From 1 to 15 December 2015, we went on a self-drive trip around Japan, covering more than 2000 km and chalking up more than 30,000yen in toll fees. A bit crazy and definitely not something I recommend for first timers, but we chalked off random items from our bucket list such as driving the Golden Route, snow monkeys, Hello Kitty Onsen and driving on a beach.
Driving in mainland Japan was quite different from driving in Hokkaido or Okinawa. For one, it was a much more expensive. Parking was exorbitant. Traffic lights were annoying. Traffic jams stretched for miles along the expressways in spite of hefty toll fees. The only consolation was that petrol was pretty cheap compared to Singapore (on average 120 JPY per litre when we were there).
But when I had doubts whether I made the right choice to drive instead of taking a bullet train (shinkansen), I recalled our recent *tiring* trip to Taiwan with the kids where we used the Taiwan High Speed Rail and the kids refused to sleep on the train. And I think self-drive was still the lesser of two evils when out with the kids.
Due to the sheer distance we had to cover each day, the kids were well rested from their naps in the car and ready to go whenever we reached a destination. We were spared the agony of shuffling around train stations with luggage + stroller + whiny kids looking for the right platform to make tight connections between trains that left on the dot. Without kids, I probably wouldn’t want to do this self-drive trip and stick to the much faster shinkansen, especially with the new Hokuriku shinkansen line. But with kids, I think self driving was the more relaxing way to go.
TIMES Car Rental
TIMES car rental was the cheapest I could find after comparing some car rental companies that have a rental desk at Narita Airport. Our 15 days car rental for a C1G class vehicle, round-trip for Narita, cost about 70,000 yen.
But please note that for a family of 2 adults and 2 kids (who require child seats), a C1G class vehicle would be a bit of a squeeze. If you have more than 1 big luggage, you would definitely need a bigger car. Our family packs very light, so we managed to fit in – by putting our only luggage case in the boot and our stroller at the space in front of the rear seats (under the kids’ feet).
Another important reason we chose to go with TIMES was because they offered ETC card rental. An ETC card allowed us to breeze through toll gates along the expressways without fumbling for cash and change all the time. It also gave us discounted toll fees on weekends. We knew we would be on the expressway a lot and hence ETC card would save us a lot of time and some money.
Promotion for Foreigners
If you are renting from TIMES car rental, please go to their JAPANESE WEBSITE and look for the banner that says “Foreign Nationality 20% off!“. You will not see this promotion if you go directly to their English website. Sneaky, if you ask me, to hide the promotion on their Japanese website. But not uncommon as I have shared before regarding money-saving tips for self-drive in Japan.
Support for English-speaking travellers
The staff at the desk at Narita Airport spoke English. He told us that if we encountered any problems along the road, we can call their Narita Airport branch and there should be a staff who can speak English there. Not sure how true that is since, thank goodness, we did not have to make any emergency calls back.
The GPS was multi-lingual and we could toggle between English and Japanese language easily. I switched to Japanese language when I needed to key in names of destinations that I did not have the map code / telephone number for. But otherwise, the English GPS worked well enough if you are just using telephone number or map code to key in your destination.
The map codes I got from Mapion worked perfectly with the GPS on our car.
Collecting / Returning Car at Narita Airport
On arrival, we were able to drive off from the airport’s carpark – something quite rare from my experience in renting cars in Japan. When we rented cars from New Chitose Airport and Naha Airport, we were required to take a shuttle bus to their nearest car rental branch to pick up the car. But this time, our reserved rental car was waiting for us at the airport – fitted with the 2 child seats which we requested for during reservation. This saved us A LOT of time.
When returning, we had to return the car to their branch, NOT the airport. The branch’s location was stored in the car GPS as ‘HOME’, so we drove there, returned the car and took their shuttle to Narita Airport. So please make it a point to return the car slightly more than 2 hours before your international flights so that you have sufficient time to get to the airport for check-in.
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