Driving in Hokkaido
It is no secret that we love Japan. We love their foods, their culture, their beautiful landscapes, the wonderful people.
We especially love visiting in Autumn. We just can’t get enough of the beautiful koyo (autumn-coloured foliage) and the cooling weather. Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan and yet only 5% of Japan population lives there. The vast land is hugely occupied by unspoiled nature, the wildlife and the endless primeval forests.
Self-driving in Hokkaido is highly recommended (other than winter) as their infrastructure is not as connected and most of their beautiful scenic spots are far and apart. Having 2 kiddos, heavy luggages and a stroller in toll, deciding to self-drive was kind of a no-brainer.
There are many car rental options available in Japan and it was quite overwhelming for us as we are quite noobs in cars. We finally picked OTS International as recommended by a friend. They have various branches in Japan as well as New Zealand.
Reservations were made online and once we landed in New Chitose Airport, we went to their counter and from there we took a complimentary shuttle bus to their main branch which is just next to Rera Outlet Mall. Which made it easier for us as Rera Outlet Mall is on our itinerary on the last day when we return the car.
For 2 adults, 2 kids, 2 big luggages and 1 stroller, we went with Toyota Sienta after viewing their car collection. The car boot is spacious for all our stuff and even has space for more. The seats were wide and comfortable. Overall the cars were in excellent conditions and everything works as expected. The drive was smooth and the GPS system is awesome.We were also able to charge our devices in the car most of the time so we didn’t even need a power bank. They also provided us with a folder that has useful guides on pumping petrol, using the ETC and the GPS system, a list of emergency contacts, map codes for the major attractions, traffic rules, traffic signs and insurance, all compiled in English!
The service was good and fast and I would definitely recommend this to anyone!
Tips for self-driving in Hokkaido
International Driving Permit (IDP)
First and foremost, you will need an international driving license to be able to drive in Japan. If you are from Singapore, you can just head over to Automobile Association Singapore to apply online. It costs S$20 and is valid for one year. If you apply online, do it earlier so it can reach you on time.
Local Driving License
You will need to show both IDP and your local driving license to rent the car. So pack both together.
While this seems like a no-brainer, not all car rental companies in Japan provides english GPS. Confirm with your car rental company that you will have a english GPS. GPS system in Japan uses map code and OTS International provides map codes for almost all of the major attractions and it was so useful! But if you do not have the map code for the location you are going, you can search using this website, or you can find the place using their phone number too.
Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) System and Hokkaido Expressway Pass (HEP)
ETC works somewhat like our ERP. We can choose to rent their ETC card (like our ERP Cash Card) or pay cash at the toll station. HEP is a special ETC card only for foreigners, that is preloaded with the value so you can use the expressways as much as you want. The cost of the HEP is based on the number of days you need. For our trip, we took the 10 days HEP which costs us ¥10,500 (S$134~). It may seems expensive, but a drive from New Chitose to Asahikawa will set us back by ¥4,810 (S$61~) if we pay by per toll. But if you are not going to drive a lot to the other towns, this might not work for you. Do read up more about HEP here.
Most car rental companies should be able to provide HEP. Do book this in advance together with your rental car as apparently, this HEP can run out of stock.
Avoid Driving at Night
During autumn and winter, the day ends early. It gets real dark before 6pm during autumn and as early as 4ish during winter. And depending on which part of Hokkaido you are at, unless you are in the main city area, there are not alot of street lights.
Wildlife, is also another risk as wild animals appear more often at night. Did we encounter wild animals? Yes, we did. And thank goodness we were not driving at high speed as we were turning into our hotel of the night and it was so dark that it took us a while to realise the gleaming lights are the reflections of the deers’ eyes.
So please drive with caution at night and always aim to reach your destination before the sun sets.
Rent a wifi router from Changi Recommends or Klook or get a local sim card. We rented from Changi Recommends and the connectivity was consistently good. As a kiasi parent, I often double check the destination with Google Maps, especially those with map codes not provided and also the opening/closing hours to avoid disappointments. It is also great in providing entertainment for the kids and some keep-the-driver-awake music.
Car seats are mandatory in Japan and most car rental company should be able to provide one. It also gives us peace of mind knowing my 20 months toddler is snug and safe behind.
Overall we really enjoyed our road trip in Hokkaido. The drive was smooth and scenery are awesome. It is especially good for us as our kids get to rest and nap in the car and not have to wait for public transport out in the cold.