Renting a car in Japan

Car rental is usually a pretty standard affair if you’re renting with a large international chain agency. The websites have more or less the same form submission flow. In Japan, things work differently. First off, the largest car rental companies are actually the car manufacturers, whereby Toyota and Nissan have the largest presence. Then there are the agencies – Times car rental, Nippon rent a car, Orix rent a car, Budget rent a car and J-net rent a car (this is not an exhaustive list). There are also local car rental companies serving only a specific region such as Hokkaido or Okinawa. Finally, there are aggregator websites such as ToCoo! and Tabirai.

Of all those mentioned above, only Nissan, Times, Orix, ToCoo! and Tabirai (Update: Nippon rent a car too) offer English reservation websites that work similarly to that of typical International car rental chains (e.g. Hertz, Sixt). Toyota requires calling to make a reservation, a no-go for me, even if they speak English. Nippon rent a car asks you to fill up a reservation form that looks like a tax return form, and probably does not give you an instant quote. I wonder if they’re getting any business  (Update: their website is dramatically improved and easy to navigate now. You should definitely check them out also). So in the end, for tourists who don’t know the Japanese language, your choices are pretty much limited to the 5 6 mentioned above, plus those that cover specific regions if you are visiting those places.

For my car rental in Kyushu, of all 5 sites, ToCoo! gave me the best rates. Tabirai had the worst offer, as it was actually quoting from Times car rental with their own premium added on. Nissan’s rates were equally bad. Anyway, ToCoo!, being an aggregator site, was actually quoting rates from Budget rent a car. I checked directly with Budget rent a car website (with help from Google translate) and got more or less the same rates as quoted by ToCoo!, except that cost of the child seats on ToCoo! was half that quoted by Budget rent a car (JPY 500 instead of JPY 1000), so i save JPY 1000 for getting 2 child seats. BUT, there is a JPY 1080 per day fee (tax included) that ToCoo! charges for rentals through them (which is a lot!), so i ended up paying more by renting through them, which is expected since they need to make a profit.

Anyway, i went ahead with the ToCoo! rental reservation, and a JPY 3240 (for 3 days rental) “additional support fee” was charged to my credit card IMMEDIATELY. Frankly, that doesn’t feel comfortable, but the ToCoo! website does tell you clearly that they will be charging this fee, and they will do a 100% refund if you cancel your reservation at least 7 days in advance (you will still lose out due to the difference in exchange rate if you actually did a refund). I guess the advantage of going through ToCoo! was mainly in being able to proceed with the booking entirely in English, so you’re less likely to make any mistake in your booking. Nevertheless, for future car rental reservations, i’ll skip ToCoo! and go directly to the actual rental agency providing the car.

For the other segment of my upcoming Japan trip, on Yakushima Island, i managed to contact a Suzuki affiliated local rental agency. Their website provided a simple reservation form, in Japanese. They responded to my reservation request in English (they said they relied on Google translation too 🙂 ) after a day or two. As expected for a small local agency, their rate was lower than that quoted by the other websites, and they throw in child seats for free. No credit card details nor deposit was required for the reservation.

Here are some acronyms you should be acquainted with when hiring a car in Japan.

ETC

ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) is a car rental option that is probably most confusing to foreigners. Almost all, if not all rental cars do come with the ETC device, for free. The problem is in getting an ETC card. Some rental agencies offer the rental of an ETC card for a nominal fee, while others charge an exorbitant fee. ToCoo! for example, charges JPY 3704 (or more) per day! I don’t understand why there is such a great disparity in the fee charged, since the use of an ETC card may not generate enough savings to make it worthwhile in the first place. You typically get savings on toll charges through the use of ETC during off-peak hours, such as during the weekend. Since toll charges can be paid for by cash or credit card anyway, i guess in general, you need not be bothered about ETC, UNLESS you want to use an Expressway Pass.

XEP

There’s no such thing as XEP, but i meant to highlight the Expressway Passes (SEP, KEP, CEP, TEP and HEP) that cover almost the whole of Japan. When available, an Expressway Pass most definitely mean savings. I say “when available” because it may not be offered throughout the year, so do check beforehand.

GPS

GPS is basically provided by default in all Japanese rental cars, for free. It is in Japanese though. Getting a multilingual GPS unit may incur extra fees. There are free GPS apps that are actually good enough for navigating in Japan. These are based on Open Street Map, which uses community contributed maps data, and the maps for Japan look quite detailed. I chose the Maps.Me app as it comes with detailed searchable points of interest. Anyway, i always note down and input the GPS coordinates of all the destinations in my itinerary into the GPS app prior to my trip, so i never had to fumble with entering the destination into the GPS app during the trip.

CDW

The Collision Damage Waiver, commonly known as Deductible Insurance in Japan, doesn’t always come with the basic rental package, and the excess can vary a lot between different rental agencies, unlike in Europe or US. Sometimes, only third party insurance is included. Do take time to understand the terms and conditions of the insurance applicable to your rental before making a decision. The important thing to is to make sure your travel insurance covers the rental excess. Otherwise, it is wise to take up additional coverage.

NOC

Non-operation charge. You don’t normally come across this when renting a car in other countries. It means you need to return the car in a useable state, including cleanliness. Frankly, i was a little taken aback by this, because i’m used to returning a car littered all over (especially with kids onboard), but Japan is Japan. Abide by their noble customs, you must.

IDP

The final 3 letters acronym is International Driving Permit. Not just any International Driving Permit, but one that conforms to the 1949 Geneva Convention. Failure to produce the IDP will result in denial to proceed with the rental.


Post rental update

Both car rental reservations (Kyushu and Yakushima) went without a hitch. Here are some tips i have gathered from the rental experience.

#1 Avoid aggregator sites

The final quotation i received from Budget rent a car was actually different (in my favour, though by just a small amount) from that quoted by ToCoo!. There is no way ToCoo!, or any aggregator site can give you a completely accurate quote, since their system is not fully integrated with the actual rental agency’s. I think it was a bad idea (waste of money) to go through ToCoo!. If you can help it, use Google translate and do your reservations directly on the booking website of the actual car rental agency.

#2 Use your own GPS navigation app

Both cars i rented had GPS built-in, but only in Japanese. I used Maps.Me (which is completely free of charge) on my phone for navigation, and the only problem i encountered was that of being given silly routes. For example, it suggested getting out of expressways and major roads only to return to them later, because it calculates driving time based on distance only. Going through a toll booth costs more time. Every now and then, you’ll have to check ahead and drive the route that makes sense. But otherwise, being prepared with your own GPS app means saving time and trouble from having to fiddle with a new navigation system that you’re not familiar with.

#3 Use credit card for toll payment

Credit cards are accepted at all the major toll booths. The toll booths are usually manned, so cash is normally fine too, but it means having to budget for the toll charges when you do your currency exchange, which can be a hassle. At automated toll booths, insert your credit card into the card slot that says IC (if i remember correctly it might also indicate ETC). Well, the exception is when can rent the ETC card for cheap (say 100 Yen per day) and use it in conjunction with an expressway pass, or you are certain that you can take advantage of weekend or off-peak rates from an ETC card.

#4 Going a little over the speed limit is OK

There are not that many speed cameras around, and everyone seems to drive well above the speed limit without slowing down when going through speed c0ameras. Maybe there is a high tolerated range, i don’t know, but the speed limit (80 – 100km/h) really did feel too low. It’s probably OK to drive at the speed most of the Japanese do.

#5 Get help when pumping gas

Some of the gas stations are self-service, but the station attendant will be glad to help you pump gas. I learned this from a forum posting, but simply gestured instead of actually saying it when in Japan – to fill up full tank, say “Mantan” (“man” is actually the same word and pronunciation as the word that means full in Chinese). Regular gas are marked red. The price, at the time i was in Japan, was 114 Yen per litre (S$1.43 / US$1.04), quite reasonable. There is a slot for inserting the credit card, but since the display panel is entirely in Japanese, it’s probably better to leave it to the attendant. This may cost you a little extra though. When returning the car, you’ll be asked to show proof of filling up the gas, so don’t lose the receipt.

Overall, car rental in Japan was quite easy, and the language barrier presented no problem at all.

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13 thoughts on “Renting a car in Japan”

  1. Hi,

    My plan to Hokkaido will be next month may.
    Planning to rent a car there, couple of days. From Asahikawa to Monbetsu to and fro. I have go thru Tabirai Japan rent a car. Only, they can give us the best rate. We only need 1000cc car, only 2 of us.
    Do you have any suggestion of car rental ? What I most worry, it is the insurance coverage. In Tabirai website, not so clear mention about it.
    I really need some opinion from you..expert.

    1. This will be my first time renting a car in Japan (in 3 weeks’ time), so i’m not an expert yet 😉

      I just had a look at Tabirai website. All the cars come with CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) which is the insurance coverage. The actual CDW excess amount (the amount you have to pay in case of damage to the car – note that it may not include third party insurance) depends on the actual car rental company supplying the car (Tabirai is just middle man), so you’re right, Tabirai doesn’t tell you the actual details before you take up the rental.

      For my rental, the CDW that comes free of charge has a 200,000 Yen excess (S$2472). For just a small fee of 4212 Yen (S$52), i upgraded the CDW plan (I can’t remember whether it is zero excess or 50000 Yen excess) for 4 days of coverage. I think it is worthwhile to take up an upgraded CDW plan. You likely have to do this when you pick up your car as Tabirai probably doesn’t do this for you. I think usually the fee to upgrade the CDW isn’t very expensive.

  2. Hi there,

    I recently booked a car in advance with ToCoo, cancelled my reservation, and booked the same car again (due to some confusion in between). To my horror, I was charged immediately, multiple transactions for the 2 separate bookings. I was wondering if you experienced the same? The amount I was charged was just the ToCoo additional support costs and even that alone was twice the amount quoted on paper.

    Additionally, I was also charged by an external company called ‘Aviation Osaka Japan’. I am really confused and just wanted to know if it happened to you too. I have a bad feeling about ToCoo and not sure if I should cancel my bookings, raise a dispute with the bank and move on to another car rental in Japan.

    Also, what’s your recommendation for car rentals within Hokkaido? I don’t speak any Japanese so preferably a website with simple booking process.

    Thanks so much for your insightful article. Hope to hear from you!!

    1. Hi Uli, yes, i was charged immediately as well. The amount charged was 1080 Yen per day in my case and i believe it is stated on the website that they would do this. They also stated that all bookings can be cancelled free of charge if done more than 7 days before the first day of rental, which means they will refund you for any such cancelled booking. I wasn’t charged by ‘Aviation Osaka Japan’, and i can’t advise you whether this is related to ToCoo, but i think likely not.

      I think ToCoo is reliable. I had my car reservation as promised, but i think they may be redundant, since i felt in many cases it is possible for you to do the booking with the actual renter directly despite the language barrier. It would be reasonable if ToCoo charged a flat transaction fee, but they charge a per-day fee, which is a MAJOR rip-off. You will be paying a lot more for renting through them, and all they do is relaying the reservation details. Nevertheless, if you’re happy with the rental rates (including the additional support fee) you’re getting from ToCoo, then i see no problem going through them. If you cancelled the bookings, i believe there is no need to raise a dispute, you should get your refund soon enough.

      I’m afraid i have no experience renting in Hokkaido. I will do that in my next trip to Japan! Overall, the Japanese are trustworthy, so there is no need to worry. They may devise ways to get people to pay more than they should, but at least there is nothing hidden.

  3. so thankful i came across your blog! was about to made reservations for car cos the rates are unbelievably good, seems like they are more hidden costs to it.

    1. Hi Audrey, glad that you found the article useful. I generally don’t trust the aggregator websites (those middleman who don’t actually own the cars), but overall I would say Japanese aggregators (e.g. Tocoo) aren’t too bad, as in they’re not out to cheat you. Hope you’ll find a good deal!

    1. Hi Rabi’ah, I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was probably about 38 litres of petrol consumed for my itinerary on Kyushu, which lasted me more than 600km. At about S$1.40 per litre, it cost around S$55, which was rather cheap.

        1. Have fun! I’m sure you will. By the way, this may or my not be relevant to you, but there’ such a thing called the Kyushu Expressway Pass (KEP), whereby you only pay a flat fee per day for unlimited travel on expressways. I was not able to use this because they usually offer this during the year end off-peak period from September to December. You might want to find out more. The information for the current year KEP hasn’t been released yet, or it’s possible that they’re not offering it this year. Anyway, here’s the first Google search result link if you searched for KEP 2016.

          1. Just saw this… thanks very much! Yeah, have heard abt the KEP but as u mentioned, info abt whether the promo has been extended to this yr is not available yet.

  4. Hi .. Thanks for all the info here.. Just wanted to add that the 1080 yen per day charge by ToCoo includes a sort-of insurance for the NOC charge.. Even though you have to pay the NOC to the car company, ToCoo says that they will refund the amount to you once you fill up a form and email it to them.

    I checked some other sites like Tabirai and Toyota Rent a Car but could not find any option to take an insurance for the NOC

    1. Hi GJ, thanks for sharing this information. In my opinion this insurance is not worth paying 1080 Yen per day. For that price I would expect to get zero excess insurance. Anyway, thankfully I didn’t dirty the rental cars to the extent that NOC was incurred.

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