It’s no secret I love road trips… In fact, I am a self-confessed road trip addict and I love road trips so much I actually mention this in the very limited amount of characters available on my Twitter (and IG and Pinterest) account.
I love the freedom of having my own wheels, exploring off the beaten track places and pulling over whenever I want to take a picture (which happens a lot?). My 6 week road trip around New Zealand was one of the coolest trips of my life, so when I started doing research for my journey to Japan, it was already decided this would involve a road trip.
As I was putting my one month Japan itinerary together, it became pretty clear that Hokkaido would be my road trip destination. If I wasn’t already convinced by the pretty pictures of stunning volcanos, the fact that Hokkaido covers 20% of the total land area of Japan while only 5% of the total population lives there did.
One of the many reasons I fell completely and utterly in love with New Zealand was the wide view of mountains and not a single sign of civilization… Roads where you did not come across another car in a 3-hour drive… I was hoping to find this on Hokkaido as well.
And wow, Hokkaido is beautiful!Though not as untouched as New Zealand, Hokkaido is untamed and truly gorgeous. When I was researching Hokkaido and our road trip itinerary, I discovered not much has been written about driving in Hokkaido. I usually find a couple of travel blogs that contain useful information, but for a Hokkaido road trip not so much.
To fill that gap, I’ve written this post to tell you everything you need to know about driving and renting a car on Hokkaido☺.
Driving in Hokkaido: an awesome road trip destination
Driving around Hokkaido is great and getting your own wheels is highly recommended on this wild Japanese island. Particularly if you are into hiking like me, having a car makes it much easier to reach the many hiking trails you can find on Hokkaido.
In general, driving in Hokkaido is very easy and straightforward. But there are some things which are important to know before setting off onto your dreamy Hokkaido self drive road trip.
Bring your Geneva Convention International Driver’s License (and your national license as well;-)
You cannot rent a car if you don’t bring an international driver’s license with you. More specifically, Japan only recognizes international driving permits based on the 1949 Geneva Convention. Make sure to check if your country provides such a license beforehand and bring the right documents!
Drive on the left
Japan is one of the few countries outside of the former British Empire where people drive on the left, you can read more about the reasons behind this peculiarity at Wiki. For many people, including myself, driving on the left is the exact opposite of what they are used to. So be careful!
Be prepared to drive very slowly…
Driving in Hokkaido (and everywhere in Japan) is excruciatingly slow… While the roads are in excellent condition and traffic is very light outside cities, speed limits are very strict. While the 100km/h on the Expressway (I’ll explain more about the Expressway later on in the post) isn’t actually that bad, the parts where we could actually drive 100km/h can be counted on one hand. The electronic signposts kept saying the speed limit was 70km/h instead of the 100 km/h mentioned in the information leaflets. And 70km/h on an empty road feels slow… Very slow!
Nobody seemed to keep those limits except us, but we didn’t want to risk a speeding ticket and thus caused a lot of traffic jams (read annoyed Japanese drivers who got stuck behind us, the ignorant gaijin who obeyed the ridiculously low speed limits).
I highly recommend reading this very extensive guide about driving on Hokkaido for more details about speed limits and traffic rules and regulations. You can read more about driving in Japan in general on Japan Guide, which is the go-to website for everything you need to know about Japan.
Buy a Hokkaido Expressway Pass
Hokkaido is big… And as I mentioned above, driving is slow. In villages there are a gazillion traffic lights and the speed limit varies between 30 and 50 km/h. The alternative is the Hokkaido Expressway, a toll road, which in my opinion is worth the extra money you have to pay because it saves you a lot of time.
Luckily, Japan has all sorts of attractive discounts available to foreign visitors, one being the Hokkaido Expressway Pass. This pass allows you to drive on all the Expressway toll roads for a fixed fee. So instead of paying for every little piece of expressway you drive on, you pay a fixed daily fee for unlimited use of the Hokkaido Expressway. You can find information about fees and other useful information about the pass at this website.
What’s important to know is you have to rent an ETC (meaning Electronic Toll Collection) card, this card is provided by pretty much all the rental companies in Japan. The Hokkaido Expressway Pass is registered onto your ETC card and enables you to pass through the ETC booth on the Expressway.
In other words, you don’t have to stop every time you enter or leave the express way, you just drive through the ETC lane (slowly?), the machine reads your card containing the Hokkaido Expressway Pass and the gate opens. Easy-peasy.
Check the colors when filling up your tank
In Japan, the different types of fuel are color coded which made filling up our tank with the right fuel very easy. Yellow is hi oku (high octane), red is regular and green is diesel. Mantan means full tank in Japanese.
I have to admit I did not actually do any work myself because many gas stations are fully serviced. The very friendly and helpful staff working at these stations did all the work for me. I felt a bit useless, standing next to the car and watching how one person was filling the tank while the other was cleaning off some tiny mud specs of the back of our car… But definitely great service!
Get a coffee or enjoy the view at a Michi-no-Eki (road station)
Michi-no-Eki are road stations and these come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very luxurious with cute little cafes, restaurants and shops selling local products. Others are as simple as a park place with a (usually super clean!) restroom. And stunning views…
Use phone numbers for your GPS
My map reading skills aren’t bad but my Japanese is limited to say the least… Therefore I was very happy to rely on our GPS when road tripping around Hokkaido. The great thing about Japanese GPS systems is you can put in a phone number as a destination. No need to read complicated Japanese Kanji characters!
Rent your car at ToCoo
I will start by saying ToCoo provided me with a free rental car for my 10 day trip around Hokkaido. However, I would never recommend a product or service on my blog I don’t have a positive and personal experience with, and my experience with ToCoo is excellent! I would have rented my car from ToCoo even if they hadn’t offered me a free car, simply because they offer the best rates and value for money. Also, ToCoo is one of the car rental companies recommended by Japan Guide so I know it’s a trustworthy company.
It’s easy to make a reservation online and I was very satisfied with the customer service. When we arrived at Hokkaido airport it was very easy to find the Nissan desk (ToCoo offers cars from several brands). The kind lady behind the desk found our reservation in a matter of seconds and escorted us to the (complementary) shuttle bus driving us from New Chitose airport to the Nissan outlet.
At the Nissan outlet we signed the insurance paperwork, bought the Hokkaido Expressway Pass, got the key to a shiny red Nissan X-Trail and off we went! Bringing back the car was just as easy, we filled up the tank, handed back the key, paid the insurance fees and were taken to the airport with the shuttle bus. Easy and effortless.
Costs of renting a car on Hokkaido
As I stated above, my car was provided by ToCoo. That doesn’t mean driving around Hokkaido for 10 days was free.
As you can see in the infographic, expenses are split into 5 categories:
1. Petrol ⇒ between ¥112 and ¥119 per liter of fuel.
2. Major Insurance Coverage fee ⇒ required.
3. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) ⇒ optional, having this gives me peace of mind?.
4. Hokkaido Expressway Pass ⇒ optional, but worth the money in my opinion.
5. ETC card ⇒ optional, but required if you want the Hokkaido Expressway Pass.
The total cost of renting a car for 10 days was ¥42.527, which comes down to ¥4253 (€34/$39) per day. Add to this the daily rental fee of the car you would like to rent and you have your total.
If this seems expensive to you, keep in mind that having a car gives you with the option to:
1. Go camping with a tent (we paid between ¥400 – ¥800 per person per night).
2. Sleep in your car (free).
This will save you a lot of money on accommodation in Japan! You can read all about the costs of traveling in Japan in this post and check out our Hokkaido road trip itinerary here. You can download the infographic about the costs of renting a car below.
Enjoy your self drive road trip on Hokkaido!