Visiting Japan: Drifting through the countryside in a rental car

For this entry in the Visiting Japan Feature series at Anime Inferno, Iron Chap discusses his experience renting a car and driving around the Japanese countryside in May 2017…

In May 2017 my wife and I were lucky enough to get away to Japan for a couple of weeks. While a good chunk of our time was spent nerding out in Tokyo, we also made a very deliberate plan to get away from the capital. Specifically, we headed north to Shiroishi in the Miyagi Prefecture, and Yamagata city in Yamagata prefecture. Our plans involved exploring and checking out some out-of-the-way attractions. This meant hiring a rental car and zooming about the countryside at our own pace!

Hiring a rental car and hitting the road – what do you need to know?

The process of booking a rental car was simple enough thanks to the wonders of the internet. This mean we had it booked well in advance long before we ever left Australia. We also knew what day and time we were getting the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shiroishi, and booked to pick up the rental car from the outlet across the road from the Shinkansen station.

Shinkansen parked at the station
Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately) our Shinkansen didn’t transform into a Shinkalion Robot

International Driving Permits

The number one thing you will need to make sure you have (other than booking the rental car itself) is an International Driving Permit. These are applied for and issued through the Australian Automobile Association and state/territory outlets (NRMA, RACV etc etc) at a current cost of $39 per applicant. They allow you to drive in over 150 countries including Japan in conjunction with your Australian driver’s license (Editor’s note: you’ll need to do the same if you intend on go-karting around the streets of Tokyo like some of the student’s did in the 2018 UniSA study tour)

Collecting your rental car

The process of collecting the rental car was a little less straightforward. The paperwork is far cry from the simple little form you’d fill in to check in to a Japanese hotel. Even with my wife’s language skills we hit a fairly significant language barrier issue here. This resulted in the clerk calling an assistance hotline to help him step us through the paperwork.

Once we had everything sorted we were on our way in the mighty blue Suzuki Swift that would be our chariot for the next week. The rental car came equipped with an English-enabled GPS unit, but we eschewed that in favour of having our phones do the guiding. We decided on this as copy-pasting into the maps app of choice was much easier.

Suzuki Swift rental car
The Beast of Possibility

Road rules!

In terms of road rules, Japan adheres to largely the same set of standards as Australia:

  • Drive on the left,
  • give way to your right,
  • don’t race through yellow lights,
  • keep to the (often quite low) speed limits, and
  • otherwise drive very politely.

Many Japanese road signs use similar symbols or designs as Australia or are immediately obvious as to what they’re indicating. Street signs are usually bilingual Japanese/English, but many stop signs are not. Stop signs in Japan are an inverted red triangle with white ‘止まれ‘ (tomare) text. Newer versions installed from 2017 onward also read STOP in English underneath, but don’t expect to see many of these in more out of the way areas for now.

The only major difference I noticed from driving in Australia is the stopping point at intersections. In Japan it’s often much further back than we might be used to. This means you need to be mindful of where the line is marked on the road when stopping at a red light. If not, you may find yourself poking out a bit too far.

Weird catbus that is not a rental car!
Saw this at a shopping centre in Yamagata. I would’ve rented this if it was an option.

Alcohol limits

As an Australian sitting here with a beer while I write this, I also feel compelled to inform you that the legal limit for driving with alcohol in your system in Japan is 0.03. Anything beyond that carries a hefty penalty. A lot of premix alcoholic drinks for sale in the konbini are stronger than you might expect too. 9% spirit-based drinks are very common. This means you don’t punch a Strong Zero or a Suntory Highball then go for a spin or you might find yourself in trouble.

Shiroishi – Castles, shrines and foxes, oh my

The main tourist draw to Shiroishi is the nearby Zao Fox Village, an attraction we’d learned about through Youtubers Rachel and Jun’s video and which my wife was determined to visit because she love dem fuzzy orange bois.

It was late afternoon by the time we’d arrived, collected the rental car and checked in to our hillside Ryokan. Most things in the fairly spread-out and sleepy little city of Shiroishi were closed, so we made our way to the grounds of Shiroishi Castle to check it out. Or at least, check it out from the outside as it too was closed. We also explored the surrounding parkland and neighbouring Shinmeisha Shrine.

Shiroishi Castle
Shiroishi Castle. The castle was demolished in 1875 and restored in 1995.

After a hectic day between the bustle of the busy Shinkansen station that morning and the car-collecting fiasco upon arrival, we were a bit drained. The quiet stroll at our own pace around shrine and castle grounds was a nice break from the past few days.

Fox Village!

The next day we took off to the Fox Village. There’s a shuttle bus that collects tourists, but we’re much more inclined to do things at our own pace. This means we don’t need to adhere to timetables if we can avoid it. We made the drive ourselves and spent some time meeting baby foxes and wandering around what basically amounts to a free-roaming wildlife park full of vulpine friends. Some of whom are very forward with humans in pursuit of tasty treats.

Fox from Fox Village
What does the fox say? They mostly scream real loud.

The next day we had nothing in particular planned, so we poked about some maps on our phone and jumped in the car. We drove to nowhere in particular through tunnels in mountains and down hillside country roads taking in the scenery. This included stopping to check out a giant wooden beetle, looking over a dam and later, wandering down some random stairs in a carpark to find a river and a waterfall. There’s really no way to do this kind of unguided exploration without a rental car. Having one enables you to do and see things that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to.

Giant Beetle in the middle of nowhere
Why was there a giant beetle in the middle of nowhere? We may never know.

Yamagata, Sendai and living the Initial D wannabe touge dream (via your rental car!)

After Shiroishi our plan was to drive to Yamagata. Our expressway- and toll-avoiding route took us through some more countryside. As tempting as it was to stop off at what I can only imagine is the region’s number one tourist attraction…

The Damp Plains of Skunk Cabbage
This is real

… we pushed on and made our way up and down the still snow-capped Mount Zao. Despite a steady flow of slow traffic and the fact that I was in a hopelessly gutless four-cylinder rental car (and not the silver Nissan R35 GTR in the header image we saw at the top of the mountain which I was enviously coveting), I got to pretend I was hitting the consecutive hairpins of Akina with a bootload of tofu, Takumi style.

Mount Zao
The view nearby a parking area towards the top of Mt. Zao

Initial… D!

In fact, I was so determined to live the Initial D dream that I’d specifically come with some video editing software and Eurobeat classic Speedy Speed Boy loaded onto my phone just so I could make this masterpiece…

… back to Yamagata…

My wife did a homestay in Yamagata in her high school days and wanted to visit the city again, so off we went!

Yamagata is home to the regional speciality of konnyaku. This is something my wife considers a delicacy and which I absolutely did not care for. It’s a fairly large city with a lot of urban sprawl, but I didn’t find driving around to be any issue. We were staying right in the heart of the city at a hotel that didn’t have it’s own car parking. And that, my friends, is how I came to encounter the most goddamn baffling public car park a block from our hotel.

Flap-lock parking your rental car

This is known as either Flap-lock or Locking-plate parking (as far as I can tell). First you back into your numbered space (reversing into car parks is VERY much the done thing in Japan). Then after a couple of minutes a metal plate rises up. This effectively locks your car in place, stopping you from driving away. Pay the parking fee for your space at the central machine when it’s time to go and the plate will lower. This means you can finally go on your merry way.

It took some on-the-spot Googling for us to figure out how to deal with these quintessentially Japanese over-engineered parking spaces. It wasn’t the same everywhere though. Other places we parked had the usual pay-and-display machines we’re more familiar with here in Australia.

Mountain view from Yamagata hotel
A view out to the mountains from our hotel in Yamagata

We’d come to Yamagata with a couple of days to kill and no real itinerary other than to explore the city. So when the morning talk show on TV showed things being set up for a festival in nearby Sendai the following day, we jumped on the express way. That next morning and 65km later, we were in Sendai for Aoba Matsuri.

Aoba Matsuri in Sendai

Aoba Matsuri in Sendai procession
The Sparrow Dance during Aoba Matsuri

The festival stands out as one of the most fun days we had in Japan for me. Off the back of my wife randomly hearing an interview on TV about the festival we got to see the procession through the streets. There were sparrow Dancers, taiko drums, daruma and many other traditional displays. Oh, and the games, sights and snacks you’ve seen in every festival episode of a slice-of-life anime ever.

Goldfish scooping at Aoba Matsuri in Sendai
Heeeeeere fishy fishy fishy!

We saw old-school gold fish scooping and chilled out with some life-giving melon flavoured shaved ice. Seriously, Japan’s hot in summer. Oh, and we ate all the delicious festival foods on offer. It made for a super fun day from a completely spontaneous trip. And all because we could just jump in a car and go without needing trains between cities on the fly.

Takoyaki stand at Aoba Matsuri in Sendai
Takoyaki stand!

Returning the rental car and back to Tokyo!

Dropping the car off entailed us driving from Yamagata back to the rental office opposite the Shiroishi Shinkansen station. It was a much simpler process than collecting it – here’s the car back, here’s the key back, see ya!

From there it was back onto the Shinkansen to zip back to Tokyo for a few more days. We’re the kind of travellers that do better when we can move at our own pace without a strict schedule. The freedom to scoot off and do whatever thanks to the rental car made this a memorable experience.

That’s not to say our experiences of Tokyo’s train network or the Shinkansen were no good – quite the opposite! I think you’d honestly have to be a bit mental to drive in Tokyo instead of using the excellent public transport on offer. But I can’t imagine our time in Shiroishi or Yamagata/Sendai being nearly as enjoyable or spontaneous if we were dependent on others to get around. I realise exploring in a rental car isn’t for everyone. If the idea appeals to you though, I can recommend getting behind the wheel in Japan. It’s amazing seeing what some of the less well-travelled areas have to offer!

Unrelated nerding out in Tokyo!

This has nothing to do with the whole car rental thing, but getting our nerd on in Tokyo was the other big highlight! Much time was spent trawling every nook and cranny we could find in Akihabara for toys and goodies (something that came in handy for when Mangaman went there 12 months later!)…

Amiami Building in Akihabara
Both online and offline, I’ve spent way too much money at Amiami

…and more than a few hundred yen was unsuccessfully pumped into many a UFO Catcher by yours truly in pursuit of various Hatsune Miku and Love Live merch…

Hatsune Miku crane game toys in Akihabara
Just one of the many prizes I did not win!

A more successful use of loose coinage was arcade games – getting to play Project Diva, Initial D and Love Live! After School Activity in an Akiba arcade was seriously rad.

Arcade games in Akihabara Game Centres
Left to my own devices I would’ve probably bankrupted us playing arcade games

For my first trip to Japan it was great to get the big city experience. Peak-hour Tokyo trains, endless shopping and spending hours combing Mandarake stores for nerdy bargains. While this was awesome, it was amazing to also take some time out in the sticks with no agenda. Next time we’ll head west and spend some time in Kyoto and Osaka. But hopefully we’ll still find some time to get off the beaten track as well!