In this article you will learn:
how it feels to drive in Japan
about signs, rules and road conditions
about parkings and toll roads
Driving in Japan; join the locals, stay calm
Many people immediately think ‘not for me’ when talking about driving in foreign lands, especially Asia. Definitely by camper. So be happy to realise that Japan is different, also in this respect. Although I do not really like to use the word ‘civilised’ as it automatically implies that anything else will be ‘uncivilised’ it does the best job to make you understand how driving in Japan is. Civilised.
The Japanese are calm and well-mannered and this clearly reflects in their behaviour on the road. Rules are obeyed and as soon as you have gotten used to driving on the lefthand-side (yes, do keep that in mind) you will feel right at home. As in most countries, in the big cities life is more hectic, also on the roads. Parking is expensive and not always convenient. For your exploration of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka I would thus not recommend doing this by camper. Read better suggestions in my article combine your trip.
Rules and signs
Road rules and signs are mostly international and thus familiar. In an unfamiliar situation, adding some common sense while keeping calm and especially driving slowly will help you crack the case. Information on most major roads is in both Japanese and English, including names of locations. This makes finding your way reasonably easy even without electronic assistance of your GPS with English guidance. (read about GPS and navigation)
Road conditions are very good, quite possibly the best in the world. I am still amazed to find that even the smallest backroads have a fresh coat of tarmac, often looking as if it was put in place right before your arrival. One thing to keep in mind is that roads and especially streets can be narrow. But it is only a small inconvenience as cars and also campers are smaller than your regular western size!
How does driving feel?
To me driving here is a pleasure. And it was from day 1. Especially if you are not in a hurry and can avoid cities like Tokyo. Although for driving cities are fine too, just finding your way (without GSP) is more challenging. But I am country roads mostly and these are great. Not usually busy, plenty roadside parkings for a stop or taking a picture. Convenience stores all over the map, to stock up on a picnic, use the bathroom or grab a coffee on-the-go.
Camping cars are getting more familiar these recent years and as anywhere, a chat with an equally passionate camper-lover is always fun. And good practice for your Japanese skills too! Although I might say, and it is a bit of weird conclusion not academically based but from being on the road, that with a fellow camperer your chance to find a English speaker is slightly higher. Or they might just be a little less shy talking to a foreigner in a similar vehicle!
Most roads are free to use. Most highways and certain scenic roads have a toll system where you can pay per time, conveniently in cash or by credit card. It is a matter of taking a ticket and paying when you exit, or sometimes upon entering a certain stredge. The price will be stated and if you simply give a larger bill you will get your change and receipt, so no more communication than a polite ‘konnichiwa’ and ‘arigato’ is needed!
Electronic Toll Collection
There are also fast-passes called ETC, or electronic toll collection. If you have one, you can use the lanes for this and pass through gates faster. Toll fees can be slightly cheaper too as the government wants to promote the system. And you don’t have to hassle with cash. How it works? The ETC cannot be just bought, a machine needs to be installed in your vehicle. Some campers may have this. Next you insert a card where you need to put balance on. Then, go! It is easy.
You could ask yourself if you need an ETC though. Most of us tend to avoid highways because they are not the most scenic roads to travel on so savings might be minimal. Toll queues are generally short and the machine or person accepts bills and has your change ready in no time.
Parking can quickly get expensive in the big cities, another reason to avoid them. In the country it is often free or low priced. You mostly pay per hour, or at sights, activities and hotels per night. As camper cars are generally under 5 meters, they do fit normal parking spots and fees. Do keep in mind that for some indoor parkings you might be too high, it gets painful quickly if you forget this!