Japan as a country is very well connected by public transportation. In cities you are basically covered and even small towns are reachable provided you don't mind a few transfers to get there. However, let's face it, once you actually get to that lovely country town, public transport can become somewhat limited and sometimes non-existent altogether, especially after dark.
So if you're wanting to explore the countryside and visit sites that are not so conveniently located to a transport hub, having access to a vehicle can sometimes be your only feasible option. Not to mention that Japan has some amazing driving roads and well, who doesn't love a road trip?
A rent-a-car is the obvious option for travelers or residents who just want access to a car for short periods. Yet the language barrier for non-Japanese speakers can make the process of negotiating a conversation on reservations and T&C's a little difficult and somewhat daunting.
Luckily, there is an easy option for English speakers to book rental cars all over Japan from one convenient website. The website is called ToCoo! Rent a Car and basically provides an online comparison and booking service in English (they have a Japanese site also for Japanese speakers).
The website provides a step-by-step guide on how to use the site, but essentially, you choose the area you would like to rent the car from and it will bring up a list of rent-a-car businesses in the area. They don't list every business but most of the major ones are there. You can then click on the rental place of choice and see what vehicles they have, and then fill out the dates you would like to rent the car to get an instant quote. It shows you the price comparison between booking on ToCoo! and the regular retail price. The good news is, the ToCoo! price is almost always cheaper than if you book with the dealer directly!
Things to note when booking:
1. Filling in the online booking form does not mean that the booking is confirmed or that the car you selected is available. Basically ToCoo! contact the dealer on your behalf to make the booking and then get back to you to confirm if your request could be completed. So whenever possible, put in your request ahead of time (especially during peak and holiday periods) in case one dealer doesn't have the vehicle you want, then there is still time to try others.
2. They will reply via email to confirm the booking during business hours (10am-4pm) within 2 business days. This excludes Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays. They also close for a period of about a week over New Year. Check their website ahead of time for the exact closure dates from year to year.
3. Booking cancellations and changes are accepted until 4pm the day before pick-up, but note that cancellation charges do apply if you cancel within 7 days of the booking. Cancellation charges are waived if the cancellation is received within 24 hours of booking even if it falls within the 7 day period. Changes requested very close to the booking may mean that they cannot be confirmed before the pick-up time. You can request cancellations/changes via the dedicated online form on their site.
4. A credit card is required to hold the online booking. The card will not be charged unless you cancel within 7 days of the booking, do a no show, or commit some kind of traffic offense. You will be asked to pay for the rental when you actually pick up the car by credit card or cash. Some dealers may accept cash only.
5. Obviously in order to rent a car in Japan, you need to hold a license valid in Japan. For most foreign travelers, this will likely be an international driver's license. Make sure you bring your license and passport or residence card with you when collecting the car.
6. Conveniently, the ToCoo! website lists dealers that accept requests for English GPS's so if you feel more confident navigating an English system, be sure to make your request via one of those dealers.
7. It's also nice to note that rental cars have unlimited kilometers in Japan so you can travel as far and wide as you like without the fear of additional costs for excess kilometers!
8. Check out special deals on the homepage before booking for some super cheap bargains!
That's basically it! If you have any further questions about the service, check out their website or leave a comment below and we'll do our best to answer.
Some of our most memorable trips in Japan have been by road, and highly recommend anyone wanting to see more of Japan with greater flexibility to go out and get behind the wheel. Try taking an MX5 (Roadster) convertible out for a spin along the Izu Peninsula and tell me I'm wrong! :)