Traveling to Japan: Should I buy a Japan Rail Pass or Rent a Car?

Traveling Japan often entails railway travel, and with that, the Japan Rail Pass is a very popular options. But in some cases, the JR Pass may not be the best option and a car rental may best suit travelers' needs. Take a look at this handy guide to see which is best for you!

However, this is not the case for every destination within Japan. For travelers who are looking to explore more of the deeper-cuts and rural sections the country has to offer, rail travel may not be the most efficient. Even if the central stations in these areas are accessible by the Japan Rail Pass, the surrounding sites may not be, and in this case, a car may prove to be the superior option or many people who live in more rural prefectures like ones in Hokuriku, Tohoku, or Shikoku, car travel is the standard, as the more farm-based and nature-centric settings present a challenge of space between destinations. Also given that these areas are often less populated than those of major cities like the ones mentioned earlier, train and bus departures are less frequent, often limiting your options as compared to having a rental car on hand. 

 

Rental Car

Rental car in rural Japan

@flickr/ Kevin Jaako

Aside from just your destination, the nature of your activities will also determine which of these transit options is best for you. 

For travelers who plan to explore major cities to see the sites and go to restaurants, the commuting costs for these trips will be covered by the Japan Rail Pass. However, say, for travelers who will be doing more nature-centric activities such as hiking or camping that require a lot of gear and supplies, a rental car with more space may be beneficial, as carrying excessive and heavy luggage filled with equipment on the trains isn’t the most convenient.

 

Japan Camp

Camping in Japan

@Pixabay/ Chulmin1700

Day Tours in Japan

With that noted, Japanese car rentals will almost always be a more expensive option, especially when operating within the time frame that Japan Rail Passes cover (being 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days). While it does depend on a number of factors, a car rental in Japan will cost around 8,000 yen to 12,000 yen (60 USD to 90 USD). This is excluding other fees instituted by the rental company, paying for parking, and paying for gas. With those expenses accounted for two days, renting a car will already exceed the costs of a Japan Rail Pass with a validity period of 7 days. Of course, with these additional costs come a share of privileges afforded by a rental car. Schedule flexibility, privacy, and storage options are great advantages with car rentals, but Japan’s rail system often has a very steady stream of arriving and departing trains and buses.

Rent a car

Nippon Rent-a-Car, one of the most prominent car rental service companies in Japan

@Japan Travel

Families may fall under this category, especially ones with smaller children who may have issues navigating transport in a foreign country. Children aside, if you or any other members of your party may find trouble using the public transportation accessible through the pass, a privately-rented car provides big benefits. 

But for solo travelers, smaller groups, or families who are used to travel and public transport, rest assured that the accommodation provided by the Japan Rail Group is more-than-sufficable. Strollers and such are regularly brought onto the train and escalator and elevator access is available at all JR Stations. Whether these amenities will suffice or not is up to individual travelers to decide. 

Children Travel

Traveling with children in Japan

@flickr/ U.S. Army Garrison Japan

In Japan, driving is done in the left lane with the steering wheel being placed on the right side of the inside of the car. This is opposite to that of a majority of countries where the residents drive in the right lane with the steering wheel being placed on the left side. Also, Japan has its share of unique sign designs in place throughout its roads, and while many of them are intuitive or share universal attributes with signs in other countries, the risk of misunderstanding is still there. 

Driving in Japan also requires an understanding of the country’s traffic rules, so depending on the differences, driving may be a difficult endeavor. An example of a differing law is that of the “turn-on-red” rules that exist in countries like the United States. In the U.S., on a majority of roads, a right turn may be done at a red light if clear. The same rule (of course, applied to left turns instead of right ones), does not exist.

 

Driving Japan

Driving in Japan

@flickr/ Stuart Rankin

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