Renting a car in Japan (among other nuances on our first day in the country)

When we touched down in Japan from Beijing, I remember thinking the sky looked particularly blue that day. After being immersed in the busyness of Chinese culture and ever present air pollution, Japan was like a warm blanket after a cold shower. Although—unlike China—I never felt totally welcome in Japan. It was like I wasn’t getting a “true” picture of Japanese culture, as compared to say, New Zealand and its people. The people in Japan are welcoming and kind, however there’s a sense that you’re always seeing their country from behind a thin veil — rightly so. This is the Japanese way: hospitable, yet private.

Despite mixed feelings, I was excited to be in the country and ready for renting a car in Japan. That’s one decision about Japan that we made early on — to explore with a car versus bullet trains, etc. With all our ski gear, and desire to get to different backcountry locations quickly within the 8 days we were visiting, a car (and the CRAZY toll road fees) made sense for us. If we ever go back, we would probably try out the trains. (Note on those: You need to get all the smokin’ tourist bullet train deals BEFORE you arrive in the country for it to make financial sense. By the time we realized this need for pre-planning, it was too late to switch our plans… which further confirmed we should go with a rental car.)

Here’s Sean, putting in his contact lenses while trying to listen to our rental car lady tell us how to work the GPS. It talked in English, but the writing was in Japanese. We just had to remember the series of buttons to use to get things to work.


I will say, to anyone considering a rental car and thinking you can avoid the toll roads in Japan… YOU CAN’T. We mapped out the route from Narita Airport to Hakuba via toll road, it was under 4 hours. Via “back roads,” it was over 8 hours. We thought - no way it would take us that long! It’s probably saying 8 hours but meaning 5. Turns out: Google Maps actually meant 8 hours. The “back roads” were actually just narrow, windy city roads with light after light after light after light. Go… stop. Go, go, go… stop. Go. Stop. It went on like that, at speeds up to only about 40 mph for nearly 3 hours, and we still didn’t make it out of the greater Tokyo area — the biggest city in the world, mind you.


Frustrated and hungry, we gave up and got on a tollway. By then, we had wasted all our daylight hours and the sun was setting.

Those toll roads were the best couple hundred dollars we spent while in Japan. And later on, we heard that the reason they’re so expensive is that the expressway toll roads — relatively new structures in Japan — are still being paid off by the Japanese government, and the high tolls are the product of that payoff. Makes sense.

En route to Hakuba, still hungry, we pulled off to a rest area/restaurant to grab some dinner, and mustered the energy to play charades to get some grub. Instead of a waiter, we found this:

Vending machine mayhem! In many places we visited, these vending machines get you everything you need. For this particular restaurant, you select the items you want, get a ticket, take the ticket to a counter and then they call your order number. Sounds simple (like everything in Japan)… but I guess we weren’t quite as rested as we thought. It was hard enough to decide what we wanted — being slightly nervous about getting some crazy seafood dish instead of something plain and simple, but we could not get it to select what we wanted. Finally, we let the woman behind us go ahead to study her technique. Lo and behold, you have to put your money in FIRST. Of course, this is logical. So, we stepped up to the plate, put in our money, and selected three bowls of white rice.

Here’s Sean with our rice tickets:


Playing it safe for dinner #1. We had to go to two other different vending machines for our drinks: a Coke Zero and a coffee.


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