Foreign Driver Rating: !! not too bad (although of course they drive on the wrong side)
Unless you are doing some serious countryside touring, there is not much reason to rent a car in Japan. Public transportation is excellent, even in small towns. The tolls on Japanese expressways are ridiculously expensive. And parking is ridiculously expensive. And so is gas.
Once you get to the middle of nowhere, though, as in any country, a car helps. The road maintenance conditions are generally superb, hazards are clearly signed, and on windy country roads there will often be mirrors helpfully installed at blind corners.
Most roadsigns are signed in English as well as Japanese, although I speak Japanese, so perhaps my mental picture is overly rosy. Still, navigation in any country is less of a challenge than it used to be, when you’ve got Google Maps. The main challenges relate to there being lots of traffic everywhere, and lots of narrow and windy pre-car roads. Still, the Japanese have a marvelous tendency to build elevated expressways over everything, so there are more straight motorways than you would expect.
As an added bonus, motorway service areas tend to have good food.
Random point: when you turn your car in, the car rental agency will sometimes ask you to produce the receipt for your last fill-up – it should be from a gas station relatively close by.
Driving in Japan: not as hard as you’d think, but expensive. Photo by the author.