not being a nuisance or parked illegally. Lay low when camping in free urban parking. We don't recommend non paid parking in central Tokyo for example. Fortunately, if you are out in the countryside you are generally fine.
To make finding sleeping spots easier, we provide a map of places you can stay, so no need to overplan. Just choose the places you want to explore and we can give you suggestions nearby.
To help you prepare, here are some general rules on driving in Japan.
Depending on where you're coming from, driving in Japan might be easier or harder. Cars drive on the left side of the road and have the driver's seat and steering wheel on their right side. If you don't drive on this side of the road where you live, prepare for a learning curve at first. We're happy to take you on a short drive around the depot to help you get comfortable before you go.
The legal minimum age for driving is 18 years. Drinking and driving are obviously illegal and harshly punished so please avoid it.
Road signs and rules follow international standards, and many signs on major roads are in Japanese and English. There are some differences however. For example, vehicles have to come to a full stop before crossing any railway tracks. We can provide a review of roadsigns for those interested.
The typical speed limits are 80 to 100 km/h on expressways, 40 km/h in urban areas, 30 km/h in side streets and 50 to 60 km/h elsewhere.
Note: drivers do tend to go a little over the posted speed limits.
Most roads in Japan are toll free except for expressways, some scenic driving routes, and a small number of toll tunnels. Road conditions tend to be good, although side streets in the cities can be rather narrow or even impassable to larger vehicles. Traffic congestion is a frequent problem in and around urban centers. It's a good idea to give yourself some extra time when returning to Tokyo at the end of a weekend.
Drivers generally tend to be well mannered and considerate. Still, nobody's perfect and intersections can be dangerous, as some drivers tend to speed through yellow lights. Well after the traffic light has turned red, people may stop their vehicles at the edge of the road, blocking traffic. You also should always be aware of cyclists, especially those who ride on the wrong side of the road.
Foreigners can drive in Japan with an International Driving Permit (IDP) for a maximum of one year, even if the IDP is valid for a longer period. You'll have to return to your home country for at least three consecutive months to use it again.
International driving permits are not issued in Japan. They are available in your home country, so please get one in advance. In many countries you can get them through your country's national automobile association for a small fee.
Japan only recognizes international driving permits based on the 1949 Geneva Convention. Many countries follow this standard- be sure to check if you're unsure.
Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan don't issue permits based on the 1949 Geneva Convention.
These countries have a separate agreement and can drive with an official Japanese translation of their driver's license. You can get a translation from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) or some of the respective driving in Japan countries' embassies or consulates in Japan.
People from other countries whose international driving permits are not recognized by Japan and people who stay in Japan for more than one year, must obtain a Japanese driver's license.
Gas stations are abundant all across Japan. Full service stations are the most common, although self service stations have greatly increased over recent years. Many gas stations close during the night, while others are open 24 hours. A liter of regular gasoline costs roughly 150 yen as of January 2020. High octane gas and diesel are also available. Payment is possible by credit card or cash.
Getting gas at a full service (フル) station requires some simple Japanese. When you pull into the station, an attendant may direct you to a stall. Park, open your window and shut off your car. Tell the attendant what kind of gas (e.g. "regular"), how much (e.g. "mantan" for full tank) and how you will pay (e.g. "credit card"). He may give you a wet towel to clean your dash or ask to take your garbage. When finished he may ask which direction you wish to leave and then direct you out into traffic.
Self service (セルフ) stations only provide Japanese language menus. If in trouble, an attendant should be present and able to help you.
Note that when paying by cash, the change machine is often a separate machine or inside the gas station building.
Parking in the center of large cities is very expensive, costing several hundreds of yen per hour. Fees decrease with the size of the city and the distance to the city center. In small towns and in the countryside, parking is often free.
Parking lots in national parks or near tourist attractions sometimes charge a flat fee (typically 200 to 500 yen per use).
Besides standard parking lots, you may encounter a few unique types of parking lots in Japan. The first are elevator parking lots in which mechanical elevators inside buildings will pick up and store your car. Drivers will need to park their car onto a lift, which will automatically store the car in the tower. When coming back, the mechanized lift will fetch your car and return it to you.
The second unique type of parking lot uses low barriers underneath the cars which raise up to physically block in each individual vehicle. Once you have paid your parking fee (either at a central payment machine or at the parking space), the barrier lowers and you can safely drive away. You will usually find this type of parking lot in and around small urban lots.
Have fun, stay safe and always buckle your seatbelt before taking off.
June 4, 2018