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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in Japan

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014


Most roads in Japan are in good condition, and with a fatality level at around 4 per 100,000, Japan has one of the best road safety records in the world. In the larger Japanese cities, public transport is so good, and traffic congestion so bad, that most locals don’t drive. However, driving is the best way to get around the countryside and visit more remote places, so whether it is worthwhile driving depends on where you are and where you want to go.

You will not be permitted to drive in Japan using your existing licence. You will need to obtain an International Driving Permit from your home country; this will be valid for a maximum of one year. While using this permit, you should keep your passport and original driving licence with you in your car.

After a year, you will need to apply for a transfer to a Japanese licence. To do this, you will need to get a certified translation of your existing licence. There will be a written test, which can be taken in eight foreign languages including English, and a practical test (citizens of some countries are exempt from this.)

In addition to your driving licence, registration and compulsory insurance documents, whenever you are driving in Japan, you will need to have the following in your vehicle:

The speed limits in Japan are 80-100 kph (50-62 mph) onexpressways, 50-60 kph (31-37 mph) on other stretches of open road, and 40 kph (25 mph) in most built-up areas. All expressways in Japan are tolled; you collect a ticket as you enter the expressway and pay as you leave. On these and some other main roads, signs are in Japanese and English.

Driving in Japan is on the left, and overtaking on the right. Drink-driving is not tolerated at all in Japan; the legal blood-alcohol limit is zero. You may also be prosecuted for being a passenger and agreeing to riding with a drunk driver. Penalties for drink driving include heavy fines and imprisonment, and, for severe cases, a stretch of hard labour.


Trains are probably the most important source of transport in Japan. They are known for being well-run, clean, fast, regular, punctual to the minute (at worst) and safe. Trains do however get very crowded at peak hours, especially those on major routes and in and around Tokyo.

About 70% of railways are run by Japan Railways (JR) Group. Trains run by JR Group include the Shinkansen, the famous bullet train, so fast that once airport check-in times are factored in, they are usually quicker and cheaper than aircraft. The Shinkansen runs on several lines, including from Hachinohe on the northern tip of Honshu to Tokyo and from Tokyo to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. However, you should note that the bullet train and other fast trains may incur a surcharge.

There are metro systems in nine Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Osaka-Kobe, Kyoto and Nagoya. Metros in Japan are also a cheap, safe and reliable form of city transport.

Buses and Coaches

Buses in the major cities complement the excellent train and metro services that are available. In some major cities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, you pay a flat fare regardless of how far you travel in the city.

With the general excellence of the railway service, coaches are only essential in places with a more limited rail network, such as Hokkaido and Tohoku in the north and Kyushu in the south. Coaches are considerably cheaper than trains, and although they do take considerably longer, they provide a good means of seeing the countryside. It is important to book coach tickets, especially during the main holidays.


Due to falling prices, air transport has become more popular among the locals recently. Flights are only likely to be quicker than the bullet train at medium -distance, and flying is still normally more expensive. Bargain tickets are nevertheless available, especially if you book early.

The two most important airline groups, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, have the widest range of flights available and serve over 50 Japanese airports. Smaller airlines may offer better deals on local flights.


As all four islands are connected by road, ferries between Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu are typically only used by those with time to spare. There are also ferries to and from the smaller Japanese island groups, such as the Ryukyu Islands. As with other Japanese forms of transport, ferries are well-equipped and run efficiently.



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