Embarking on a road trip through Hokkaido is like stepping into a dream. With its stunning landscapes, picturesque towns, and cultural gems, this northernmost island of Japan offers an unforgettable adventure for those who seek to explore its scenic wonders on wheels.
Wondering if you should be driving in Hokkaido or starting to plan your next road trip adventure? Then you absolutely have to read on. Buckle up and get ready for the ultimate Hokkaido road trip that will take you on a journey through breathtaking beauty and unforgettable experiences!
The first step to a successful road trip starts way before the trip itself, you'll need to reserve your rental cars, ensure that you have the correct driving permits, and then decide on the route, alongside where to base and sleep for the night. And we've got you all covered!
How is driving in Hokkaido, Japan like?
Driving in a foreign country can be an exciting and rewarding experience. However, it's important to be well-prepared to ensure a smooth and safe journey. Like driving in Okinawa, Singaporean drivers will find it fuss-free as in Japan, they drive on the same side of the road as us. There won't be that much traffic as compared to the roads in Singapore except when in the bigger cities.
The speed limit is also modest, with single-lane expressways meaning that you don't have to worry so much about rowdy drivers trying to overtake you. The only caution I would give is to ensure that you have some winter driving experience or just go slow because the roads may be slippery and your tires may easily lose grip during the popular ski season.
How to book a rental car in Hokkaido, Japan?
First, think about where you'll like to start and end your trip. Most travellers to Hokkaido typically start in Sapporo, or more specifically Chitose Airport (as that's where most international flights land) or those doing a big Japan trip coming up from mainland Osaka and Tokyo, you'll likely start in Hakodate!
You can search for different Sapporo car rental companies on Klook depending on your travel dates. Some prefer global car rental companies but we chose toyota-rent-a-car as it is cheaper and because they have numerous pick-up and drop-off points around Hokkaido.
That's important if you are not looking to return back to the same place. For example, you might flight into Chitose, pick up the car there or in Sapporo, but head to Tokyo via Shinkansen and will need to return the car at Hakodate.
Next, determine the size and type of car that suits your needs. Consider factors such as the number of passengers, luggage space requirements, and the terrain you'll be traversing. If you're traveling during winter, opt for a car equipped with snow tires to ensure safe driving in snowy conditions. (P:S: Hokkaido's winter can be quite challenging and the roads are snowy and slippery)
Once you've selected a rental car provider and chosen your vehicle, make a reservation in advance. Especially during peak travel seasons, if you do that much later, you might not be able to even get a booking. That happened to us when we wanted to extend our car rental. We weren't able to because all the cars were booked! When making a reservation for your rental car, provide necessary details such as your travel dates, pick-up and drop-off locations, and any additional services you may require, such as GPS navigation or child seats. Another thing to consider is the insurance coverage.
Finally, review the rental agreement carefully before confirming your booking. Pay attention to the terms and conditions, insurance coverage, fuel policy, and any potential additional fees or surcharges. Ensure you have a valid driver's license that is accepted in Japan and meets the requirements of the rental car company.
Should I get an ETC card or the Hokkaido expressway pass?
My advice after driving multiple times in Japan and trying out both options - I would say, purchase the expressway pass (only for foreigners) along with the ETC card.
What is the ETC card you may ask? Think of it as your regular "paywave" whereby you don't have to manually hand the money to the staff at the tollgates and can simply just drive through. You'll only have to pay for all the tolls at the end of your trip to your car rental company. This really saves a lot of time and trouble having to scramble through foreign currency and coins on an exciting road trip.
As for the Hokkaido expressway pass, it is a fixed price for unlimited use of the expressways on your self-drive road trip. Think of it as a JR rail pass, but for self-drive tours. Though most car rental companies will ask if you need an ETC card, they often don't mention this expressway pass! So this secret will really save you quite some money if you are using the expressways often when driving in Hokkaido!
What documents do I need to drive in Hokkaido?
This is really important! You'll need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before your trip. This document, accompanied by your valid driver's license, serves as a recognized translation of your license and is often required by rental car companies and local authorities. Also, please ensure that you have the appropriate class of IDP for the vehicle you'll be driving.
Where should I stay on a self-drive trip in Hokkaido?
Hokkaido is blessed with a well-connected network of roads that lead to some of the most beautiful destinations. You can consider starting your adventure in Sapporo, the vibrant capital city, and then venture towards the outskirts, making stops at iconic places such as Otaru, Furano, Biei, Furano, and Hakodate. Each location offers its own unique charm, from the canal-lined streets of Otaru to the rolling flower fields of Furano and Biei.
We'll cover this in the next blog post with a sample itinerary!