BumblebeeMum
Driving in Hokkaido in Winter
Driving in Hokkaido in Winter

Hi,
Read your blog ion driving in winter in East Hokkaido. I intend to visit with 3 friends in early Feb. How hard is it to drive during winter ? I have asked various sites and most discourage it as when I mention we are from Singapore. I thought of getting a 3 day JR Pass but moving with luggages on public transport and local buses in winter seems quite daunting..
Appreciate your advice.
SG

By SG on January 1, 2016

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89 Comments

  • Julie says:

    Hi is it difficult to drive in winter with snow. Looking at self drive trip in mid dec 2015 ? Ps, I’m a season driver anything to take note ?

    • bumblebeemum says:

      Hi, yes it is difficult to drive in Winter. However, it is also difficult to move around without a car in winter, especially with kids or elderly. Trolley luggages and strollers are a pain to push through the snow. That’s why we decided driving is the lesser of the two evils.

      When it’s snowing heavily, visibility is near zero. Sometimes you can barely see what is in front of you, and you will have to depend on the car GPS to warn you if the road is going to curve or it’s going straight. If you drive too fast and do not realize a bend or turn is coming up, by the time you spot a bend, the car is not going to slow down in time when you step on the brake because of the reduced friction and that’s when you go off the road. So drive slow. (Speed limit for all roads including tollways is 50km/h in winter. The locals usually don’t follow it, but it’s prudent for tourists to stick to it.)

      The best way is to stay safe is to keep to well-travelled roads (like tollways) where there will be tyre markings left by cars in front and you can follow the tyre markings to stay on the road. When it is snowing heavily, the tyre markings of previous cars get covered up very quickly. Try to stay behind slow-moving big vehicles, they leave deeper tyre markings which are easier to follow.

      There are many tunnels around Hokkaido and it will be very tempting to drive fast in the tunnels because the road is not covered with snow at last. However when entering and exiting tunnels, please slow down. This is where snow becomes ice and it is extremely slippery. It is okay to pick up speed once you are safely inside the tunnel, but when you start to see snow on the road nearing the end of the tunnel, that is when you should start slowing down again.

      Another thing about driving when there is snow is that lane markings are all covered with snow.
      – Look for a sign hanging from the top in the middle of roads that says “中央線” with an arrow pointing down. It is pointing to where the centre divider is so that you don’t drive onto oncoming traffic.
      – At cross junctions within cities, there are usually no traffic light. Usually you will see a stop line if you do not have the right of way, but this will be covered when there is snow. So when approaching cross junctions, look out for any triangular sign that says “止まれ”. The sign tells you that you DO NOT have right of way and must stop to give way to perpendicular traffic. If in doubt, just slow down when you approach any cross junctions to check if there is any car in the perpendicular direction.
      – At traffic lights, you need to estimate where the stop line is. Sometimes junctions will have a sign that says “停止線”. It indicates where the stop line is. Stop behind that sign, otherwise will be stopping on the pedestrian crossing.

      These are some of the things I can think of off-hand. In general, just drive real slow. Remember that your car will not stop if you try to e-brake on snow. Give yourself plenty of time to drive around (i.e. don’t pack your itinerary to try to cover many places in one day. I would say at most 1 or 2 places in one day.)

      Never try to drive in the dark when it’s snowing. Always plan to reach your accommodation by 4pm. Bear in mind that the sun sets at 4+pm in winter.

      When using google map to estimate driving time, double the time for winter, because it’s possible that you will be driving at half the normal speed.

      • Geraldine says:

        Hi

        It was such fun reading your blog. I am planning a trip to Hokkaido this Dec and would like to seek your advice on places to visit.

        We have 2 kids aged 7 and 12 and we’ll be spending 7 days in Hokkaido from 3 Dec to 9 Dec.

        We’ll arrive at around 7pm at Chitose so my Husband intend to stay the first night at a hotel near the airport before heading back to the airport to collect rental car the following morning before heading to Norboribetsu where we have booked an onsen for one night. After that we’ll head to Lake Toya where we’ll stay for another night. So far that’s all we’ve planned as we have not decide whether to go to Rusutsu, Niseko or Tomamu. Would you be able to recommend places where we can visit? Is it difficult or dangerous to drive to the ski resorts?

        After Hokkaido, we’ll be spending another 5 days in Tokyo. I read from one of your blog that your friend booked from Airbnb while visiting Japan. Do you recommend that for my family of 4 (me, my hubby, 2 kids 7 and 12)? There are so many places to visit in Tokyo so would be grateful if I can get some recommendations from you too.

        Thank you
        Geraldine

        • bumblebeemum says:

          Hi,

          Glad you had fun reading my blog.. :p

          I agree with your husband to spend the first night at the airport. There is only 1 hotel at the airport: Air Terminal Hotel.

          As for ski resort, if you are going in the direction of Noboribetsu and Lake Toya, then you should go to either Niseko or Rusutsu next. In terms of difficulty in driving, Niseko is a lot more difficult to drive to compared to Rusutsu.

          For Tokyo B&B, I did not book from AirBnb. I booked from Homeaway:
          http://www.homeaway.com.sg/

          From what I understand, Homeaway positions themselves as an apartment rental service for families, and less so for free-spirited budget travellers. Which means perfect for us. You can read more here:
          http://blog.homeaway.asia/post/113313860844/5-reasons-why-you-should-try-vacation-rentals

          Their apartments in Tokyo look great, and many of them are very well located near major train stations like Shibuya and Shinjuku. I haven’t gone for my stay yet (going in December), but just based on the location on the maps and the pictures, they generally look like value for money. Tokyo hotels are notoriously small, you will never be able to get the same amount of space in such locations at hotels.

          As for places to visit in Tokyo, it really depends on your interest. Here are some suggestions of places I usually recommend for a Tokyo trip with kids:

          Sanrio Puroland
          Legoland Discovery Centre
          Doraemon Museum
          Ghilbi Museum
          Tokyo Sea Life Park
          Sunshine Aquarium
          Ueno Zoo
          Tama Zoo
          Tokyo Fire Museum
          Tokyo Subway Museum

          In addition, because it’s winter, there are some great illuminations going on. I particularly like those at theme parks. You can go for rides among the illumintaion. The ones I know of reachable from Tokyo include:
          Sagamiko Illumillion
          Toshimaen
          Yomiuriland Jewellumination

          • Geraldine says:

            Thank you for your prompt reply. Glad that I found the right person to seek advise from. I am looking for lodging which is near train station. However, not sure which train station is the most convenient for touring around Tokyo. Do you have any recommendations?

            • bumblebeemum says:

              The main hubs are Tokyo station and Shinjuku station. Tokyo station is good for catching shinkansen and going Disneyland, Shinjuku is good for catching the Odakyu line to Hakone. But generally hotels near Tokyo station are very expensive. As for Shinjuku, the cheaper accommodation tend to be at Kabukicho, which is the red light district.

              If you like shopping, you can try Shibuya area. I like the shopping around Shibuya and from Shibuya, you can actually walk all the way to Harajuku and Omotesando.

              Personally, I like to stay near Ueno station if I am flying Narita because of the direct Keisei line connection. Ueno is also very close to Asakusa and Akihabara, and it is generally cheaper to stay there.

              • Geraldine says:

                Thank you. The information you’ve provided is very helpful. I am planning to book from Homeaway.

                Can I also check with you where we can buy affordable waterproof winter wear and boots in Singapore?

                Thank you!

                • bumblebeemum says:

                  You can try Winter Times, I bought my kids’ winter wear from there and have also seen them selling boots. The store called Traveller World at Vivocity has a wider range of kids winter wear by Winter Times compared to the neighbourhood Winter Times branches.

                  • Geraldine says:

                    Thank you for your help. I am grateful for all the information you have provided as it really save me tons of time to do research. Sorry to trouble you but I might be back with more questions :p

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      No worries, feel free to pop by if you need any more help. 🙂

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Hi sorry to disturb you again. I am back with more questions. My husband has decided not to drive so now we have to figure out the trains and buses for the trip. Do you mind giving me advice on how to take public transport from CTS to noboribetsu onsen town? We booked Ryotei Hanayura. Is it more advisable to book all the bus and train passes before the trip? Thank you.

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      I went to take a look at Hanayura’s website:
                      http://www.hanayura.com/contents/access/index.html

                      According to that site, there is a bus running from CTS to Noboribetsu:
                      道南バス 新千歳空港 ⇒ 登別温泉 / はやぶさ号・約60分
                      (Donan Bus) CTS ⇒ Noboribetsu Onsen / Bus Hayabusa (approx 60 min)

                      So I went to Donan bus website and this is the timetable for bus Hayabusa:
                      http://donanbus.co.jp/citybus/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2013/11/%E6%96%B03%E5%AE%A4%E8%98%AD%E6%96%B0%E5%8D%83%E6%AD%B3%E7%A9%BA%E6%B8%AF%E7%B7%9A.pdf

                      However, Hanayura is not listed as one of the stops for the above bus. So you may want to email the hotel to ask which stop you should alight at if you are arriving by the Donan bus Hayabusa.

                      For Donan bus, there is no need to book it in advance. Usually for buses in Japan, you board first and pay when you are getting off the bus.

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Hi thank you for your help again. Can I check if heat-tech thermal wear from Uniqlo works well in Hokkaido?I have wool thermal wear from Winter Times and is wondering if it will be too warm for the kids to wear indoors. It will be such a hassle to remove their thermal wear as we will probably be moving in and out quite a lot.

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      Yes, for that reason I prefer Uniqlo’s heat tech to wool thermal wear. Wool thermal wear are extremely uncomfortable once you step indoors because the Japanese really turn up their heaters in the shopping centres and trains. And you can’t possibly be removing thermal wear on the train. I do layering, with Uniqlo’s heat tech as the bottom most layer. Over it I put on another heat-tech short sleeve shirt and a wool vest. These layers are never removed. Then I put on another long-sleeve wool sweater, followed by a down jacket. The down jacket is removed once we step indoors and the wool sweater is sometimes removed if we are going to spend the next few hours indoors.

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Thank you for your prompt reply. Will be reading your blog and will pop by to seek more advice.

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Hi hope you had a great weekend. We are almost done with all the planning and shopping for our Japan trip in Dec. Thanks for all your help!

                      I have not found suitable waterproof jackets, pants and boots for both adults and kids yet. Do you think it is advisable for us to buy these things when we are there? As we will only land around 8pm, do you think it will be easy for me to find these things in the late night shopping area in susukino on my first night there.

                      We’ll be going to Noboribetsu (day 2), Lake Toya (day 3), Rusutsu (day 4), Otaru (day 5), Sapporo (day 6). In case I really couldn’t get these things in time, would it be feasible that we rent ski wear from Rusutsu when we reach there. Appreciate your advice. Thanks!

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      It is quite difficult to find those stuff for kids. And I think by the time you reach Susukino, only 24 hour duty free shops and restaurants will still be open – don’t think those boots and clothes shops are still open. Try to get them in Singapore – have you tried Traveller World at Vivocity? I bought my kids’ waterproof pants there. They had quite a good selection of kids winter wear.

                      Yes, if all else fails, you should be able to rent ski jackets and pants from the ski resorts. The price list for rental at Rusutsu can be found here:
                      http://en.rusutsu.co.jp/winter-season/rentals/

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Thank you. I will go to VivoCity to take a look. Can I also check with you if it is difficult to get the tickets for fujiko museum from lawson when we are there? It is expensive to get from bridge.jp because of the handling and shipping fees. Thank you for your help!

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      I have never tried Bridge.Jpn. My friend bought her tickets for Doraemon and Ghilbi Museum together from them – so I guess that averages out any handling and shipping fees. She told me Doraemon is not has hard to get as Ghilbi, so I think it is possible to get your tickets at Lawson after arriving in Japan. Though I am not sure if language barrier may pose to be a problem. If you REALLY want to visit Fujiko Museum, I would advise you just buy the tickets beforehand for a peace of mind. But if you are like, don’t mind missing it if you are unable to get the tickets, then you can try purchasing the tickets after you arrive.

                    • Geraldine says:

                      Thanks for your prompt reply.

      • MC says:

        Hi,
        I have been following your hokkaido blog ever since i started planing my hokkaido trips. It was so useful, especially the Google map code shared by you, it made my driving trip in hokkaido so easy and the accuracy of the location is perfect. I plan to go to hokkaido again in February 2018 to experience the snow…it is just a 5 days trip for 2 pax. I will arrive in New Chitose Airport at 9.30am, plan to stay one night in Noboribetsu, one night in one of the skiing resort and 3 nights in Sapporo.

        Pls advice:-

        1) If we have no intention to learn skiing, just wanna feel the snow in an open area, do we really need to go so far to the skiing resort?

        2) If there is really some degree of difference to enjoy the snow view in skiing resort as compare to the snow view in Noboribetsu, which skiing resort would you recommend?

        3) Would you recommend to go by public transport or self drive looking at none of us have any winter driving experience and expected the snow will be extremely thick if drive to any of the skiing resort during February.

        Looking forward for your comments and suggested itinerary.

        Thanks in advance and wish you have a wonderful weekend.

        • bumblebeemum says:

          1) In Feb there will be snow everywhere, you don’t have to go to a ski resort. If you just want to feel a lot of snow in an open area, you can consider going to Moerenuma Park in Sapporo. I didn’t go but my friend went and she said the whole park was buried in snow.
          http://moerenumapark.jp/english/

          2) Yes, there is a difference. At ski resorts, there are more mountains. If you like to see snowy mountains, then it’s best to go to a ski resort. But the problem is that weather at ski resorts tend to be more erratic and many times, all you see may be a sheet of white due to heavy snow. Occasionally when it stops snowing for a bit, you will get a glimpse of the mountain view for a while before it starts snowing and you can’t see anything again.

          3) I would recommend public transport if it’s just 2 pax.

          • MC says:

            Appreciated a lot for your instant reply to my questions. The answers and your recommendation really help in my coming Hokkaido itinerary planing. You have light up my day. Cheers!

  • Caleb says:

    Enjoyed reading your very informative blog. Lots of details and found many places to see/visit. Was it difficult driving in Winter? Planning a trip for Christmas Dec 2015 but not sure whether to drive or take train only option because we’re worried about driving in winter condition. Thanks

  • Dorothy Cheong says:

    Hi,

    I googled and saw your blog. I am fascinated by your sharings in your blog. I have also fallen in love with Japan after my first trip in June 2014 with friends. Since then, I have travelled 2 additional times to different parts of Japan with group of friends and family members. We have always been driving in Japan. My up and coming trip is 9-19 December 2015 to Hokkaido which I am very anxious as we will be driving on a snowy road. After reading your blog, I have some consolation which is to always keep slow driving. May I know whether the roads are hilly and winding? I am apprehensive on mountaineering roads or winding roads. We will be driving from Chitose to Hakodate (2 nights) then to Noboritbetsu for a night before Furano (a night), then Lake Akan (a night), Asahikawa (a night) and finally to Sapporo (3 nights).

    Await your generous reply from your experience. Thank you.

    • bumblebeemum says:

      Hi,

      Travelling to Japan is really very addictive!

      Regarding roads in Hokkaido, yes, they are mountainous and hilly and winding. Especially if you are headed to snow resorts. But they are not super narrow like some other countries, say Taiwan. Just go slow and keep to speed limits and slow your vehicle down well in advance when you are approaching a curve. And NEVER drive after dark in winter. Make sure you get to your accommodation by 4pm latest. When you use google map to check the driving time required, DOUBLE IT for winter. I’m not exaggerating.

      Is there any reason you are going to Furano in winter? There are better ski resorts, like Tomamu, and the roads around Furano are quite difficult to drive in winter. My recommendation is for you to swap Furano for Tomamu. If you look at the map, Tomamu is much more along the way from Noboribetsu to Lake Akan than Furano. And Tomamu has Ice Village in December. I have mapped out the routes for you to compare:
      > Map for Noboribetsu – Tomamu – Lake Akan
      > Map for Noboribetsu – Furano – Lake Akan

      Another thing is, are you going to skip the cranes in Kushiro? It seems a bit wasted to drive all the way to Lake Akan in winter but not go to Kushiro to see the cranes. I recommend reducing a night in Sapporo and slotting in Kushiro between Tomamu and Lake Akan. The crane gatherings only happen in winter and it would be a pity to miss it.

      • Dorothy Cheong says:

        Hi,

        Thank you for your prompt reply. My reason for dropping by Noboribetsu and Furano is to give us a break, considering the long distance from Onuma (snow activities near Hakodate) to Lake Akan/Kushiro. When I googled earlier, the nearest town after Noboribetsu was Furano, two hours plus but when I saw the google map you gave me, it was much longer than Tomamu. Funny! My initial plan was to drive from Noboribetsu to Kushiro but that seems to be a much quieter and longer distance. Anyway, Tomamu seems to be pretty interesting with the Ice Village and after relooking at your link again, we would have to make some adjustment. Thank you for the suggestion.
        Just to get further confirmation. Is the road at snow resort almost the same like Mount Fuji, wide and comfortable to drive?
        Yes, our purpose of going to Lake Akan is solely to see the crane.

        • bumblebeemum says:

          Yes, the roads around Hokkaido are pretty similar to Hakone / Mount Fuji region. Just that they will be covered with snow in winter. For winter driving tips, see my reply to Julie (first comment above).

          If you are looking for a place to break up the drive from Noboribetsu to Lake Akan / Kushiro, then Tomamu is the ideal place.

          Ah.. I considered the cranes to be part of Kushiro rather than Lake Akan. Ideally you should spend 1 night at Kushiro AND 1 night at Lake Akan, especially in winter, to slowly explore the region. At Kushiro, you can see the cranes and visit Washo Market. At Lake Akan, you can drive around to Lake Mashu, Iozan and Lake Kussharo. You would need 2 days to cover all these comfortably.

          • Dorothy Cheong says:

            Hi,

            Yes, I read the tips for driving in winter in reply to Julie. Very good tips and will take note. Thank you for all the recommendations and advice. Will rearrange my itinerary.

  • Anonymous says:

    do you have chain on while driving in winter?

  • Gerad says:

    Hello there,

    I am now planning to rent a car to drive around in Hokkaido during early November period. I was wondering if during that period would there be alot of ice/snow on the ground that a 4WD vehicle with snow tyres would be suitable/practical? I am planning this trip on a budget and would of course, like to select a normal car, but safety is a priority and rather unsure. It is my first time driving in Hokkaido or in Japan (!), but I have driven overseas before and with left hand drive.

    Many thanks in advance!

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi,

    I intend to self drive in December but we have never done self drive holidays before and it will be during the winter. Is it advisable to do so with 2 Adults and 2 children (8 and 12)? Is the road condition slippery?

    • bumblebeemum says:

      You may not want to do your first overseas self-drive holiday in winter. There are many things to adapt to when driving overseas with a rental car: Getting used to a new car, figuring out the traffic rules of the country, road conditions hat you are unfamiliar with (e.g. winding / hilly / narrowly bending roads that, if you are from Singapore, would probably never have encountered before), fumbling around the GPS, figuring out how to even top up a petrol tank. The last thing you want to deal with is snow and ice on the road and close to zero visibility when it snows heavily. So no, I do not recommend you do a self-drive in Hokkaido in December as your first overseas self-drive venture.

      And yes, the road condition will be slippery.

      But don’t let what I say deter you from doing self-drive holidays. I recommend getting some practice in summer / non-snowy places, so that you know exactly what to expect when self-driving overseas, before you try doing so in winter.

  • HG says:

    Hi Bumble Bee Mum,
    I enjoyed reading your blog about your Winter holiday in Hokkaido. I am planning a trip for end Nov/early Dec for my family.
    I will like to seek your advice regarding driving in Hokkaido during winter.
    My family has driven in Hokkaido before but not during winter.
    1) What is the requirement for driving in winter?
    2) Do you need tire chains for the car?
    Look forward to your advice.
    Thanks!

    • bumblebeemum says:

      1) Requirement? An international driving license + your local driving license. Plus lots of patience to drive slowly. It helps that you have driven in Hokkaido before and are familiar with their roads and traffic rules. In winter, just bear in mind to allocate twice the time required for driving compared to summer, and to always reach your accommodation by 4pm. Which means your itinerary must be planned loosely as compared to other times of the year, visiting just 1 or 2 places a day.

      2) Nope, snow tyres are good enough. 🙂

  • 3lowies says:

    Hi Bumble Bee Mum!

    Your blogs have been most helpful in my planning for my family trip to Hokkaido in June this year. My family and I are doing yet another trip in December and would like to seek your opinion on the mode of transport.

    Our itinerary is briefly as such: 4 nights at Niseko (some air BnB lodging near Niseko Welcome Centre), 6 nights at Tomamu and 2 nights at Sapporo.

    For our previous trips, we have been taking coaches (apart from the June trip where we drove). Was wondering we should drive for the NIseko leg as we are not sure how connected the ski places and amenities are. On our previous ski trips, we have been staying in self-contained resorts like Rusutsu and Kiroro. Think Niseko is different.

    Would like to check with you if we should rent a car for the Niseko leg, but the question is if it is safe. We do not understand nor read Japanese. While we can get GPS with English instructions, we are not sure if it is safe to drive. Will our lack of proficiency in Japanese be an issue? Will really need your advice on this, as I know you have driven there in winter last year or the year before. Thanks!

    • bumblebeemum says:

      No, I do not recommend driving in Niseko. It is really not safe because of the heavy snow and very poor visibility in the region even in daylight. There is a shuttle service that runs between the various ski grounds in Niseko and if I’m not mistaken, you can hop on and off it if you hold the Niseko All Mountain Pass. I would recommend you make use of the shuttle bus.

  • SG says:

    Hi,
    Read your blog ion driving in winter in East Hokkaido. I intend to visit with 3 friends in early Feb. How hard is it to drive during winter ? I have asked various sites and most discourage it as when I mention we are from Singapore. I thought of getting a 3 day JR Pass but moving with luggages on public transport and local buses in winter seems quite daunting..
    Appreciate your advice.
    SG

    • bumblebeemum says:

      Many of our readers did self-drive over the last December holidays and said that it was okay. There are dangers, but the important thing is to be very patient and drive slow – do not be tempted to speed. Plan a very loose itinerary to give yourself ample time for driving without feeling the need to rush. If you want to cover more places and spend less time on the road, you can take the train to the nearest city and rent a car from there. For e.g. if you are planning to visit Lake Akan, you can take the train to Kushiro and rent a car from there to explore Akan National Park.

      I have written tips for driving in winter on this post:
      http://bumblebeemum.net/2015/08/29/free-easy-hokkaido-winter-trip-essential-travel-tips/

      If you have any more concerns after reading it, feel free to drop it under the comments.

  • rangersmummy says:

    How is it like to drive in the snow? I am from Singapore and am contemplating going in December but not sure if I shld self drive.. thanks!

  • sharon goh says:

    I love reading your travel blogs! I m planning a trip with 4 other friends to hokkaido from mid dec to end dec.my question is..is it dif to drive around southern hokkaido during winter? Plan to start journey from chitose – noboribetsu – toya- hakodate – niseko- sapporo. I m from malaysia.

    • bumblebeemum says:

      There are definitely challenges to driving in winter, especially for those of us from countries where it never snows. But if you have sufficient time to drive slowly, it can be done and driving is still the most convenient way to get around places like Lake Toya and Noboribetsu. Hope the tips I have written in this post will help prepare you for the drive. Just remember: Drive slow. If you need to rush, then use the train. Train is faster in winter compared to driving.

  • Pat says:

    I am planning on hokkaido in 3rd week of november. I am wondering if it would be dangerous to drive there since it will be winter then. I have driven in Australia many times but not sure of the weather condition in hokkaido. please advise. thanks.

  • joann says:

    Dear,
    can i ask you something about self driving in the snowing period in japan?

  • ros says:

    Hi Bumble Bee.

    we are a family of 3 with a 8 year old kid and is planning to go Hokkaido from 13th to 25th dec.

    we intend to self drive with the following itinerary :-
    hakodate
    niseko
    drive straight to Sapporo (not going to Otaru)
    furano
    biei
    asahikawa

    this is our first time driving in winter. is it better to drive to these places in winter? Will the road condition will be difficult and dangerous for us who has not driven in winter? Google map shows that the drive will be small winding and mountainous roads. Or is it better to take public transport (trains and taxi)

    • bumblebeemum says:

      Furano and Biei is quite difficult to drive in winter because the roads there are pretty windy. Niseko also has very heavy snowfall because it is a ski resort. Is there any particular reason you want to visit Furano and Biei in December? Usually I don’t recommend visiting the region in winter as it is more of a summer place.

      If you are just visiting Hakodate, Niseko, Sapporo and Asahikawa, there is no need to drive. You can just use public transport.

  • Joey says:

    Hi! Is it dangerous to drive around in Hokkaido during winter? I read many review saying is dangerous to drive cos it’s slippery and might face snow storm. But driving is much cheaper and accessible to many places!

  • Edmond Pais says:

    Hakodate is approximate 2m away from Shin Chitose, though on paper it looks like a mere 3 hours drive. During winter, always double your usual travel amount when self driving as in winter roads are slippery due to formation of black ice and speed limit will be reduced to mph during bad weather.

  • V v says:

    Hi,
    We are going to Hokkaido for the first time in January 2017. I hope you don’t mind feeding me with some information. I am a mum with 2 kiddos like you are. We were considering to self drive in January. Do you think it is allright? Is it safe? Is the road condition very slippery?We have done lots of road trip here in Australia but not with snow condition, it seems that it is much easier to drive then to take public transport to certain areas like lake shikaritetsu and furano.

  • Piyo88 says:

    Hi, I am planning to go to Sapporo from 23-27 Nov. Is it likely to have first snow fall by then? Would you recommend driving there at that time since we have 4 pple, (would like to drive for convenience but we have no experience driving in winter)? I would really love to go Tomamu resort for the ice village. Can I do a day trip there (prefer driving) and leave by night? Would like to stay there or nearby but am a bit worried if can make it back to Sapporo for flight the next day. Any kind advice is appreciated.

    • bumblebeemum says:

      Yes, there is a high chance that there will be snow by then. So you can expect the usual inconvenience of driving in snow. You can read more about winter driving on this post:
      http://bumblebeemum.net/2015/08/29/free-easy-hokkaido-winter-trip-essential-travel-tips

      I think your dates are a bit early for Tomamu Ice Village. While it is possible to do Tomamu as a day trip from Sapporo, the Ice Village may not be ready yet in November.

      • Piyo88 says:

        Thanks for your reply with the link. Actually, I have read those tips before posting the question but I am still quite keen to drive. I am thinking to go this route :
        Day 1 : New Chitose -> Sapporo (stay a night)
        Day 2 : Pick up rental car -> Otaru -> Niseko
        Day 3 : Niseko -> Lake Toya -> Noboribetsu
        Day 4 : Noboribetsu -> Tomamu
        Day 5 : Tomamu -> New Chitose (return car)

        Is this advisable? I also thought of reversing the route from day 1 to 4, to start with picking up rental car from airport and drive straight to Noboribetsu before returning to Sapporo on day 4 (ie. Airport -> Noboribetsu -> Lake Toya -> Niseko -> Otaru -> Sapporo -> Tomamu -> Airport). Is it too ambitious?

        I would prefer driving though I know it’s dangerous in winter without experience (but there is always a first time right?). There is more flexibility and can see more. Is it actually more economical to drive than to buy the Hokkaido 3 day pass, given that we have 3 adults and 1 child? It seemed that the car rental is quite reasonable there compared to public transport. Is the petrol cost and highway toll there going to cost a lot for my route?

        DH is not so keen to drive, but what alternative do I have? What would you recommend?

        From Tomamu Resort’s website, they start taking in room reservation from 26 Nov, which is why I am trying to leave Hokkaido as late as possible. Does that mean that the ice village is going to be ready by then? Is Niseko likely to start snowing by then? If it will, I can maybe skip Tomamu and go Hakodate instead, since I just want to see snow.

        • bumblebeemum says:

          It depends on your arrival time? If you arrive early in the morning, then you can go to Noboribetsu first. But if you arrive in the afternoon or later, then it’s better to go to Sapporo first and drive from Day 2 onwards.

          Yes, driving in Hokkaido is much more flexible than taking public transport and usually cheaper if you have anything more than 2 adults. Driving is really the easiest way to move around Hokkaido as their public transport is not great. You just have to be daring and patient enough to do it. Drive slowly and you should be fine.

          Niseko would definitely be snowing by end November but activities are limited to skiing and snowboarding. For Tomamu Ice Village, your dates are a tad early and you may or may not get to go to the Ice Village. Some years they open late Nov, some years early Dec. It really depends on the snow condition. If you just want to see snow, both Niseko and Tomamu will have snow by then, but I would go with Niseko if you are visiting Lake Toya and Noboribetsu as they are in the same region. Tomamu is kind of a detour.

          • Piyo88 says:

            Thanks for your super quick reply. It’s really a blessing to have you being able to answer our queries.

            Looks like I have to drop Tomamu, and maybe Hakodate also. Too little time to cover, right?

            I will arrive at CTS at 14:10. I am thinking of taking the airport limo bus to Noboribetsu onsen, which I think will take slightly more than 1 hour. From there, I am thinking of renting a car to the next destination, but not sure if there is car rental available. Any idea where is the bus stop for the airport limo bus?

            Any comments or advice for this route below?

            Day 1 : New Chitose Airport -> Noboribetsu (Limo Bus)
            Day 2 : Noboribetsu -> Lake Toya -> Niseko (Hirafu)
            Day 3 : Niseko -> Otaru -> Sapporo
            Day 4 : Sapporo
            Day 5 : Sapporo -> New Chitose Airport

            On day 5, I will be flying from CTS to Narita before connecting to SG. It’s 7 hr transit time at NRT from domestic arrival to depart on next flight. Any suggestions what I can do during this period? My kids will be bored and tired. Will it likely to be a delay at end Nov due to weather condition?

            • Piyo88 says:

              Hi, any idea how long does it take to clear immigration and collect checked in luggage after domestic flight has landed in Narita? I have 4.5 hrs from domestic flight landing time to my connecting international flight. Is it sufficient?

            • bumblebeemum says:

              Car rental is pretty limited at Noboribetsu. I would rent the car from CTS and just drive to Noboribetsu rather than take bus to Noboribetsu and try to rent a car from there.

              7 hours is a long time at Narita Airport. I suggest you leave your luggage in a locker and either go shopping at AEON, or go visit Narita city (there’s a famous shrine there walkable from the station). The shrine is not so interesting for kids, so if your main concern is to keep the kids occupied, I suggest you go to AEON where there is a small kids playground:
              http://narita-aeonmall.com.e.vd.hp.transer.com/special/lists/kidsspace

              • Piyo88 says:

                Thanks for your quick reply and your advice and recommendations. I would prefer to rent a car from CTS and drive to Noboribetsu but my DH isn’t very comfortable to drive in winter as we have no experience. Also, I worry that it might be a bit rush since our flight will arrive at 2.10pm and by the time we collect our rental car, it might be a bit too dark to drive. You don’t advise to drive after 4pm as it might get too dark, right? Anyway, I just found out that the daily limo bus for Noboribetsu onsen would have left by the time I arrive at CTS. So, I am not sure how to plan if we don’t want to drive. Should we stay in Sapporo for the first night and take bus to Noboribetsu on the second day instead? Is there any direct bus to the onsen town from Sapporo? All the bus schedule is in Japanese. OMG! From onsen town, is there any bus to go to Lake Toya and then to Niseko?

                • bumblebeemum says:

                  Hmmm yeah.. arriving at 2.10pm is tricky.

                  Some ryokans in Noboribetsu offer free shuttle service from Sapporo, so going to Sapporo first when you arrive could be an idea.

                  I don’t think there is direct bus from Lake Toya to Niseko. That’s the thing about buses in Hokkaido. They usually go between Sapporo and each destination, but they don’t have buses to join up destination to destination. Like you have bus from Sapporo to Lake Toya, Sapporo to Niseko, but no bus from Lake Toya to Niseko when they are so near each other. It’s for this reason I always end up driving in Hokkaido.

                  Looking at the time you have and the places you want to visit, I would ask you to seriously consider driving. But if you really don’t want to, I suggest you skip either Lake Toya or Noboribetsu – choose just one. Then what you do is:

                  Day 1: Sapporo
                  Day 2: Sapporo – Noboribetsu / Lake Toya
                  Day 3: Noboribetsu / Lake Toya – Sapporo
                  Day 4: Sapporo – Niseko
                  Day 5: Niseko – CTS

                  • Piyo88 says:

                    Thanks for your suggestions on the route. Today, I found one hotel that has shuttle bus from CTS and Sapporo to Noboribetsu. So that is a blessing for me, one more option on top of driving.

                    For the route that I am driving, would it be advisable to get the HEP or just ETC?

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      Neh.. You won’t need HEP / ETC for the Noboribetsu / Lake Toya / Niseko region. From Noboribetsu to Lake Toya, you can use the Orofure Pass which is toll free:
                      https://goo.gl/maps/HYvbi8bvxh32

                      Lake Toya to Niseko is also toll free.
                      https://goo.gl/maps/UZDQoh1Pmy22

                      Niseko to Sapporo, it is also possible to avoid tolls by using this route:
                      https://goo.gl/maps/YjRqBofRD4F2

                    • Piyo88 says:

                      Thanks for your great effort to find the route. How about driving from Sapporo to Niseko? is it toll free? How to check the toll rate? Need the HEP? Another thing I don’t understand is the ETC card. Why does the Toyota website say they don’t provide the ETC card at other outlets except the CTS one? Do you mean we must buy the ETC card ourselves? If we book a car from Toyota through the ToCoo website, is there anything different from getting direct from Toyota? Any concerns to look out for? They are a lot cheaper than getting direct from Toyota website but I worry also about the language barrier.

                    • bumblebeemum says:

                      Sapporo to Niseko is toll-free if you use the route I gave you above. However your GPS may ask you to take the route via Otaru and there will be a toll fee if you use that route. You can ask the car rental company if their GPS has the option to view 5 routes and choose the non-toll route from there. Most GPS I have used in Japan have this 5 routes option:
                      http://bumblebeemum.net/2015/07/07/how-to-use-japanese-gps-to-avoid-tollways/

                      Many car rental offices do not offer ETC cards because of administrative difficulties. Unfortunately if the office you are renting from does not offer an ETC card, you will have to find an ETC card elsewhere, for e.g. from Tocoo if you book through them.

                      Booking through Tocoo may or may not be cheaper. Usually Tocoo may display a good rate on car rental, but they will slap on their own compulsory fees later on. If you are going to book through Tocoo just for the sake of getting an ETC card from them, my advise is don’t bother and just do without an ETC card and pay tolls in cash. Because you are not using toll roads much.

                      You can try using Tabirai instead to see if it’s cheaper than booking direct from Toyota. Ever since Tocoo started imposing their own (confusing) fees, I stopped using them. I haven’t had the chance to use Tabirai myself, but it was recommended to me by another reader and it looks very straightforward and their rates look very competitive:
                      http://en.tabirai.net/car/

                    • BC says:

                      if i may add …

                      When booking thru ToCoo (or other agents), the rental agreement is still between u & Toyota. It’s like u book a hotel via expedia.

                      Agree with BBM u dont need the ETC for your itin.

                      ToCoo’s additional compulsory charges (ie TAS ToCoo Additional Support charges) r confusing but rest assured they are not hidden charges. You will see this item clearly listed in the cost breakdown.

                      I recently realised this TAS charge actually includes NOC insurance cover, which is usually an option with other car rental agencies. However, it operates differently. Under ToCoo TAS, in event of accident, you pay the NOC amount first then get reimbursement from ToCoo. Whereas other car firms, if u bought NOC Insurance, you dont have to pay first.

                      Secondly, ETC Card rental on ToCoo is per day (regardless of which car company). Other rental agencies or companies is per ETC rental which will be cheaper.

                      My bookings have been on japanese sites Jalan.net & Japanican. Have searched extensively with ToCoo & Tabirai, but always find better deals on Jalan & Japanican.

                    • Piyo88 says:

                      Thanks BBM and BC for your great help. Will need to go do more reading up and research. It’s such a blessing to have this site!

  • WT says:

    Hi bumblebeemum!

    I just came along your blog while googling n WOW its great with lots of useful information.

    Would like to ask you more about Hokkaido, hope you don’t mind. 🙂

    Its our first time(2 of us) going Hokkaido this coming Nov from 12-26. We would prefer to travel slow, taking our time to relax n explore the places. Most probably staying at least 2 days each area so we don’t have to check out n bring along the luggage everyday.

    Our initial plan is to travel by public transport as we feel it is better, but we are also interested in renting a car so we are still not very sure if it is cheaper/better as compare to taking public transport. And I have never drive in winter before.

    Is it safe to drive in Nov? How is parking charges like around Hakodate, Noboribetsu, Lake Toya and Asahikawa?

    We plan to visit the below places and stay put at Sapporo for the last few days before flying back.

    1)Hakodate
    2)Noboribetsu
    3)Lake Toya
    4)Asahikawa
    5)Otaru
    6)Sapporo

    Thank you very much and have a Good Day!

    • bumblebeemum says:

      I don’t think you need a car for the places you want to visit. Hakodate, Asahikawa, Otaru and Sapporo are easily accessible by train. As for Noboribetsu and Lake Toya, the onsen towns are a short cab ride from the nearest train station. I would probably go by rail if it’s just two person.

      • WT says:

        I see. thanks a lot.

        Any other place that is recommended to go during this period ?

        • bumblebeemum says:

          Hmm.. Within the same region, you can also visit Onuma Koen and Lake Shikotsu. If you want to experience snow, you can go to Niseko.

          • CT says:

            Can we still visit niseko in nov? Though we dont ski, but it looks beautiful . Maybe can go and have a look.

            We will be adding few days to tokyo. Is the JR East South Hokkaido pass worth it? We have nv taken shinkansen before, can also have a feel of it.

            Now trying to see if we can find good pricing for flying to narita and back from sapporo. If not will stick 2 way to narita or sapporo.

            • bumblebeemum says:

              Yup, you can definitely go to Niseko to take a look. Nobody will stop you, the hotels would probably love you. Hahaha.. The snowy mountains are beautiful, that’s true, but I wouldn’t stay more than a night if not skiing.

              If you are going to take the shinkansen to and fro Tokyo and Hokkaido, then yes, you should get the JR East South Hokkaido pass. But if you are only going to take the shinkansen one way, it depends on what other train routes you will be taking that will also be covered by the pass? You need to add up the train fares of all your train rides using Hyperdia and compare it to the price of the rail pass:
              http://www.hyperdia.com/en/

              • CT says:

                We are lucky to be able to get the tickets to NRT first and fly back from CTS to SG.

                The JR East South Pass seems gd for my usage but it does not covers Asahikawa. Not sure if it cover Kutchan too.
                Need to plan my itinerary tobmake full use of the 6 days flexi pass.

                Thanks alot

                • bumblebeemum says:

                  Yeah, that the downside of the JR East South Hokkaido pass – it only covers Southern Hokkaido up to Sapporo / Otaru and not any further. I think Kutchan should be covered since Kutchan is to the South of Otaru.

  • Jane says:

    Hi Queen Bee
    I just came across your blog and found a lot of useful info on Hokkaido. Thanks very much.

    We are a group of 8 (2 families). We will be in Hokkaido from the 22nd to the 31st of December this year. We have booked to stay in Sapporo city for 3 nights and then onto Rusutsu for 6 nights. At first I’m thinking of just getting private transfers from Sapporo city to Rusutsu and back. While in Sapporo I was going to catch public transport to go places and in Rusutsu we will just stay put and ski for 6 nights.

    Now that I have read your article I am considering hiring a mini van to explore. When on holidays to different cities we normally hire cars to get around when we can. However this time for Hokkaido I’m a bit concerned about driving in winter on unfamiliar roads (actually it will be my husband and his friend who will do all the driving).

    Is the road from Sapporo City to Rusutsu easy to drive? Could you please suggest some day trips we could do while in Sapporo as well as in Rusutsu?

    While we would mainly ski at Rusutsu we would also like to explore nearby places if we can and if we are bored with skiing in one place. It’s a shame that I didn’t read your blog before booking all our accommodation as I never thought of doing up an itinerary for a self-drive holiday. I read from a lot of Tripadvisor’s posts that cautioned people from driving in Hokkaido during winter.

    Is it that dangerous driving in Hokkaido in snowy condition in your opinion? Do the cars come with snow chains or with special winter tyres? Did you pick up the car from the airport? What car rental company did you use? Is it easy to find parking in Sapporo city?

    Sorry for bombarding you with a lot of questions. Thanks very much in advance.

    • Queen Bee says:

      If your purpose is just to visit Rusutsu, there is really no need to drive or hire a mini van. There is a direct bus between Rusutsu and Sapporo:
      http://www.hokkaido-rusutsu.com/access/from-sapporo.htm

      Yes, driving in Hokkaido in winter definitely has its dangers. We have written about driving in Hokkaido in winter on the following post:
      http://bumblebeemum.net/2015/08/29/free-easy-hokkaido-winter-trip-essential-travel-tips/

      We have always driven with snow tyres – which should come as a default when you rent a car in Hokkaido in winter. But just in case, just tick the option for snow tyre during booking if there’s one. I never had to use a snow chain.

      I’ve used many car rental companies before. I have also picked up from both CTS and Sapporo before. You can try a comparison website like Tabirai:
      http://en.tabirai.net/car/

      Parking is easy to find in Sapporo – there are plenty of coin parking within the city.

      As for day trips from Sapporo, you can visit Otaru or Asahiyama Zoo. Neither of this would require a car.

  • Siew Lan says:

    Hi Bumblebee mum, need you advise whether to drive or take JR for my itinerary:
    Arrive ON 18 nov 4pm at Chitose, go straight to Otaru
    Day 2 otaru to Niseko
    Day 3 Niseko to Hakodate
    Day 4 Hakodate to Sapporo
    Rest of few day in Sapporo
    I was thinking t drive for first 4 days till sapporo return car. Do you think is go idea to drive or should i just take train all the way? We have family of 4, all adults.
    Thank you.

  • Peter says:

    Hi
    I enjoy reading your blog. I am going Hokkaido this Dec. May I know how long will i need to take to drive from Hakodate to niseko? And will there be many upslope and downslope along the way? Thanks

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