In many ways Hokkaido is ideal for driving, especially in the warmer months of the year. Hokkaido is a big island with wide open spaces and driving will give you much more freedom to explore its plains, mountains, forests, lakes and wetlands. Although traveling by train is cheaper than driving, Hokkaido’s railway network does not extend to the island’s more remote attractions and some towns can only be accessed by road.
With a car the scenic hiking trails, hot spring resorts, and camping locations of Hokkaido’s national parks are much more accessible. In this article we will introduce some reliable car rental companies in Sapporo, offer some general tips for driving in Japan, some more specific driving tips for Hokkaido, and suggest some driving locations around Sapporo that you might like to visit.
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Car Rental Companies
There are several reliable car rental companies located around JR Sapporo Station.
Nippon Rent-a-Car is located on the north-west side of the station, while Toyota Rent-a-Car have a branch on the east side of the station just a little north of the tracks. Also on the east side but south of the track is a branch of JR Hokkaido Rent-A-Car.
These are all well-known companies with reliable standards of service and they all have English language websites which you can click through to at the links above.
Cost of Renting a Car
Although prices may vary the average price of gasoline in Japan is normally around 130 yen per liter. Renting a standard sized five-seater compact car for 24 hours will probably cost between 7,000 and 8,000 yen. The car will come with a full tank of gas and should be returned to the company with a full tank also.
A valid international driver’s license is essential if you want to rent a car in Japan. These are not issued in Japan and must be obtained in your home country in advance. You will also need a valid driver’s license from your home country that is at least 3 months old.
Certain countries do not issue international driver’s licenses that can be used in Japan. These countries are Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco and Taiwan. Drivers from these countries should obtain an official Japanese translation of their original driver’s license from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). You can find out more about this at the JAF website.
Major roads, towns, and cities have English signage, but this might not be true in the countryside. Almost all rental cars have GPS satellite navigation systems which may have English on the menu. Ask the staff at your car rental company to show you how to use your GPS system before your departure. They can program it with your destination’s address or telephone number. As an extra precaution you can buy an English-Japanese road atlas before your trip.
Long Distance Travel in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is big and its urban centers are spread out, so you may need to drive long distances to visit the main locations of interest. Using Hokkaido’s network of expressways will save you a lot of time, but if you plan to use the expressways it is a good idea to get a Hokkaido Expressway Pass. This is a discount pass for overseas visitors which gives the holder unlimited use of Hokkaido’s expressways during a set period of time at one set price. You can buy a pass for periods of between 2 and 14 days and it is available from most reputable car rental companies in Hokkaido.
In addition to the pass you will need to rent an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) card. The ETC card enables you to pass automatically through ETC toll gates onto the expressways and the Hokkaido Expressway Pass is registered onto this card. To find out more visit the Hokkaido Expressway Pass webpage.
If you plan to drive long distances then sometimes you are going to need to take a break. Fortunately Hokkaido has a network of 125 road-side rest-stops dotted around the island that are called Michi-no-Eki. Michi-no-eki rest-stops have free parking and 24 hour toilet facilities as well as restaurants, free Wi-Fi internet access, information on local tourist facilities, and shops selling local specialty products and food.
There is also a Michi-no-Eki app you can download which gives useful information on the rest-stops location, as well as sightseeing tips and traffic safety information. For more details check out the official Michi-no-Eki website.
Winter Driving in Hokkaido
The Hokkaido winter lasts from November through March and during this period road conditions can be severe. Driving to a winter ski resort or hot spring spa may seem like a very convenient way to transport yourself, your luggage, and all your ski equipment. However, heavy snowfalls and icy roads can make driving conditions dangerous. If you do decide to drive, then your car should be properly equipped with snow tires, and you should keep in mind some basic rules of winter driving:
- Try to drive shorter distances to reduce the risk.
- Drive slowly and keep a safe distance from other cars.
- Roads can be slippery, so do not break suddenly, swerve, or speed up too suddenly.
- Keep an eye on the brake lights of the cars in front in case there is trouble ahead.
- The weather can change suddenly, so check the weather forecast before you drive. If the weather looks bad – cancel your journey.
The Rules of the Road
The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) publishes an English language guide to Japan’s traffic rules called “Rules of the Road”. You can buy these at JAF offices throughout Japan. A digital version is also available to download from the JAF web site.
Driving Destinations Around Sapporo
Here are some recommended driving destinations near Sapporo.
Jozankei Onsen is a popular hot spring spa resort in a picturesque valley which is just a 50 minute drive from Sapporo. This small town is dotted with many hand and foot baths, traditional inns, and statues of kappa – a mythical water creature which traditionally lives in the local rivers. The natural mineral waters here are said to be good for aches and pains, fatigue, skin problems, and digestive problems.
Among the many hotels here Jozankei Tsuruga Resort Spa Mori no Uta is a luxury hotel offering both Japanese and Western style rooms with elegant furnishings, large indoor and outdoor communal baths, and multi-course meals serving the very best Hokkaido cuisine. Other facilities include a souvenir store, sweet shop, lounge bar, and cigar room.
Jozankei View Hotel also has spacious Western and Japanese style rooms, a variety of communal baths and saunas including jet baths, a waterfall bath, and a jacuzzi, buffet dining and traditional course menus, and a heated indoor wave pool. This hotel also has a games corner, gift shop, and karaoke facilities.
Lake Shikotsu is a large blue crater lake surrounded by forested mountains which is popular for activities such as canoeing, fishing, camping, hiking and pleasure boat cruises. There are two hot spring resorts by Lake Shikotsu: Marukoma Onsen is located on its northern shore and Shikotsu Onsen is located on the eastern shore.
The Marukoma Onsen Ryokan is a luxury inn with bathing facilities overlooking the lake and has its own cruise boat. In Shikotsu Onsen, Kyukamura Shikotsuko is a traditional inn with hot spring bathing facilities which also organizes activities such as nature treks, canoeing, and bird watching. Lake Shikotsu is a 1 hour drive from Sapporo.
The Shakotan Peninsula has a number of scenic capes and observation points from which to view the clear blue waters of the Japan Sea and enjoy the fresh ocean breeze. Cape Ogon on the east side of the peninsula is a popular observation point which is famous for its sunset views. Cape Shakotan is located further to the north has views over the rugged coastline and mountains. To the west of Cape Shakotan is Cape Kamui which has a 40 minute walking trail from which you can enjoy fresh sea breezes and spectacular panoramic views of the wide blue ocean. You can view all of these capes and the beautiful beach of the Shimamui Coast by taking a cruise boat from Bikuni Port. The boat has a glass bottom so you can admire the marine life beneath the waves. The town of Shakotan is 1 hour and 50 minutes by car from Sapporo.
Farm Tomita is a flower farm in the Furano area of Hokakido which is most famous for its giant lavender fields although there are also other seasonal blooms such as poppies, tulips, and marigolds. Tourists flock here to view the lavender in July and August. The farm has an on-site café, and sells products made with lavender oils as well as offering perfume and distillery workshops. Farm Tomita is a 2 hour drive from Sapporo.
Shirogane Blue Pond is a man-made pond near the town of Biei with a naturally high mineral content that causes it to be an unusually bright shade of vivid blue. There are larch and silver birch trees around the pond, but also dead trees in the pond itself that remain from when the pond was first flooded. These partially submerged trees add to the pond’s mysterious appearance. The Blue Pond is a 2 hour drive from Sapporo.
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort has ski trails suitable for all levels, plenty of good quality powder snow, family-friendly facilities, restaurants, equipment rental, and English language lessons for beginners. This resort is just 1 hour and 10 minutes by car from Sapporo, and if you are nervous about winter driving, there are regular bus services too.
Article by Michael Lambe. Photos by Michael Lambe, matya1234/pixta (1). All rights reserved.