Hokkaido (北海道) is one of the most beautiful places on earth, comprising of low population and rich flora and fauna. It has some scenic wetlands, lakes, glaciers, forests, mountains and more! The government wants to develop Hokkaido as a region that is sustainable instead of heavily industrializing it like other prefectures in the mainland, meaning that its natural beauty continues to be protected. There are only two major urban centers in the whole island of Hokkaido: Sapporo (札幌) and Asahikawa (旭川).
Unlike big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, Sapporo is less busy and cleaner. Sapporo’s major revenues come from the tourism industry and fishing, however, this doesn’t mean that Hokkaido is suitable only for tourists and fishermen. Many major corporations and businesses operate from Sapporo, thus making it one of the best cities to visit in northern Japan for businesspersons and tourists alike.
To get around some remote places in Hokkaido outside the city, however, you must rely on either bus or car. Among the two, a car seems to be a viable option as bus services can be interrupted or delayed due to weather conditions or other reasons. It is also highly recommended to explore Hokkaido by car to capture some amazing views whenever you want. So what is it like driving in Hokkaido? Is it fun, or is it dangerous? What do you need to know before you start your journey? Here are a few tips and precautions to keep in mind.
Hokkaido is one of the places in Japan which sees heavy snowfall, especially in the winter months. Even in the summer, you may find many places are wet and breezy. It is very dangerous to drive on snowy and slippery roads in Hokkaido. Proper precautions must be taken to avoid any mishaps.
Firstly, you should check the weather forecast before going out on a long trip. The weather can change dramatically from place to place, especially in winter.
Secondly, check if you have winter tires to drive over snowy tracks easily. Usually, rental cars charge an extra fee for winter or snow tires, so ask before you rent. To differentiate between a regular tire and a snow tire, simply check the surface of the tires. A snow tire is usually uneven and chain-like with larger gaps.
Thirdly, do not be tempted to drive over the speed limit. There are wild animals such as deer which can suddenly appear in the middle of the road while you are driving. You must be able to stop in time to avoid a collision.
Hokkaido has much fewer people and towns than the main island of Honshu. Do not plan longer journeys where you’re driving longer than six hours as it can get difficult to find any gas or service stations whenever and wherever you want. Fill your tank completely beforehand and carry some vehicle repair tools in case your car breaks down in some remote area.
There are two major expressways in Hokkaido. These are the Hokkaido Expressway (北海道自動車道) and the Doto Expressway (道東自動車道). There are two major terms you should remember while driving in Japan: One IC (Interchange) and JCT (Junction).
ICs connect minor roads with expressways, while junctions are the main stops in an expressway that lead to other expressways. Usually, expressways end in ICs and if you crossed an IC, you would find smaller and narrower roads. Hokkaido Expressway connects different places from Onumakoen (大沼公園) IC in the south to Shibetsu-kenbuchi (士別剣淵) IC in the north of Hokkaido. This expressway passes through major junctions such as Sapporo and Fukagawa (深川). The Doto Expressways connects Chitose-Eniwa (千歳恵庭) JCT (near Sapporo) and Honbetsu (本別) IC in the East via Obihiro (帯広) JCT.
There are only four service stations along the two expressways, and all run for limited hours, mostly between 8:00am and 8:00pm, so be very careful that you don’t get stranded. There is only one service station along the Doto Expressway. So, you won’t find any other help, if needed, after you pass the Yuni (由仁) Parking Area near the Chitose (千歳) junction.
Finding a restroom can be a difficult thing to do for visitors while they are driving in Hokkaido. Usually there will be restroom signs together with the parking signs along the roads. If you can’t locate one, here is a guide.
There are, overall, some 117 roadside restrooms in Hokkaido, out of which some have restaurant and WiFi facilities. There are also information desks, shops, and telephones available at some restrooms. However, the hours of their operation may differ from place to place, and it is advised to plan your trip mostly in the day. The northern and eastern Hokkaido regions have only a few roadside facilities available compared to that of the other regions due to the presence of very little population and big national parks. The Regional Development Bureau that comes under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism takes care of the maintenance of these restrooms in Hokkaido.
Traffic is usually pretty low in Hokkaido, except in some busy areas in cities such as Sapporo. One very important thing to remember while you are driving in Hokkaido is the one-way roads; not all roads are double roads, especially in downtown areas.
One more thing to remember is the different signs you find along the roads which could be different from your own country. For example, the stop sign in Japan is usually an inverted triangle painted in red. The toll collection in Hokkaido is automatic and uses an electronic chip method. The Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau offers driving coupons by which you avail some discounts on shopping and dining especially in eastern Hokkaido. Foreign travelers can also buy a Hokkaido expressway pass to drive freely without worrying about extra charges to use the expressways. Contact your rental company prior to your trip to arrange the pass for you.
Always carry your passport and international driving license while driving in Japan. It is also important to get your insurance beforehand to claim relief later in case of a mishap.
These are the things you should remember while driving in Hokkaido. If planned properly, driving in Hokkaido can be a wonderful experience. There are a plenty of places to visit in Hokkaido, and the culture changes from one place to another. It is better to explore the region on wheels instead of any other means of transport.
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