First time self-driving? Group or family trip? Then car-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 (Jan/Feb). 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 and Japanese golden week (very busy period) is in early May.
Step by step guide to planning your self-drive trip in Hokkaido
Hokkaido’s tourist infrastructure is relatively 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. Recommended itineraries can be found here, or see mine for reference.
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 (yes, CASH IS KING in Japan).
Step 5 (T=0): Arrive in Hokkaido.
BeyondBanality pro 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, departing from NRT only).
– 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.
[Update 2017/2018 winter season: Scoot is offering direct flights from Singapore to Sapporo departing every Friday and Sunday from Nov2017-Feb2018. Cheap as chips but probably not as good value for those travelling with their own ski gear. Not sure if they will do this for 2018/2019 season.]
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 (>1000km from Tokyo to Sapporo).
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- just input telephone number (recommended method / idiot proof) OR Japanese mapcode (something unique to Japan and can only be found in a somewhat troublesome way using the Japanese language Mapion website). Certain rental companies offer English GPS but this is subject to availability. We usually just go with the standard Japanese one and it is idiot-proof enough to operate even for non-Japanese speakers/readers. If you purchase a data plan or rent wifi router, you can always use Google Maps, which is pretty accurate these days, and has the added benefit of being able to choose non-toll roads without fiddling through the Japanese language GPS.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT WINTER DRIVING: Hokkaido gets shitloads of snow from Dec-Feb. Winter driving is not as scary as the tourist brochures describe, but do buffer extra time for road closures and snow storms if driving long distances in Hokkaido winter (e.g. if you have an early flight to catch, it is best to stay less than 50km from the airport the night before). Even confident city drivers can end up in a ditch in icy conditions – winter is not the season to test your Initial D drifting skills.
Rental add-on options
Most rental cars do not come with ETC (which is additional cost and must be pre-booked) but you can pay toll fees in cash (choose the toll lane marked “一般”).
There is a Hokkaido Expressway Pass, available to foreigners only, which limits your toll fees to a daily maximum. This may or may not make economical sense depending on your route (i.e. how many expressways you plan to use), and how long you intend to stay at each stop (since you cannot cancel or extend the service midway, it may not make sense for longer trips).
Basic insurance is usually included for Japanese car rentals. You may choose to purchase “compensation coverage” (optional) to reduce your excess to zero, if not covered by your travel insurance.
As Hokkaido is a snowy country, snow tires are almost always a standard in winter, but do check the terms carefully.
Car rental agencies
Japan does not have the usual international car rental companies (such as Hertz, Avis, etc.) and local car rental companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Nippon are the main options. You will need 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 (same day), or apply online and have it delivered (7 working days required).
Online agent/consolidator ToCoo is popular with international visitors due to its English service (as not all the rental agencies have English websites!). Quoted prices are usually cheaper than going direct, BUT a mandatory daily support fee of JPY1000+8% tax (=JPY1080/day) is added to all bookings, which makes ToCoo more expensive for longer trips. I have used them a few times but they have mixed up my booking before (once in Sep 2015). Do share your experience if you have used ToCoo.
BeyondBanality pro tip: 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.
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