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Everything You Need To Know About Driving On Hokkaido, Japan

Do you want to make a road trip around Hokkaido? You've come to the right place! In this extensive guide, you can read everything you need to know about driving in Hokkaido.

Hokkaido covers 20% of the total land area of Japan but only 5% of the total population lives here. That's why this rugged and wild island is made for road-tripping.

Empty roads and breathtaking views are what Hokkaido is all about. Before you set out on your Hokkaido road trip, be sure to read this guide to prepare yourself for an epic road trip in Japan.

Driving in Hokkaido

Camping in Japan Hokkaido

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Hokkaido: an awesome road trip destination

One of the many reasons I fell completely and utterly in love with New Zealand was the fact that often, there wasn't a single sign of civilization.

No manmade structures, just epic scenery. Roads where you did not come across another car in a 3-hour drive…

And I was hoping to find this on Hokkaido as well.

And wow, Hokkaido is beautiful!

Though not as untouched as (parts of ) New Zealand, Hokkaido is untamed and truly gorgeous. While Hokkaido is quite a popular destination for Japanese people, it's still pretty unknown to foreign tourists.

So when I was researching Hokkaido and our road trip itinerary, I discovered not much has been written about driving in Hokkaido (at least, not in English).

I usually find a couple of travel blogs or travel guides with useful information, but for a Hokkaido road trip, not so much.

To make sure you don't experience the same problem, I've written this Hokkaido road trip guide to share our experiences and hopefully tell you everything you need to know about driving and renting a car in Hokkaido.

Driving around Hokkaido is great and getting your own wheels is the best way to explore this wild Japanese island. You can set your own itinerary and go at your own pace.

Plus, 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 that are important to know before setting off on your dreamy Hokkaido self-drive road trip.

Hokkaido self-drive road trip: things to know

What is the best time to visit Hokkaido?

Winter (November until March)

If you plan to rent a car in Hokkaido I recommend avoiding traveling in the wintertime. Actually, let me rephrase that: only rent a car in Hokkaido in winter when you know what you are doing!

Driving on Hokkaido in winter is not easy and can be very dangerous. Roads can be very slippery or completely blocked.

If you do want to drive Hokkaido in winter, prepare well and make sure you have snow chains, a blanket, water, and some food when you hit the road.

Average temperatures in December, January, and February are below zero, but keep in mind winter sometimes lasts until April in Hokkaido.

Spring (April until June)

We visited at the end of April/start of May and I think Spring is a great time to visit Hokkaido. We got to see the cherry blossoms (Sakura), but also hiked in the snow.

Some days were sunny and warm and we could comfortably wear a t-shirt. On other days temperatures were only a couple of degrees above 0 (Celsius). So bring thermal underwear and lots of layers.

If you plan to go camping, make sure to bring a warm sleeping bag!

Spring is a very nice time to visit Hokkaido, especially in May and June. In April many restaurants, attractions, and campsites are still closed, most of them open during Golden Week, Japan's national holiday.

Golden Week can be extremely busy so if you plan to travel during this period, make sure to book a hotel in time (or go camping as we did).

Summer (July and August)

July and August are the busiest months in Hokkaido, mostly because of the famous flower fields near Furano. The best time to visit the flower and lavender fields is in mid to late July.

Another benefit of visiting Hokkaido in Summer is that most (but not all) snow has melted away and there are lots of amazing hiking trails to be discovered.

I would love to do the 2-day Shiretoko Traverse one day…

Autumn (September and October)

Autumn is also a very nice (and popular) time to visit Hokkaido. Hokkaido is a famous ‘leave' spot, you can actually check the Foliage Forecast or Autumn Color Report on Japan Guide to plan the best time for your visit.

View over Furano village and mountains

10 things to know when planning a road trip to Hokkaido

1. Bring your Geneva Convention International Driver’s Permit

In Japan, you won't be able to rent a car unless you bring an international driving permit (as well as your national license).

More specifically, Japan only recognizes international driving permits based on the 1949 Geneva Convention.

Make sure to check if your country provides such a permit beforehand and bring the right documents!

2. Drive on the left

Driving on Hokkaido Japan

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!

3. Be prepared to drive very slow

Everything You Need To Know About Driving On Hokkaido

Driving in Hokkaido (and everywhere in Japan) is excruciatingly slow… While the road conditions are usually excellent 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).

Read this guide about driving in 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.

And if you want to read more about traveling Hokkaido in general, also check out this great guide.

4. Consider buying a Hokkaido Expressway Pass

Hokkaido Expressway Pass Japan

Hokkaido is big and you'll be driving large distances… 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 toll fees 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 on 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 toll booths on the Expressway.

ETC Hokkaido Expressway Pass Japan

In other words, you don’t have to stop every time you enter or leave the expressway, you just drive through the ETC lane (slowly), the machine reads your card containing the Hokkaido Expressway Pass and the gate opens. Easy peasy.

5. Check the colors when filling up your tank

How to use a gas station Hokkaido Japan

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.

Gas station Hokkaido Japan

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!

6. Get a coffee or enjoy the view at a Michi-no-Eki (road station)

View from Michi-no-Eki Hokkaido Japan

Michi-no-Eki are road stations and these come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very luxurious with cute little cafes, restaurants, convenience stores, or shops selling local products.

Others are as simple as a parking lot with a (usually super clean!) restroom. And spectacular views!

Michi no Eki road station Hokkaido Japan

7. 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 car navigation systems is that you can put in a telephone number as a destination. No need to read complicated Japanese Kanji characters!

While road signs are (luckily) also displayed in the alphabetic language, English isn't very widely spoken in Japan and even less in Hokkaido.

In fact, there is a large demand for English teachers in Japan. Teaching English happens to be a great way to make money while traveling, check out TEFL Academy for more information on how to get certified.

Anyway, I digress. Make sure to ask your rental company if they can set the GPS to English when you pick up your rental car.

Also, I recommend getting a Japanese SIM card with unlimited data so that if you get lost, you can use Google to get back on track.

Keep in mind that cellphone coverage in the remote regions of Hokkaido can be spotty so also download an offline map

8. Download the Michi Japan Road Guide

Reader John pointed out a great and useful app when traveling around Hokkaido by car: the Michi Japan Road Guide. He says:

In the app you can find all the onsen (even the natural ones), campsites and other places to stay, road stations and even offline maps!

9. Don't drive at night

We had to drive to a 7-11 one night because there were no restaurants or other shops nearby and we were hungry. It was dark, extremely dark. Except for lots of shimmering eyes reflecting the light of our headlights.

Eyes belonging to deer grazing by the side of the road. Deer you do not want to hit with your car. So avoid driving in the dark, it's dangerous (and very uncomfortable as well).

Make sure to have a bit of backup food and find a place to spend the night before darkness falls!

10. Rent the right car for your trip

Rent a car in Japan

​Now that you're all set up to embark on your Hokkaido road trip, there's just one thing left to do: book a rental car.

Before you do so, it's important to decide which car is the best fit for your travel plans. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Which areas in Hokkaido do you plan to visit?
  • Do you plan to do any off-road driving?
  • Which season are you traveling in?
  • How big is your travel party (aka how much space do you need)?

For example, if you're traveling during the fall, ask for snow chains at the rental company.

And if you're traveling with kids, don't rent the smallest model because you may have trouble fitting both your kids as well as your luggage into a small hatchback.

Be sure to inquire about safe car seats and consider bringing your own if there aren't any safe models for your kid(s).

If you're not used to driving a manual car, rent an automatic car for peace of mind. You don't want to be spending your holiday learning how to shift gears manually. Instead, you want to enjoy the ride and admire the gorgeous views.

​​Check for the best deals
(I've booked with RentalCars many times, and they usually offer the cheapest rates and good customer service).

How much does it cost to rent a car in Hokkaido?

The exact amount will depend on the type of car you decide to rent, but it's important to also take into account the other costs associated with renting a car in Japan.

Costs to consider when renting a car on Hokkaido

  1. Fuel ⇒ between ¥164 per liter of fuel.
  2. Major Insurance Coverage fee ⇒ ¥1650 per day. This insurance is mandatory when renting a car. Be sure to check if this is included in the rental fee or if this needs to be paid directly to the car rental company in Hokkaido).
  3. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) ⇒ ¥550 per day. This insurance is optional, having this gives me peace of mind but it's up to you to decide if you want to add this insurance or not.
  4. Hokkaido Expressway Pass ⇒ between ¥820 and ¥1850 per day, depending on how many days the pass covers (check current prices here). This pass is optional but worth the money in my opinion.
  5. ETC card ⇒ between ¥300 and ¥500 per day, depending on the rental company. If you want to use the Hokkaido Expressway Pass you'll need an ETC card as well.

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.

Hokkaido 10 day road trip itinerary

How to save money on a Hokkaido road trip

If renting a car seems expensive to you, keep in mind that having a car gives you 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 self drive itinerary here.

Plan your Japan trip like a pro with these tools:
Get a Japan Railpass to save lots of time and money.
✅ Rent a car for your Japan road trip via
✅ Stay connected with Airalo Japan offer.
✅ Plan your journey with the Japan Lonely Planet.
✅ Find the best hotel deals on
✅ Join the best tours in Japan via Klook.
✅ Travel safely and get reliable travel insurance from Safety Wing.

Hokkaido driving tips: in conclusion

I hope this Hokkaido self-drive guide and travel tips will help you plan your Hokkaido road trip! Feel free to ask any questions you may have about driving on Hokkaido, I’m happy to help!

Also read my other posts about Japan:

Enjoy your self-drive trip in Hokkaido!

This post was updated in October 2022.


Sunday 29th of January 2023

Chanced upon your blog while searching for car rental in Iceland!! LOL! Now I have to think about where I wanna go in October! Anyway, thanks for creating this...great help if we decide on Hokkaido.


Tuesday 31st of January 2023

Hey Pat,

Haha, Google may have sent you over for a reason;-) Jokes aside, Iceland is gorgeous too, we made a road trip there with a campervan in winter which was a really cool experience. If you do end up going to Hokkaido, feel free to send me a message if you've got any questions. And no matter where you go, have an amazing trip and take care!


Laura Benjelloun

Thursday 22nd of August 2019

Hi! Great blog! my husband and i are planning on doing the same, but for a month and we are excited. I was wondering if you knew anything about renting a camping van. We want to save on hotels and such, and we love camping so.... Thank you and happy travels on the next adventure! -The Grumps


Wednesday 28th of August 2019

Hi Laura,

That's so exciting! I'd love to spend a month on Hokkaido... Regarding the camper van, I've spent hours and hours on the internet trying to find one. However, in 2016 these were unavailable (or at least I couldn't find them). Perhaps things have changed now, or perhaps there is an English website offering them. A camper van was our preferred choice as well but the tent and car were a good alternative. Have a wonderful trip!



Friday 2nd of August 2019

HI Lotte,

Please allow me to introduce myself, I am Johan and I am planning to visit Hokkaido in September. This is an amazing guide to drive in Japan, thank you for writing all the details in regards to your experience. I have some concern about driving in Japan...

Were all the road signs are in Japanese? or they have Latin wording? Also, I read your info regarding use phone number as navigation, can we just put the hotel name instead? Or if like we want to go to the 5 lake in Shiretoko, can we just type "Shiretoko?" I was driving in New Zealand and Europe several times, it is easy since we can type in Latin word, despite of all the domestic rules that needs to understand before driving.

I hope you don't mind with my questions... :) My only concern is that the signs are in Japanese, they don't speak English very much... Thank you in advance :)


Tuesday 6th of August 2019

Hi Johan,

Thank you for your email and how exciting you'll be making a road trip on Hokkaido in September! Of course I don't mind your question:-)

Regarding the Japanese road signs, they are usually displayed both in Kanji as well as the Latin alphabet so don't worry about that! Not many people on Hokkaido speak English (in my experience) but people are very helpful nonetheless and with patience and signing you can get a long way.

About the phone numbers, I'm not sure if you can type in Shiretoko. I think it depends on your navigation system. I'd probably buy a local sim card with some data so you can connect to Google maps as well. Or you can download the maps with me app and the map of Hokkaido before you leave your home country so you can navigate using that as well.

Happy road tripping!!! Lotte


Sunday 7th of July 2019

One more confusion, is international driver permit (IDP) same as international driver license? From the internet, IDP looks like a passport book and International driver license looks like a typical license (plastic card). Which one does Japan accept to rent a car?


Thursday 11th of July 2019

Hi! The IDP is indeed like a passport book and that's the one you need for Japan. However, you also need the driving license from your own country! Have a good trip:-)



Sunday 7th of July 2019

Hi, We are planning 7 days late September visiting Asahikama, Furano, Biei, Sounkyo, Noboribetsu, Lake Toya and Sapporo last. Will be leaving Sapporo for Taipei after the trip. Thinking of arriving from Tokyo to Asahikama then rent a car and returning the car in Sapporo. Someone suggests that we should fly into Sapporo CTS, rent a car and return the car at the same location. I have the following questions....

1. If I return the car in Sapporo and pay drop off fee (how much?) then I don't have to make an unnecessary round trip like this. Furthermore, there is extra expressway toll charge and fuel cost if we back track. Will extra charges equal or more than the drop off charge?

2. Do you suggest we rent a car in Asahikawa for a few days to visit Furano, Biei and Sounkyo. Then take train to Noboribetsu, Lake Toya and Sappora. I know Sappora doesn't need a car to get around. But what about Noboribetsu and Lake Toya? Will this be more cost effective and less hassle? Please advise. Thanks.


Saturday 20th of July 2019


Your trip to Hokkaido sounds really nice. Regarding your question:

1. I don’t know if the drop-off fee will offset the extra fuel charges and toll. This website ( can help you calculate toll charges and if you look up fuel prices for Japan you could calculate an estimate for fuel as well. I’d compare that to the drop-off fee you are quoted. 2. I’d hire the car for the entire trip. getting around in Noboribetsu and Lake Toya is also much easier when you have your own transport. You don’t need it for Sapporo so I’d plan your trip in such a way you spend the first or last days there and rent the car for the other days.

Hope this helps! Have a great trip:-) Lotte