Advice for newcomers to Japan--JETs and others (written for an ALT in Fukui-ken, but probably true all over).
The usual method is that your supervisor asks how much you can spend, calls up a dealer, and says she's got a new foreign teacher who needs a car and can spend, e.g., 200000 yen. The dealer goes out, recharges the battery on a 50000 yen pile of junk, and the supervisor and ALT go in and buy it for 160000 yen plus another 40000 yen for insurance. People trust businesses, they generally don't test-drive new cars, and of course new ALTs don't have much of an idea of what kind of car one should get for 200000 yen. I got a mini-car, and I assumed that all minicars handled that badly. Later, I found the handling was quite dangerous and just about everything in the car was worn down to within a millimeter of breaking down. When its death was imminent, I bought a much, much better car all by myself for 120000 yen. So how do you do it? There are two free monthly car magazines available in convenience stores in Fukuithe better one seems to be Boobu (title in roman letters). Look through, find a few cars you like, arrange to see them (don't just goa lot of places keep strange hours, and they might slap on a better set of tires if they know you're coming), and insist on test driving the car. The place I bought mine at in Fukui gave me a pretty good feeling (going through a lot of trouble after the sale to track down and fix what turned out to be a very minor problem that they weren't aware of before the sale), but other places I looked tried to talk me out of test driving cars (if they don't have inspection stickers, it really is illegal to let you drive it, but most will let you do it on back roads if you insist) and then, surprise, surprise, the cars turned out to have serious, obvious problems. I don't know a lot about cars, but I found info on the internet on how to evaluate a car's condition. What to look for? They should toss in a set of snow tires, but if they don't, it's OK if everything else is good. Air conditioning that works well is a must, not only for the heat of summer but for effectively keeping your front window clear in winter, which is much more humid here than in the States, since it doesn't actually get much below freezing. You can get a regular car or a mini-car (a kei or yellow-plate car); a mini will cost you less on tolls, taxes, and insurance, but the small engine on the minis really benefits from a turbo or a five-speed (most are automatic, which will also be easier to sell to your successor), and the speed limit for minis is lower on the expressways (but these are so expensive you may not use them oftenit's much faster to take a bullet train or fly for the same price). 4WD is a good thing if you find a decent car with it (I do without, but occasionally it would help); during a bad storm and for a week afterward, the roads are unbelievably badthe Japanese do not use snowplows, and except on the roads that have a shower system to keep them clear, they make no effort to clear them until after the storm is over. We got 7 feet at Go-chu, five in the city, in one storm my first winter (it compacted to 5 and 4 feet by the time it stopped snowing, of course), and they actually closed a lot of roads to clear them after the storm, and many roads were closed for safety reasons for days at a time during the weeklong storm. That's why you need, at the very least, a car with a sound suspension and good tires, and why 4WD would help (there are also a lot of great mountain roads that are just a bit too much for a low-riding 2WD). Also important is shaken, the Japanese inspection system. You should get a car with at least 1 year left in shaken; a lot of cars include a new shaken certificate (good for two years, but since they're not in shaken now, you'll have to argue a bit more to be allowed to test drive a cardon't mention my name, because I scared the hell out of a couple of dealers on test drives [and found major flaws]). Another great tactic is to buy from your predecessor, but I'm staying in Fukui and keeping my car. If you've just come over as a JET, your new boss will take you car shopping and guide you through all the paperwork.