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.The websites of these rental companies are now, finally, user-friendly enough to foreigners (Nissan’s is still not so good, asking you to proceed with filling up your particulars before showing you the price, and they seem more expensive anyway). I like those websites (e.g. Times, Toyota) that allow you to select the rental pick-up and drop-off offices by clicking on the map, because i would choose by proximity.
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 (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.
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. Also, not all the car rental branches offer the expressway pass, and you should find out which ones do before booking. For example, if you’re taking up the Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP), the branches are listed here. Note that it is usually required for you to indicate that you want to take up the expressway pass when making your reservation. Times Car Rental makes available the expressway pass option when you have selected the pick-up location that offers it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One way rentals are very expensive in Japan (it usually costs more than the car rental fee), but even then, it may be worthwhile. You should do it if you have an open jaw flight (e.g. flying into Osaka and flying out from Tokyo). The typical one-way fee of renting from Osaka and returning the car in Tokyo is 40000 Yen (S$520)! But, if you calculate the train fare between Osaka and Tokyo for 4 persons, it would be even more!
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. Well, even if it was in English, i found that the screen resolution was so low that it was hard to interpret. 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. Anyway, since prepaid data roaming is cheap these days, you can just use Google Maps.
#3 Rent ETC card for toll payment
Almost all the car rental companies offer rental of the ETC card for a flat fee these days, and it is worthwhile to take it up. You can then drive through the ETC toll booths. You definitely need the ETC card if you are using an expressway pass. Otherwise, if you are just using the ETC card without an expressway pass, you are probably required to pay the toll charges in cash at the end of your rental (i’m not so sure about this since i used the expressway pass). Credit cards are also accepted at all the major toll booths. The toll booths are usually manned, so cash is normally fine too. At automated toll booths, insert your credit card into the card slot that says IC (if i remember correctly it might also indicate ETC).
#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.