June 21, 2024

Taking a road trip across Japan is a unique experience. The country has a rapid and efficient train network servicing all of the major cities, so head for those really tricky-to-reach destinations to justify your trip. Here’s our guide to getting behind the wheel and discovering the best Japan has to offer.

The rail system in Japan is so good, most visitors opt for public transport to get around, and we’re big fans of it, too. The fast, efficient, clean and safe option makes getting around a simple pleasure. But there are still some remote areas where four wheels are best – with stunning scenery and comfortable roads to enjoy en route.

Things to know before your road trip

Driving in Japan is a surprisingly straightforward affair, and hiring a car is just as easy, too. Foreigners looking to hire a vehicle will need to have a valid International Driving Permit (IDP), but this is becoming a basic requirement in most countries now.

Typically all cars are graded by size and put into classes. The Kei (light) option is fine for city commuting and short jaunts, but you wouldn’t really want to tackle any of the expressways in these economic vehicles. The Standard Class will suit most road-trip requirements; if you have the time, you could even plan longer routes that take more than a month, as packing your luggage into the boot won’t be a problem. Green vehicles are increasingly popular here, too, while for the ultimate show-offs there are luxury and sports options. And if you’re travelling as a family or in a larger group, how about a minivan?

The most important thing is to know what to expect. Mountain trails are very different to coastal routes, and the right car can make the experience more enjoyable. Speed limits are relatively low in Japan, and as such many Japanese drivers tend to take their time, even on the expressways.

A couple of other things to note. If you’re planning to cover any great distance, you will almost inevitably use a toll road. So check out expressway passes and ETC cards that can save you money and time. Finally, most vehicles come with satnav as standard – but be sure it’s set to your language before starting off.

The best road trips in Japan

So you’ve sorted out your vehicle and are all set, but where to go? Here are some of our top picks.

1. Roller Coaster Road, Hokkaido

Architectural Landmark

Hokkaido, Japan
© Keiji Komatsu / Aflo / Alamy

The breathtaking northernmost island in Japan is worth driving around for a few days. Sapporo, the capital, hosts an annual snow festival and has previously hosted the Winter Olympics. The best feature for drivers, however, is the undulating carriageway in Furano, which has earned the nickname of the Roller Coaster Road. A road trip and theme-park ride all in one go!

2. Kyoto to Tsunoshima

Architectural Landmark

Beautiful sea in Japan (Tsunoshima, Japan)
Samuel Berner / Unsplash

The starting point here is Kyoto, one of Japan’s most popular cultural destinations where you can enjoy a few relaxing nights before hitting the road. Tsunoshima, a remote island in the Japan Sea and part of the Yamaguchi prefecture, is the perfect destination for a short road trip from Kyoto, as the approach from the mainland is a spectacular bridge over the ocean.

3. Osaka to Chiba

Architectural Landmark

Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo, Japan
Nihon Graphy / Unsplash

You have to be a fan of urban driving for this one – and potential traffic jams – but if you time it right, you’ll get a fantastic driving experience though the tunnels of Tokyo. Hit the capital after dark, when the Bayshore Route of the Shuto Expressway becomes a futuristic playground. The route, known as the Wangan, takes you around Tokyo Bay through long tunnels and over bridges. The rest of the route isn’t as exciting, but it is a scenic way to cut through Tokyo to the underrated Chiba.

4. Mount Fuji to Mount Aso

Hill Station

Small town near Mount Fuji, Japan
Rui Hao Lim / Unsplash
Mount Fuji is so popular, it’s relatively easy to get to by rail or road, but the ultimate destination is Mount Aso, the country’s most active volcano, on Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island. The road here is picturesque, and there’s little to worry about in terms of volcanic activity, so you can relax and enjoy the ride. For the best views of Mount Fuji, take the Mikuni Pass, although it might be a slight detour at the start of your trip.

5. Hakone Hill Turnpike, Kanagawa

Architectural Landmark

Honshu, Kanagawa prefecture, winding highway road to Hakone TRN460
© Christian Kober 1 / Alamy

Let your inner boy racer takeover on this hill climb through the trees in Hakone. Just north of Tokyo, this area, known as a geopark, has plenty of hot springs to enjoy and calming ryokans to stay in. On your way you might end up driving through turnpikes. The roads here are usually quiet, so you won’t be expected to drift round corners as your tyres light up, but it’s still a thrill.

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