Japan is a fantastic country to drive around and truly get off the beaten path. While public transport in most of Japan is extremely efficient albeit pricey, driving affords you that extra bit of freedom as any destination is easily reached by road. Better yet, you get to enjoy the breathtaking scenery at your own leisure along the way.
The major decision you will face when driving in Japan, is whether to take toll roads or not. There are a few factors to take into account when making this decision, which we will take a closer look at below.
*Non-toll roads have blue signage while toll roads are usually identified by green and white signage as seen on the right in pic*
Budget: Toll road prices vary from road to road in Japan. Some require you to pay upfront at a tollbooth when there is a flat rate per use of the road or tunnel regardless of distance travelled and others charge based on the distance you drive on the road. In these cases you take a ticket from a tollbooth when entering the road, and pay as you exit, unless you have an electronic toll tag which charges as you go. We haven’t found a reliable way to find out how much toll roads will cost yet, so unless you do, it’s a bit of a gamble! However, after being stung 2100 yen for a one-hour drive on a toll road, which saved us around an hour of driving, our decision to stick to non-toll roads was cemented.
Time: In some but not all cases, toll roads provide a more direct route between main cities and tourist destinations, saving you time on the road. Toll roads also have higher speed limits; usually 70-80km/h as opposed to the slightly infuriating 40-60km/h on non-toll roads. It’s still important to compare toll and non-toll routes before hitting the road because in some cases, non-toll roads will follow the toll roads pretty closely and will get you there in around the same time for free.
Traffic: Traffic congestion doesn’t seem to be much of an issue in Japan regardless of which type of road you take. Google maps will give you real time traffic updates so you know what’s ahead, but we haven’t been held up for more than about 5 minutes at a time at most in busier areas.
Scenery: One of the biggest benefits of using non-toll roads is that they are often more scenic, you get the chance to take a peek into more traditional Japanese life as you drive through small villages and you can take stops along the way whenever you want to take holiday snaps. Plus, if you like discovering obscure sites and attractions, it’s easier to take spontaneous detours from local/non-toll roads. The exception to this rule is privately owned tolled scenic routes, which you can read more about here.
Road closures: During Winter and the beginning of Spring, some of the smaller alpine roads are closed; therefore bigger toll roads that are more likely to remain open might be your only option. Even if an alpine road is not officially closed, if you’re facing a road covered in snow or the weather is closing in on you, don’t go to extremes to save cash at the expense of your safety, toll roads are a safer choice in these circumstances. Unfortunately, we haven’t got a foolproof way to figure out which roads are closed or not and have ended up driving a way up a road to come across a random barrier forcing us to turn back a couple of times during our road trip. You can try asking for information at service stations or visitor centres on your way if you’re concerned the road you’re on may be closed ahead.
Rest stops: Rest stops are situated at fairly regular intervals along both toll and non-toll roads. They usually have clean public toilets and vending machines at the least, but often host an array of other facilities such as restaurants, overnight parking and onsen too. More on driving Rest Stops in Japan coming soon.
Distances: When comparing a toll route versus a non-toll route, make sure the tolls are worth your while! If there isn’t too much of a difference in distance or driving time, stick to non-tolls. Conversely, if a non-toll route is much further than a toll road route to your destination, the extra money you pay for petrol might cancel out your savings from not paying tolls. It only takes a few seconds to compare possible route options on Google maps, so take the time before you hop into the car and make the smartest choice based on time, distance and money.
Navigation: Thank goodness for Google maps, which makes it near impossible to get lost anywhere anymore. Maps is very accurate when driving in Japan, HOWEVER be aware that when following Google maps on non-toll routes, you can be directed through some pretty strange places such as industrial areas or residential neighbourhoods with teeny tiny roads that may not accommodate larger vehicles. If you’re not a very confident driver, sticking to toll roads will help to avoid this situation. Otherwise, use your common sense along with your map apps and you’ll be just fine. Another issue that may arise when following Google directions after selecting to ‘avoid tolls’ is that you’re directed onto a toll road. Don’t stress, this probably means you’re only following the road for a short distance and wont be passing through any paid tollbooths.
Bottom line: It’s clear that if you have a lot of places to see in a short time and budget is no issue, toll roads could be the way to go as they have higher speed limits and usually offer a more direct route getting you to your destination quicker. However, if you’re on a budget, your itinerary is more flexible and you want to take some time to soak in the scenery (which we highly recommend), stick to the non-toll roads and take your time!