The Teacher’s Life in Japan: Driving (short-term)

The Teacher’s Life in Japan
For the overwhelming majority of English teachers in Tokyo (and other large cities in Japan), trains are the primary way of getting around. And for good reason: Japan has an incredibly well-developed and reliable train system with good coverage that ensures a station usually isn’t far from where you are or want to be.
But, for a few set on a longer-term stay, or those choosing to settle down and make their stand here, eventually the question of driving comes up. Is it necessary, is it worth it? Let’s take a look.

Not a Necessity

The first point is easy enough to address: NO, getting a license and driving a car is not necessary for probably 99% of foreign teachers in Japan. For those living here in Tokyo, as mentioned the trains are more than adequate to get everywhere from for work, shopping, sightseeing, or even destinations like Disneyland or the beaches in Shonan. And in most cases, a bicycle is a much better investment for saving time in your daily life (and getting a bit of exercise while saving money!). For almost any eikaiwa job around the city you don’t need a car – and if you did you would have been hired on that premise.
So no, you don’t NEED the car. But for some, it would be nice to hit the open road and head out to those destinations you’ve been dying to see… without the hassle or logistics of last trains, bus routes, and taxis.

Driver’s License

If you’re going to drive in Japan in anything more than a battery-assisted bicycle, first you’ll need a license. Just like pretty much everything in Japan, it’s an involved bureaucratic process full of paperwork, copies of documents, trips to city hall, payment stamps, and even more paperwork. In general, you have 3 options:

(a) International Driver’s Permit

You can only apply for one of these from outside Japan, so if you’re planning to try out driving here, it’s a good idea to secure one of thse permits before you leave your country. There will still be a bit of paperwork to go through, but this is probably the easiest way to get behind the wheel here, although it’s only good for limited time so not a solution for longer-term expats.

(b) Convert your Foreign Driver’s License

For many countries, if you have a license issued there you are eligible to convert it into a Japanese license. There are a few differences in countries (and even states in the US) so you may be required to perform a driving exam along with a simple written exam.

(c) Driving School

The way the Japanese do it, is to enroll in a driving school. The school will hold your hand through the process and the rather extensive tests, and in the end you’ll be helped right into your shiny new driver’s license – at a pretty hefty cost! Prices vary by school and region, but it will always be in the thousands of dollars. Still, if you have no other license or even any driving experience, this is the exact way to get the training you’ll need.

Rent a Car

Unless you’re planning to stick around in Tokyo for the long haul, it’s not advisable for most people to buy a car: the taxes, upkeep, and insurance make it an expensive proposition, not to mention the exorbitant parking costs (and owning or having a rent contract for a parking spot is required to buy a normal-sized car).
Instead, a good way to have a car for your vacations and long weekends but avoid the piles of paperwork and ownership costs year-round, is to simply rent a car. Renting will run you around ¥5,000 to ¥20,000 a day, depending on the car size, along with a daily insurance fee – not exactly cheap, but reasonable and it becomes even more affordable if you’re splitting costs with friends.
If you do decide to hit the roads in Japan, whichever way, remember to drive safe – and enjoy!