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Friday, September 23, 2016

Hokkaido Autumn Road Trip 2016 - Driving in Hokkaido

1. Why we decided to drive?
2. Getting International Driving Permit
3. Renting a Car
4. Driving on Expressway and National Highways
5. Road Safety and differences with Malaysia
6. Petrol
7. Daylight Hours and Weather Conditions
8. Parking
9. Navigation

Our rented car from Day 2 to Day 6. Subaru Impreza

1. Why we decided to drive?
Hokkaido is a vast, sparse island, imagine the size of Peninsula Malaysia.  Each town is far from each other and there's many things to see along the way. Driving is a convenient way to see more of the island, especially if we are going to the rural areas. Our route is around 1200km, of which is almost the same as if you make a loop trip from KL-Ipoh-Kota Bahru-Kuala Terengganu-Kuantan-KL. And if I go really north up to Wakannai, it's like KL-Georgetown, and if I go to Hakodate, its almost like KL-Kerteh. So Hokkaido is BIG!

If you have been to Tokyo or Osaka, Hokkaido is quite different as it's not as public transport friendly. The place is big and the population is sparse. Many attractions are not within public transport means, or maybe just the place I am interested to visit.

Getting a JR Hokkaido Pass is not any much cheaper, plus time is precious spent waiting for public transport.. so, to us, we prefer driving.

In Japan, people drive on the left side of the road, and the driver is on the right side of the car. So, it's the same as how we drive here in Malaysia.

This route is more than 1200km, further than Tokyo-Osaka-Tokyo

2. International Driving Permit

To rent a car, we need to get International Driving Permit (IDP) from JPJ.
No IDP, no car.

Both my husband and I applied for the permits. Insurance will be void if anything happens when one drives without IDP there. So, I have to get one too, if I want to help my husband and take over the wheel once a while.

To apply
1. Went to Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan (JPJ). Arrived and head to Bahagian Perlesenan. We brought ONE passport sized photo each.
2. Get a queue number, sit down and wait.
3. When it was our turn,  we showed them our actual Driving License and Identity Card (No photostated copies needed) and paid RM150 in cash, each.
4. Sat down and wait until the permit was ready, and the offficer called us to collect the permit in about 10 minutes time.

We got the permit done on that day itself. After we received our permit, we checked whether they've got the right places stamped. Locally, passenger cars on our driving license are classified as D, but on this permit, it's B. One friend told me, when he was in Japan, he witnessed one Malaysian lady not allowed to collect her car, because the permit was wrongly stamped. So, we checked properly to ensure B is stamped.

When I got home, I double checked my permit, and I found that my picture was not firmly stuck on. I think they used glue stick, so I 'fortified' it with double sided tape. I won't want my picture  to drop off (unknowingly) from the permit when I'm in Hokkaido.

3. Renting a Car

There are a few options that we can reserve car rental online in English.
1. Toyota Rent a Car (2 Toyota rental companies with branches in different locations)
2. Toyota Rent-a-lease
3. Nippon Rent a Car
4. Tocoo 
5. Times Car Rental

Here are the screenshots of the rental simulations I tried out if I wanted to rent a car for 6 days. Prices shown are for the regular period for a car in the same class. Take note that renting cars in July and August cost a lot more.

 The first one will be Toyota. The rates are the same between both Toyota rental companies. There are no additional insurance paid, and there is an option to pay around 1000yen a day for full insurance coverage.

On the left is Nippon Rent-a-car and the price is 43349yen with basic coverage plus free 50k Collision Damage Waiver (CDW). Free CDW only comes with Long Term Plan Promotion (more than 3 days). Basically it's more worth it than Toyota because of the free CDW.

On the right is Times Car Rental at 39960yen with basic insurance (3rd party), and if you want CDW, you need to add 500yen/day to the that figure. This is more worth it than Toyota as both comes with just basic 3rd party insurance and Times is comparatively cheaper. This site provides good information about Car Rental Insurance. The insurance rates are similar with the major rental companies.

And then below will be Tocoo's rates. Tocoo is like an agent, doing online booking for car rental companies. One can choose to rent from the major companies through Tocoo. The prices displayed are far cheaper than the actual companies. And the price for Time's cars on Tocoo seemed far far cheaper!
Very attractive! But wait........

First I saw it was this price......... then................they say it's TOTAL price, but it's not!

As I clicked, they showed me the price with 8% GST.

Then comes all the additional MUST add-ons.
ETC rental is charged per day unlike other car rentals that charges per rental.

It comes up to 35,776yen if I am renting from Tocoo... still cheaper. I didn't put in ETC card per day rental rate yet. The ETC card doesn't come with the car, I need to collect it from elsewhere or get it sent to my hotel, and get charged accordingly later. I don't think this idea seems good.

And as I was browsing Time's site, I saw a promotion banner on their homepage.
"Enjoy Hokkaido! 25% OFF with Complimentary Green Tea!"

I am not looking forward to the Green Tea, I want the 25% off, and the price is just slightly more than Tocoo. I really don't mind playing less than 1k extra to reduce the hassle of not being sure of my ETC card charges.

So, in the end, we rented our car from Times, of which is just a stone's throw away from our hotel in Susukino, just across the street. They said in their website, they have English hotline. That's is very important to us. Although arrangements can be made for them to send the car over to the hotel, but having one just nearby our hotel is just easier and cost efficient. I decided to split the rent to 11-15 Sept (5 days) and 16 Sept (11 hours). I saved a few thousand yen by doing this because I will be back in Sapporo on 15th, and by returning the car, I don't need to pay for overnight parking and overnight rental cost more than just renting it for less than 12 hours. That's why getting a hotel nearby is important, LOL.

day 7: Mazda Demio

When we collected our car for the first time (for 11/9 to 16/9), our reserved subcompact car was upgraded for free to a Subaru Impreza and on 17/9, we received the Mazda Demio according to what we reserved.

4. Driving on Expressways (Tolled) and National Highways (Free)

Expressways are expensive, when compared to our local rates on PLUS. Seriously they are. There is a prepaid toll card called the Hokkaido Expressway Pass that is available from car rental companies where you pay a flat rate according to days and go on unlimited drives on the expressway, as long as it's within the period you paid for. But we didn't. We just took a regular ETC card where were we will be charged according to how we use it. I didn't take the prepaid ETC Pass because I calculated my toll charges prior to my trip. We won't be using a lot of expressways as we prefer to use the National highways, there's just more to see!  It's not compulsory to get an ETC card, but it's more convenient, like the local Touch 'n' Go card, but post paid.

In short
Hokkaido Expressway Pass ----> Flat rate per day, pre-paid
ETC----> Post paid, charged according to usage.

Both cards use the same device, the ETC in-vehicle device. And the ETC toll booth is similar to the Malaysian highways Smart Tag booth, where you must slow down and wait for the boomgate to lift.

ETC 'in-vehicle' device

Expressways speed limits is 70-100km/h and national highways limit is 40-60km/h. There aren't much signboards indicating speed allowed, so, just stay within these speed limits. From Google Map, we found out that there wasn't much time difference in travelling time. Expressways can sometimes be single laned and not possible to overtake, especially around the mountainous areas, and there are sooooo many single laned tunnels. National Highways have double lanes as well. I wonder, why pay exorbitant prices for the Expressway for a 10-20% time savings. It's unlike Malaysia where we can save the driving time by more than half, at times.

Left: Toll charges from Day 2-6, Right: Toll charges from a round trip Sapporo-Otaru

We actually went on Google Map and tried out the route before deciding this, and hubby said, it's a new place to us, it's better to slowly drive and savour the scenery. It's not that we didn't use the Expressway at all, we did, but the amount we used was indeed way lesser that the prepaid amount for 6 days. Remember that to buy or not to buy the Expressway Pass depends on the route one is going. But if one finds it troublesome to check the price and compare, then just get the pass.

While we were there, many people were driving above the speed limit, and not just 10kph more, but way more. Just don't get caught. People speed on Expressways and National Highways, just not in the city or town area, this is just what we observed, not advocating, hahaha.

some of the Michi No Eki we visited

When we were driving along the national roads in Hokkaido, I always look for routes with Michi No Eki. These are road stations that one can visit for a break. Just visit this site and one will be able to see the locations of the road stations, or what we call as R&R here. They call it road station or Michi No eki. 24 hour toilet, food, drink and local produce are available at the stations. Sometimes, they are set up in strategic places with a bit of sightseeing of local attractions, and even experiencing things like horse riding or foot onsen. Visiting a michi no eki will let one have a feel of that town's culture, and the best way to get local souvenirs.

5. Road safety and differences with Malaysia

a. Speed limits
There are few things that we noticed as we drove in Hokkaido. The speed limit is lower compared to Malaysia. It is understandable as in Winter, it can get really slippery, or when there's a storm or typhoon. But when I went in early Autumn, the clear clean roads just tempt us to go above the speed limit. Some says... it's ok to drive 10kph above the limit. True? Do you dare?

We didn't see any speed cameras but we got stopped by a police once in Shiranuka. The road sign says 50kph, but I think my husband was driving about 70-80kph, unknowingly since the road was quite 'quiet', and not in the town area. One police patrol car followed us and turned on the siren telling us to stop aside. The police officer asked my husband for his International Driving Permit and gently, verbally, advised us to drive only 60kph (remember the road sign says 50kph). No written warning or ticket was issued. Phew!

b. Road signs to destinations are in English and Japanese. So, we could know the next town ahead without problems. Road safety signs are usually without English. But I think it's rather universal with the shape and colour. Only the words are in Japanese. For example the Stop sign in Malaysia has the word 'Berhenti' and theirs is in in Japanese.
But there is this sign blue 停. It means stop. I will usually see this sign on roads where there are shops. My car rental company told me that we can park there for 5 minutes only, if we see this blue 停 sign.Maybe it's for people who wants to hop into the shops to quickly buy something.

see, there's English :)

c. The road lines are different. Single solid lines means can overtake, but with caution. Yellow solid lines means no overtaking. Single yellow lines in Hokkaido are not exactly equivalent to our double white solid lines. Their double white solid lines are 'overtake-able'. Different right? Although you can't overtake at the single yellow lines, you can turn right if you wanted to go to your destination on the other side of the road.

no overtaking, but you can turn right.

d. Traffic lights. Oh how we fear turning right!
Most of the traffic lights in Hokkaido work this way. If our way turns green, the opposite way is green as well. And if one needs to turn right, one needs to wait until traffic from the opposite side eases, there are no traffic lights to help you turn right. There were times, when we past 2 green light turns just to turn right because the opposite direction was too busy.

If one needs to turn left, one needs to be very very careful and look out for pedestrians, don't just turn left as you wish, thinking that the light is green. When the light is green, the pedestrians light on the left also turns green! Sama-sama green! It's actually quite dangerous as there can be bicycles speeding past the pedestrian green light and we might not notice them. Bicycles in Hokkaido uses pedestrian walk way and pedestrian traffic lights, so take note of that.

Very rarely there are specific traffic lights for turning left or right. We did see a few in Sapporo city but it was rare. You need to be very cautious and brave to turn left or right. It's not like in Malaysia when it turns green, you just drive without much worry. No, on Hokkaido, be cautious, be careful all the time, especially when turning.

5. Child safety.
Children 6 and under, must be in a Child Car Seat. Everyone must wear safety belts. This time, we didn't bring kids along. maybe our next trip, we will.

6. Petrol
Petrol stations or Service Stations in Hokkaido usually have people serving customers. Since we can't speak, we just told the attendant 'Mantan' each time, which meant, full tank. Petrol price during our visit was around 115yen/L. But the price varies among stations and it fluctuates daily .

Petrol stations there aren't quite the same as Malaysia's petrol stations. There are toilets and vending machines  or maybe tyre service center, but it's not like here where most probably there is convenience shop as well. I only saw Eneos have Dr Drive, of which is a small scale convenience store.

We just stayed in our car, and the attendants will wipe our windscreens, pump our petrol, bring the bill over, and get us our change. We only sat in the car. We used our Malaysian issued Citibank Visa to pay and it was accepted. Cash payment is also ok.
Both cars we rented used the red regular petrol. 

7. Daylight, Weather Conditions and back up plan
Hokkaido can be quite wild. There are some areas where we drove for almost 2 hours without a residential area or a petrol station. So, depending on where one plans to go to, take into account daylight period. We don't think it is safe to be driving on pitch dark roads, in places which might not have any phone reception. Yes, Hokkaido isn't fully covered with mobile connection. We tried to reach the city before dark. The daylight period during our trip was from 5am to 5.30pm. 6am felt like our 8am and 6pm felt like 8pm.

see the signs?

September is typhoon season and from mid August up til the day we went, 5 typhoons/storms have hit Hokkaido, with 3 landing on Hokkaido itself, which is a rare incident. Many roads were closed. I checked my route using this website. Some of my routes were affected by the previous typhoons and so, repair work was being carried out. I saw that the affected routes were only open for traffic from 8am to 5pm. So, we must pass that route before it closes. One of our planned route has to be rerouted as the road has collapsed and won't reopen until 2018.

I planned to go to Ginsendai to see Autumn foliage, but I found out from the website that the mountain route was closed after Typhoon Mindule. So, I could only try my luck at Kurodake mountain. It won't be nice to make an effort to drive to one place and finding out the road leading to our destination is closed.

When we were there, I checked the weather everyday.  Each morning, before we step out of the hotel or before it turns dark, I will go to JMA to check on the 3 hourly forecast. I checked for rain, checked for fog. Some coastal areas, like Kushiro can be foggy on some days, especially in summer and early autumn. Sometimes very foggy. And not forgetting mountain roads like the one from Sounkyo to Kitami. When I planned to drive from Kushiro to Obihiro via the coastal road, I told my husband, if ever the weather conditions aren't good, we should reroute to the Expressway. The coastal road is very scenic, but in bad weather conditions, I think it's a bad idea. In some areas, it's only few meters away from the sea line. A small rented car could easily flip if the wind is very strong.

Good precise information from JMA

Have a back up plan if weather conditions aren't favourable.
Have a back up route if the road to your planned destination is closed.

From what I read, driving in Winter is a lot more challenging and one will need special tires and equipment.

8. Parking
During our trip, we encountered few types of parking facilities. Parking in cities are not free, but out there in the countryside, it's usually free. Only 1 hotel that we stayed in provided free parking.

We didn't like automated tiered parking, but it's common at hotels. We drove right up to the parking entrance. Straighten the car, drove in accordingly. Open the boot and got all the stuff that one will need for the night. It's quite cumbersome as we felt pressured to get our stuff while the parking attendant is waiting to do the next step, that is to close the parking door and lift the car to its position.

Here's a video of us parking at a multi tiered parking.

9. Navigation
Internet sites will say use Map Code. But nah.... we got to everywhere without Map Code.
Our main navigation system is Google Map and Hokkaido's offline map is a MUST, if one is going to the mountainous areas. Set your travel map on your phone before the trip, or if not, get the google map location noted somewhere online for record. See here

But Google map goes crazy in Sapporo during heavy traffic, namely, 5-8pm, when people get off work.

So, what will be reliable if Google Map goes crazy? Use the car's navigation and punch in the phone number. In the beginning, I was confused with how to punch in the number, as it always came out as 'not in database'.

Let's say the number is  (+81-11-640-3768), take note that 81 is the country code. Just like Malaysia's country code is 60.
Take away the 81 and add a '0' to the remaining numbers and it will work, just like this 0116403768.

Our first car, Subaru Impreza came with a full English GPS, but our second car, the Mazda Demio came with a half English half Japanese GPS. It displays in Japanese but voiced in English. Knowing a bit of Chinese will help a lot. So, if a sub-compact car is rented, do make sure you learn how to use the GPS when you collect the car.
Full English GPS

Useful Links for Driving in Hokkaido
1. Expressway Toll Rates
2. Road Safety (with advice targeted at tourist from specific countries)
3. Traffic Offence and Fines
4. Hokkaido Expressway Pass 
5. ETC system
6. How to pump petrol in Hokkaido
7. Michi No Eki Stops
8. Japan Meteorology Agency 3 hourly forecast
9. Checking for road closures in Hokkaido
9. Handbook for Driving in Hokkaido

Hokkaido Early Autumn Road Trip 2016

1. Planning the trip - 9 things to think of
2. Driving in Hokkaido - 9 points to consider
3. Part 1 - Sapporo
4. Part 2 - Furano and Biei 
5. Part 3 - Asahikawa and Sounkyo
6. Part 4 - Abashiri
7. Part 5 - Teshikaga (Kussharo, Mashu, Mount Iou)
8. Part 6 - Kushiro
9. Part 7 - Obihiro and Tokachi Subprefecture
10. Part 8 - Yoichi and Otaru
11. Part 9 - Sapporo again and going home.
12. Hotels we stayed in Hokkaido
13. Shopping in Hokkaido
14. Things to Eat and Drink in Hokkaido


Angeline アンゼリン September 23, 2016 at 2:07 PM  

You and your hubby very geng! So what about the kids? tag along as well?

Angeline アンゼリン September 27, 2016 at 12:57 PM  

Got it... just you and your hubby only.

Azlin September 22, 2018 at 8:31 AM  

Hi ..i'll used this one as my references. Great information.

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