Hokkaido is a popular winter destination for families like us wishing to experience fresh pure ‘powdery’ snow without having to travel halfway around the globe. For those who wish to travel at their “own time, own target”, self-drive is an attractive option. We recently did a self-drive Hokkaido trip and here are some useful driving tips to share.
For the record, we rented the car only for 3 days: picked it up in Sapporo, drove to Lake Toya, Noboribetsu and returned the car in Niseko. On the last day of our trip, we opted to take an airport limousine bus shuttle from Niseko to the New Chitose International Airport (in Sapporo) for our flight back to Singapore. The bus ride took 3 hours.
If you are planning a self-drive trip in Hokkaido during winter, here’s a strong word of caution:
The golden rule is always plan to arrive at your destination BEFORE the skies turn dark at around 4pm. Hokkaido roads are winding, narrow and become pitch dark after sun down. These roads are usually covered with snow and ice during winter, making it extremely dangerous to navigate at night.
Even with 27 years of safe driving record both in Australia and Singapore, I had to navigate the self-drive in Hokkaido very cautiously as the road conditions are unfamiliar to me and my family’s safety is paramount.
A Glimpse Into What To Expect Driving in Wintry Hokkaido
We drove a small loop from Sapporo to Noboribetsu to Toya to Niseko.
1. Is there a need to?: Consider if you really are up to the challenge to self-drive in winter. If you have not much driving experience, then it’s best to join a guided tour or opt for public transport (e.g. book coaches or taxis).
2. International Driving Permit (IDP): You would need a valid International Driving Permit to drive in Japan. You can apply for the IDP easily at Automobile Association of Singapore. Applications can be done either online or in person. If you apply personally at the AAS Office, you can collect the permit on the spot, usually within an hour. The IDP costs SGD20 and is valid for one (1) year from date of issue. For more information on the application, consult the AAS website.
3. Bring your local driving license along: To rent a car in Japan, you would need the International Driving Permit (IDP) together with your Singapore Driving License. Pack both in together with your Passport.
4. Find a reputable car rental company: Wintry road conditions are harsh and unpredictable. Therefore you would need companies that maintain their fleet of cars well and are able to loan you a car that is properly serviced for winter terrains e.g. fitted with snow tyres, wipers in good condition etc. Do make an explicit request for your rental car to be fitted with snow tyres that enable a safe drive on wintry roads without tyre chains.
We rented from Toyota Rent-A-Car Sapporo which is also the representative for Hertz Car Rental in Japan. We were able to pick up our rental car from the Toyota-Rent-A-Car outlet located at the basement of our hotel in Sapporo (i.e. Keio Plaza Sapporo). After we reached our resort in Niseko, (i.e. Ki Niseko Hotel), the representative from Toyota-Rent-A-Car in Niseko came by to pick up the car from the concierge. How convenient!
Right from the beginning when we were planning the self-drive, we had corresponded via email with our hotel representative (at Keio Plaza Sapporo) and they were the ones who helped us book, confirm and coordinate the car rental and return. That’s Japanese service excellence for you.
Our Car Rental Confirmation Slip from Toyota-Rent-A-Car Sapporo.
5. Rent the right car: Take into consideration the number of luggage you have in addition to the number of passengers. Ensure that there’s enough boot space for luggage and comfortable sitting space for passengers. If you are going to be driving a full carload to a mountainous area, you may need to rent a 4WD.
For our family of 2 Adults, 1 Child, 1 Toddler, 2 big luggage, 1 small carry-on luggage and a baby stroller, we were advised to rent a Toyota Station Wagon, which fitted all of us comfortably. We were so pleased that the Baby Zen Yoyo+ stroller could be folded and stored flat without any bulkiness.
6. Arrive by 4pm: As advised earlier, plan your itinerary such that you can arrive at the destination and stop driving latest by 4pm. For longer drives, you may need to arrange to pick the car up early in the morning rather than in the afternoon.
When we were driving in a snow storm en-route to Niseko, our average speed was about 40km/h (yes, that slow) and everyone drove at this speed. Moreover, with mountainous and snowy road conditions, the total driving times could be stretched further. A normal one hour drive on a non-winter’s day could easily take up to twice or thrice the time.
Our rental car in Hokkaido, a Toyota Station Wagon!
7. GPS, Car Seats, Expressway Pass and ETC Cards:
Ensure that you request for an English GPS to come with your rental car. The GPS in Japan uses phone numbers (or map codes) to set the destinations. It is important to have GPS as roads may be closed due to weather conditions and we can then be diverted to the next available route(s).
The local GPS which came with our car was very good and very accurate. Thankfully, when some hilly roads were closed due to the snow storm, the GPS was able to redirect us to other alternative routes with ease.
For families travelling with young children, it is essential to rent the child seat with the car. It kept our toddler son safe and snug throughout the drives.
If your driving routes involve expressways, you can check with the representative at the car rental company if it’s feasible to buy the Hokkaido Expressway Pass. A 3 days Pass costs JPY5100. If you are not driving long distances, it might not be worthwhile to buy the pass. Do read more about the Hokkaido Expressway Pass here.
The Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) System is a new toll system which enables cashless toll collection and thus mitigating congestion at expressway tollgates. You can rent a ETC card (something like our ERP cash card) from the car rental company if you wish. We paid cash (average JPY1400) at each tollgate.
8. Standby with Wi-Fi: Loan a Wi-Fi router from Changi Recommends or get a local SIM card to ensure you have WiFi connection on your road trips. This provided us with extra assurance in addition to the GPS. Having Wi-Fi on the go is always good as it helps us to check on updated weather conditions, opening / closing times of attractions etc. Remember, it’s winter and sometimes the weather can turn worse at a snap of a finger, roads may close and attractions may close early. Our Wi-Fi router from Changi Recommends is a godsend. It provided us consistent and strong Wi-Fi throughout our drive and stay in Japan.
Before Driving Off:
Here are some pointers to note when you are finally at the car rental company to pick up the car:
1. Help!: Ensure that the company provides you with a 24-hour helpline number for the region that you are travelling to, just in case you need emergency assistance on the road.
2. Visually check the car tyres and the condition of the car to ensure that it is in safe driving condition. Tyre pressure: Note that the tyres are properly inflated and tracks are visible. Normally during winter, tyres are inflated two-notches above their regular psi. E.g. If you normally inflate at 35 psi, then you need to inflate snow tyres to 37 psi. Normally, you may not need to inflate the tyres but this is just for information.
3. Check which type of fuel the car needs: Most cars use petrol with regular octane level but just ask, don’t assume, in case yours is a diesel-powered car. There are two types of petrol stations in Japan – Full Service and Self-Service. The Full Service ones are a little pricier because they have an attendant to help you fill-up and make payment without you having to brave the wintry chill outside.
4. GPS: If you are new to Japanese GPS system, you may wish to ask the staff at the car rental company to help you key-in all your travel coordinates before driving off. They will be most happy to do it. Most car rental companies will also provide you with a list of map codes for popular travel destinations. It is also good to have the actual phone numbers of the places on hand in case you have difficulty locating the parking entrances.
5. Do not block! When loading the car, ensure that your rear and surrounding view are not blocked. Visibility on the roads can be very low during winter; you would want to ensure that you are able to see all around as best you can. It is therefore important that you choose the right vehicle for the family without compromising on the safety.
During the Drive:
1. Reach before 4pm: Once again, I need to reiterate this very important point. Plan your drive so that you arrive before the day gets dark and dangerous.
2. Drive slow (average 40km/h) as there may be ice on the road: There is no heroism in driving fast or recklessly. You will notice that locals drive slowly as well due to accumulation of ice and snow on the roads.
3. Allow for wide braking distance: During winter, car brakes may not be so sensitive due to ice and snow. Hence you may require a longer braking distance. Do expect the car to slide a little when applying brakes, especially at traffic-light junctions. Do reduce the speed and apply the brakes slowly to come to a complete stop.
During our drive, I try to keep a 3-car distance to the car in front or to my stop line.
4. Use car in front as a gauge: It’s good to have a car in front to use as a reference point to pave the road ahead but do not tailgate.
5. Drive following speed limit (40 km/h, 70 – 80km/h): Local speed limits are 40 to 50km/h for roads in town and 70 to 80km/h on the expressways. When wintry conditions set in, do expect to drive slower than the speed limit.
6. Icy Splash! : When other vehicles overtake you, some may leave an icy splash on the windscreen! Do expect that and drive slowly. Use your wiper generously and if need to, the wiper wash.
7. Expect Low Visibility: Visibility can be compromised in winter where the weather can change dramatically in split seconds. It’s good to keep your headlights on so other cars can see you. Also, when the visibility is bad and you do not have a car in front as reference, use the GPS to help you gauge the road ahead. Visibility can be reduced to less than 100m at times.
8. Foot on Brakes: During downhill slopes, I kept my foot on the brake pedal more than the accelerator. Remember that there are ice and snow on the road and the car brakes may not be so sensitive.
9. Tolls: If you are in the habit of keeping your wallets in a bag (like me), you will need to keep it handy during your drives especially if you are using highways where tolls need to be paid. At the toll-booth, choose the booth that reads ‘General’ where you can use cash to pay and not ‘ETC’ where the toll card is used (unless you have one).
10. Everyone Belted: Ensure that everyone is belted up before you start driving, especially the children. The driving conditions are unpredictable and emergency brakes may need to be applied.
When Parking Overnight:
1. Park at level ground to avoid using handbrakes: Avoid using handbrakes if you can as they may freeze overnight. Therefore, choose a parking lot that is level and not on a slope and apply ‘P’ on the Auto Gear. This should keep the car immobile.
2. Scrapping Start: Expect frost and ice to build up on the windscreen overnight. The car should come with a brush. Factor in time needed to brush the ice off properly before you start driving.
3. To Stand or not to Stand: You will notice that some locals will ‘stand’ their wipers as they do not want their wipers to be stuck to the windscreen. Personally this is not needed. In fact, standing your wipers may pose a risk of damaging the wipers – the spring or lever in the wiper may freeze overnight and once you put them down they may snap and damage the wiper making it un-usable. You cannot drive without a functioning wiper. Spend time brushing off ice on the windscreen and wiper and that should be enough. There is no need to stand the wiper.
When Returning the Car:
1. Refuel before returning: You need to refuel before returning the rental car. Plan your routes so that you can refill close to your destination.
2. Colours of Petrol: For regular petrol, the pump colour is ‘Red’. For higher-octane pricier petrol the colour is ‘Yellow’. For normal cars, ‘Red’ should do. The Green pump is for diesel. Most rental cars use petrol and not diesel. Make sure you pump either the Red or Yellow (pricier) if using normal petrol. Filling up with diesel will damage the car bad.
3. Video the car if not handing over personally: Some rental companies offer the added service to pick up your car from the hotel concierge. Do video the car and note any damage if any then give them a call when handing the key to the concierge to inform the company that the car has arrived. Report any physical damages if need to.
Self-drive holidays give families the added liberty and flexibility but it comes with some risks. This risk increases when driving in winter but they can be mitigated, especially with advanced planning and safe driving habits. It was our very first time self-driving in wintry Hokkaido but we enjoyed the experience so much we are already planning to do it again.
You may wish to download this useful PDF Handbook for your future Self-Drives in Hokkaido: https://en.visit-hokkaido.jp/library/brochures/pdf/driving_en.pdf. We hope our tips will be useful for your trip planning. Safe driving and happy travels!
DIY Winter Holiday to Hokkaido, Japan (Dec 2016)
Post 1 – Self-Drive Hokkaido: Winter Driving Tips
Post 2 – GoSnow Niseko: Ski School for Kids
Post 3 – Ki Niseko Hotel Review
Post 4 – Keio Plaza Sapporo Review
Post 5 – Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido
Post 6 – Hokkaido – The Complete DIY Itinerary
Post 7 – Where to eat in Niseko