For centuries Hokkaido (or Ezochi as it was formerly known) was almost entirely separate from mainland Japan – home only to the indigenous Ainu people, who have a language and rich culture completely distinct from that of the Japanese.
Today Hokkaido is the second-largest and northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, yet it remains thoroughly different in feel from the other three islands and is still off the beaten track even for most Japanese. With amazing hot springs in the middle of nowhere, long coastal roads, impressive mountain ranges, fields full of flowers, and rolling hills more reminiscent of Europe than of the Far East – it is also just begging to be driven.
Driving in Hokkaido
Whilst in general the best way to get around Japan is using the excellent public transport system, which comprises buses, subways, trains and high-speed rail; Hokkaido is rather different. Sparsely populated as it is, public transport is scarce and you’d do much better to hire a car so that you can explore under your own steam and get to the beautiful outlying places that trains can’t reach.
Plus, Hokkaido’s unpopulated plains make for exceptionally easy driving!
Some excellent destinations to consider adding to your driving itinerary in Hokkaido are Sapporo, the regional capital – known for its great beer and buttery ramen noodles; Hakodate with its famous night-time panorama; Toya Onsen in the shadow of the still-smoking Showa Shinzan volcano; and Biei with its “patchwork road” surrounded by fields of flowers.
Our favourite driving destination in Hokkaido, however, is the far east of the island. This area is so rugged and remote that it doesn’t even feel like Japan – except for the odd reassuring roadside vending machine to remind you that you’re still part of civilisation!
What you need to know about driving in Hokkaido
To rent a car in Japan you will need to be in possession of an International Driving Permit as well as a full driving license from your home country. The process involved for obtaining an International Permit varies from country to country so you’re best advised to check online before applying, but in the UK they can be obtained from the Post Office on presentation of your full driving license and a small fee.
Providing you have the requisite documents, renting a car at the airport or in a big city like Sapporo (your most likely point of arrival) should be relatively painless, as most rental companies will be able to provide documentation in English even if their staff are not able to speak it themselves.
Finally, it is important to note that whilst Hokkaido is indeed an excellent winter destination and attracts many visitors during this season – driving in winter is inadvisable as large amounts of snow mean that many roads will be closed. Come instead in the spring, summer or autumn and you’ll be pleasantly surprised!