First time self-driving? Group or family trip? Then tourist-friendly, family-friendly Hokkaido should be one of your top choices for a self-drive holiday in Japan. Here’s a simple guide to planning your own self-drive trip.
Recommended for: outdoor lovers, wine & dine, onsen (hot springs), honeymoon, families
Not Recommended for: Happening city life
Furano: Vibrant Flower farms off the beaten path
Suggested itinerary / Budgeting – From USD860/adult for 6N including accommodation, transport, and five star dining (excluding airtix): See my sample itinerary & budget for 6N Self-Drive Hokkaido with Family.
When to go
When to go depends on what you want to see. Ski season is Dec-Apr, to be safe aim for mid-Dec to mid-Mar and try to avoid peak periods like Christmas/NY and Chinese New Year. June-Sept is popular for flower viewing and the height of the summer season is in July and August when most of the flowers are in full bloom, especially the very popular lavender. Note that Sept is the rainiest month in the year.
Step by step guide to planning your self-drive trip in Hokkaido
Hokkaido’s tourist infrastructure is well-developed. There is no need to go through an agent, as you can easily book hotels and car rental online. English is not widely spoken outside of major cities and large hotels, however people are very polite and patient especially in rural areas, and you can always make yourself understood with a bit of patience and mime (it is also a nice gesture if you made the effort to learn some basic Japanese phrases).
Step 1 (T minus 3 mths): Decide on your driving route / points of interest (e.g. circle route, one-way south to north, one-way north to south.) Note that Hokkaido is HUGE and it is not possible to cover much of it in just one week (as a guide to my fellow Singaporeans, Hokkaido is 107x the size of our tiny country). So do spend some time researching on exactly what you want to see and note the distances between your destinations.
Step 2 (T minus 2 mths): Book your flights. You may want to do this earlier if flying during peak periods.
Step 3 (T minus 2 mths):Book your accommodation. You may also want to do this earlier as most hotels offer some early bird discounts and better availability, especially for peak periods.
Step 4 (T minus 1 mth): Book rental car, obtain International Driving Permit, purchase travel insurance, change money.
Step 5 (T=0): Arrive in Hokkaido.
Travel tip: Choose the places that you want to visit in Hokkaido and arrange them in logical geographical order before buying your air tickets. It is possible to return your rental car at different parts in Hokkaido for a small fee, so don’t be obliged to backtrack to the same airport that you arrived from.
Airports around Hokkaido (Source: Japan-guide website)
Getting to Hokkaido
1. Flight (main airport: Sapporo New Chitose airport)
Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan’s four main islands. As Hokkaido is so far north, most visitors will arrive by air. Sapporo New Chitose airport is the main airport with frequent connections to Tokyo and other main cities, but there are a number of smaller regional airports as well.
No direct flight from Singapore to Hokkaido at time of writing except seasonal charter flights during school holidays, however you must book via travel agent and these are usually packaged together with accommodation. For routes that transit via Tokyo, the main options from Singapore (from USD800 with promo) are:
– SQ/United/Delta, followed by JAL/ANA: SQ/United/Delta does not fly between Tokyo and Sapporo, so you will need to buy your domestic tickets separately. JAL or ANA offers domestic tickets at from JAL or ANA at a discounted price of JPY10,800/way) for international visitors (you have to first book your international tickets before you can buy the discounted domestic tickets on their websites). Alternatively, you can fly the domestic segment via budget airlines such as Jetstar or Vanilla Air (from JPY5000/way without check in luggage).
– JAL all the way for both international and domestic segments (oneworld)
– ANA all the way for both international and domestic segments (star alliance)
Note that if you fly via Tokyo Haneda you will not be able to check your luggage all the way through (for some bizarre reason that I still don’t understand).
If you are not set on transiting via Tokyo, you may find cheaper routes via China (Air China or China Eastern), Seoul (Korean Air), Taiwan (Eva, Scoot), Bangkok (Thai) and HK (Cathay Pacific). These routes may involve longer transit times.
2. Train – From Tokyo to South Hokkaido
With the new Hokkaido shinkansen (bullet train) launching in Mar 2016 you will now be able to reach South Hokkaido in about 4 hours from Tokyo (previously 5.5 hours via JR train). You can then pick up your rental car from the train station in South Hokkaido (Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto). Note that it is another 3.5 hours by train to Sapporo from South Hokkaido if you are planning to start your self-drive from Sapporo.
However as mentioned you can get discounted domestic air tickets from JAL or ANA at JPY10,800/way, so why would you take the train?
3. Drive – From Honshu to Hokkaido
Technically it is possible to drive from Honshu but that is a crazy crazy distance to drive.
Getting around via rental car
It is safe and easy to self-drive as you drive on the same side of the road as Singapore (i.e. left hand traffic), and everyone is patient and polite. Petrol is cheaper than in Singapore (c.JPY130/litre for regular). Other than major cities, free parking can be found in most places and hotels. Family trips mean more luggage and less people to help with it, so driving makes A LOT of sense (especially for my parents who tend to pack like they are moving to South America for three years). Driving also keeps oldies and kids comfortable in variable weather conditions, as extra clothes and umbrellas are easily on hand and do not have to be lugged around when not needed. The best thing is that you can explore off the beaten path while minimizing walking (very important if you have shopaholic parents like mine). A comprehensive guide to driving in Hokkaido can be found in this handbook.
Navigation is easy as all rental cars have in-built GPS (input telephone number or mapcode). Certain rental companies offer English GPS but this is subject to availability. We had a Japanese one and it was idiot-proof enough to operate even for non-Japanese speakers/readers.
Japan does not have international car rental companies (Hertz, Avis, etc.) and local car rental companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Nippon are the main options. You will need have an International Driving Permit (just apply at your local AA – in Singapore this costs SGD20 for a year’s validity and you can get it over the counter in person, or apply online and have it delivered). Note that in Japan you can rent car by the hour – this works out well when you are just doing a day trip (e.g. from Sapporo to Otaru) as you can avoid expensive overnight parking charges.
In Sep 2015 I rented via online agent/consolidator ToCoo, which is popular with international visitors due to its English service (as not all the rental agencies have English websites!). I had two separate bookings with them – one for a 4-day rental (Nissan) which worked out fine and the other time for a 12 hour rental (also with Nissan) which ToCoo cancelled without my knowledge. It took an hour to sort it out with ToCoo and Nissan (the very helpful staff at Nissan unfortunately could not locate any contact person at ToCoo and we had to explain the story like 5 times), so overall I wouldn’t say I recommend ToCoo. I have rented directly with Nissan before with no issues. Let me know your experience if you have used ToCoo before.
There is a huge range of accommodation for all budgets in Hokkaido, ranging from modern Western-style hotels, luxury resorts, traditional Japanese onsen hotels and simple inns/pensions. Note that in the more rural areas of Hokkaido, it is more difficult to find accommodation with ensuite toilet/bathroom. Older or more traditional properties are just not set up this way as the Japanese generally use the shared onsen (hot spring) facilities. So if getting naked with others in the onsen is a big no-no for you, then stick to modern / Western style hotels.
I use booking dot com for most of my Japanese hotel bookings, but there are also many others that only operate via email or their own website. Seek and you shall find…
Biei: Traditional onsen hotel with kaiseki dinner
- Sample itinerary and budgeting (6N): Summer self-drive in Hokkaido
- Sample itinerary and budgeting (4N): 3N Tokyo & 1N Hakone