This post was updated in April 2019.
It’s no secret Frank and I love road trips… We 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).
Our 6 week road trip around New Zealand was one of the coolest trips of our life, so when I started doing research for our journey to Japan, it was already decided this would include a road trip as well.
As I was putting our one month Japan itinerary together, it became pretty clear that Hokkaido would be our road trip destination. If I wasn’t already convinced by the pretty pictures of stunning volcanoes, the fact that Hokkaido covers 20% of the total land area of Japan while only 5% of the total population lives there did.
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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 (parts of ) 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.
What is the best time to visit Hokkaido?
Winter (November until March)
If you plan to rent a car on Hokkaido I recommend to avoid traveling in winter time. Actually, let me put that differently: only rent a car on 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 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, Januari and February are below zero, but keep in mind winter sometimes lasts until April on 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. Other days temperatures were only a couple degrees above 0 (Celsius). Be sure to bring thermal underwear and lots of layers.
If you plan to go camping, check my Japan camping packing list and make sure to bring a very warm sleeping bag!
Spring is a very nice time to visit Hokkaido, especially 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 like we did).
Summer (July and August)
July and August are the busiest months on Hokkaido, mostly because of the famous flower fields near Furano. The best time to visit the flower and lavender fields is 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.
10 very important things to know when planning a road trip to Hokkaido
1. Bring your Geneva Convention International Driver’s Permit
You cannot rent a car if you don’t bring an international driving permit with you (and your national license as well!). 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
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
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.
4. Consider buying 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.
5. 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!
6. 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…
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 GPS systems is you can put in a phone number as a destination. No need to read complicated Japanese Kanji characters!
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 back-up food and find a place to spend the night before darkness falls!
10. Rent a comfortable 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 (Sapporo) 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.
How much does it cost to rent 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, the costs of our Hokkaido rental car are split into 5 categories.
Costs to consider when renting a car on Hokkaido
- Petrol ⇒ between ¥112 and ¥119 per liter of fuel.
- Major Insurance Coverage fee ⇒ required.
- Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) ⇒ optional, having this gives me peace of mind.
- Hokkaido Expressway Pass ⇒ optional, but worth the money in my opinion.
- 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.
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 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.
Read more posts about Japan:
- Tokyo itinerary
- Kyoto itinerary
- Hiroshima itinerary
- Miyajima itinerary
- Japanese Alps itinerary
- Kamikochi itinerary
- Japan off the beaten track