Hokkaido’s vast landscapes are best explored by the convenience of your own transport. For foreign tourists, this means renting a car [self-drive] from the many car rental companies whose offices are situated in major train stations. Big car names like Nissan and Toyota have their own rental companies. Other big car rental companies like Budget, Aviz, and Times have offices in major cities of Hokkaido. As I planned my driving trip to Hokkaido, I came to know a lot of things about renting and driving a car in Hokkaido. Last May, during my recent Japan vacation, I finally experienced driving in Hokkaido, which became the highlight of my trip in the northernmost island.
Choosing Which Month to Go
Being the northernmost island, Hokkaido receives a good amount of snow during winter months. Unless you are an experienced driver, this is the only time that I would not recommended driving a car in Hokkaido especially if you don’t have any prior experience both with snow or Hokkaido roads. The winter months start from December until February, but a few cities still have pretty good amount of snow in March, while some roads near the mountains have snow extending until April. In May, a few mountains like those in Sobetsu town are still covered in snow but the roads are perfectly fine.
Spring [March-May] and autumn [September-November] are most picturesque as you will be able to see the mountains with various fall hues and the flowers of spring emit vibrant color. The temperature also is not too cold making it a great way to explore the areas. During these months the temperature near the mountains is also tolerable.
On the other hand, summer will always be pleasant as Hokkaido’s summer are not as humid as in Tokyo or in Osaka. Summer [June-August] is also the flower season. Hokkaido’s vast fields of flowers are a sight to behold. Biei and Furano flower fields are popular destinations during summer.
Car Rental Step-by-Step
I chose late spring for my first Hokkaido self-drive experience. From 12 May 2017 until 19 May 2017, I went to Hokkaido and rent a car for 6 days. I reserved a car from <a href=”http://en.tabirai.net/car/”>Tabirai Japan,</a> an English car rental reservation site. This is in March because reserving early gives you more options. Tabirai doesn’t charge any fee on booking and prices depend on the rental company.
For most car rental companies, they have one-way option, meaning you can rent a car at another location and return at a different one. If the two locations are from different areas, you pay a one-way fee which amounts to 3,000 to 10,000 yen. I chose Times car rental because if was cheapest at the time. I even check on their own online booking website and the rates in Tabirai are cheaper. Upon reservation, you need to input where you’d like to pick up your car and where you will return it. I decided to pick up my rental car at their office in Higashi-Muroran and to return it in Sapporo. Both of these locations are in the same area so I did not pay additional fees.
The following rate table is the one-way charge fee of Times Car Rental.
Upon picking up the car, you need to settle all payment and agree on the return date. If for some reasons you want to extend or withdraw your rental dates to a date not previously agreed, you can do so by calling the car rental office. All of these information, including which number to call if you get in trouble while on the road, they will provide to you upon car pick up. The staff at Times car rental in Higashi-Muroran are very accommodating with all my questions.
Self-drive in Hokkaido in Late Spring
Starting from Southern Hokkaido in Noboribetsu, I drove to Lake Toya to Central Hokkaido, passing by Tomamu, Furano, & Biei, to Asahikawa, then to Okhotsk Subprefecture in Kitami, Abashiri, and Mombetsu, before driving back to Sapporo. For the 6 days I rent the car, I drove a distance of about 1,200 kilometers covering these areas. I decided which cities I’d be spending the night depending on my itinerary. My only rule is that I should not be driving more than 400 km distance in a day. Being a new driver and a first time driver in Hokkaido, I decided that to be my limit. To check how much distance you need to get to one place to another, I used Hokkaido road navi website.
Noboribetsu, Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu
My main goal in Noboribetsu is to see the Jigokudani [Hell Valley]. This is a valley above Noboribetsu onsen town that shows off hot steam vents and other volcanic activity. If you haven’t gone near the mouth of a volcano, the natural activity in this place will leave an impression. Late spring is still quite cold in Hokkaido so the steam coming from the vents are very visible in the air.
Even though Noboribetsu is famous for its onsen, I opted to drive to Lake Toya and stay the night there. Resorts around Lake Toya abound but I decided to spend the night in Toya-onsen Hotel Hanabi. They have rooms overlooking the lake which is great because every night from late spring to summer, there’s a fireworks show by the lake.
Having spent the night in Lake Toya, my morning consisted of going to Showa Shinzan about 7 kms from Toyako onsen town. “Showa New Mountain” as it is called is a young volcano that rose from a flat land field to a height of 290 meters. Directly next to Mt. Usu which is said to have given birth to Showa Shinzan, the Usuzan ropeway is the most convenient way to reach to the top. However, from the ropeway station, it is a tiring climb to the steps to reach the Showa Shinzan observatory. My climb was blessed with a slight drizzle.
When I finished sightseeing in Showa Shinzan and Mt. Usu, I drove to Lake Shikotsu which is on the way to my next accommodation in Tomamu. It was around noon, when I reached Lake Shikotsu which was really cold with only a few visitors. Even the swan boats by the dock looks gloom like the cloudy weather that greeted me when I parked the car. However, the few cherry trees in full bloom was a welcome consolation for me.
Tomamu, Furano, Biei
It was already past 4pm when I reached Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, my accommodation for the night. In winter, this place is popular for its ski resorts. The reason I chose this place to spend the night is because of Hoshino Resort Tomamu’s famed unkai (sea of clouds) view from the resort’s cafe terrace.
It was only about 4 days back when they opened the season for unkai. Most popular in summer when there’s a good chance of seeing the sea of clouds, I headed there playing with my luck. But as I would have it, destiny was not good to me because when I wake up at 4am, the unkai forecast seen on one of the channels of the TV inside my room says that it’s zero percent visibility. Tough luck! Anyway, since I get free ropeway ride to the terrace from the hotel, I decided to still come and be disappointed.
This is a gloomy day because as I left Tomamu on the way to Furano, rain followed me until Biei and on to my next accommodation in Asahikawa. Because there are still no lavender or flower fields in Furano, I ended up just passing by the town. In Biei, I was mesmerized by Tokachidake mountain range which is very much snow-capped and looking gorgeous in the distance. I stopped by each time to admire its splendid beauty.
Also in Biei, I visited Shirogane’s famous blue pond, aoiike. This natural wonder was made popular by Apple as one of it’s preset wallpaper. The wallpaper photo was taken in winter so the view that I saw in May is slightly different. The blue is also of a different hue. But still it’s so beautiful!
Asahikawa & Sounkyo Gorge
It was almost dusk when I checked in at Court Hotel Asahikawa. It was very near Asahikawa station so even though it was raining when I felt the need for dinner, I opted to walk by the station. I chanced upon a nice ramen place serving Asahikawa ramen. The truth is, I originally wanted to go to ramen mura or Ramen Village but no one I asked was able to point me to the right direction. Anyway, since I didn’t brought the car, because truthfully, I didn’t want to pay additional fees for parking, so I settled for a ramen place by the station. It was good ramen but until now, I’m curious as to what the ramen village has on offer.
Because I have a long drive to Kitami, my next accommodation for the night, I also skipped Asahikawa Park. I figured there will be no more blossoms because I already saw the state of some of the cherry trees I passed by. I then proceeded to Sounkyo Gorge. When I was planning this trip, I know that Sounkyo Gorge is near but I didn’t except that it was a very short drive. After seeing the two falls, I didn’t have anything else to do because the gorge looks deserted in May, I proceeded to Kitami.
Kitami, Abashiri, Mombetsu
I chose Kitami because of it’s proximity to my previous must-see place which was Sounkyo Gorge, and the next one which is Higashimokoto Shibazakura Park in Abashiri. I stayed in Toyoko Inn Kitami-ekimae. So not really having anything on my itinerary for Kitami, I drove to Abashiri right way. I reached Shibazakura park at 10am, just as the people are arriving. This time, I came for the right season because the shibazakuras are already in full bloom. I believe it will remain so in the next 3 weeks.
Once I had enough of the park, I went to Mombetsu. The point of interest is Kamiyubetsu Tulip Park which is beginning to be busy. This tulip park has a rich variety of flowers the park itself breeds to create new tulip varieties.
I called it a day when I reached my accommodation in Mombetsu Prince Hotel. It was an old hotel with a relaxing hot spring that I enjoyed myself to the full. It has both indoor and outdoor onsen by each gender that my tired body immensely enjoyed.
It was an uneventful drive from Mombetsu to Sapporo which took around 4 hours. I only took a break for lunch in Shinagawa in one of those eki-no-michi [roadside stations] where they have food, gas station, grocery, and relaxation areas. But before leaving Mombetsu, I visited a smaller shibazakura park in Mombetsu in Takinoue town. The park is Takinoue Shibasakura Park. This small hilly town is a short 30 minute drive from Mombetsu city.
Before returning the car, I went to Moerenuma Park which is a few kilometers away from city center to appreciate nature and see a bird’s eye view of Sapporo.
Returning the Car
Returning your rental car is as easy as picking it up. But before you do, make sure you fill up your gas tank. This is required for virtually all car rental. The principle is simple, they give it to you full tank so you return it the same. When in the gas station, you just have to say mantan (full tank) in Japanese and they’ll do the work. For Times, they gave me a map of the nearest gas stations to the office where I am returning the car.
After making sure your tank is full, head to the rental office you indicated for return. Have the attendant check the condition of the car. After this, if like me you opted to rent ETC or electronic toll card, have them compute your expressway fees and pay them. For my whole trip, I paid about 4,000 yen. I recommended renting ETC because it is convenient especially if you will be using the expressway often. Another option is the HEP (Hokkaido expressway pass) for foreign tourist.
There are some routes where I opted not to use the expressway like the route from Lake Toya to Lake Shikotsu. Information on which expressway to take and how much toll is available in the GPS navigation that comes with most of the rental cars. However to plan for your trip, you can use Hokkaido road navi for which expressway to take. But the site doesn’t have information on how much the toll fee. If you wish to know how much toll fee for your Hokkaido trip, you can use this site. Although Japanese, this is what I used to compute my toll fees so I can decide whether to buy HEP, or rent ETC.
One more tip. Save the telephone numbers of the places in your itinerary. The car GPS takes telephone numbers in replace of map codes, which for some locations proved to be more accurate.
That’s all, I hope you’ll find my self-drive experience useful and informative. I can’t wait to explore Hokkaido in another season. After all, I did promise Mt. Tokachidake that I’m coming back.
***This first appeared in my personal blog, sheilaoftheworld.com