Taking the wheel in Hokkaido

Self-drive holidays are exciting. One, the journey wouldn’t be at the hands of travel agents, who either shuttle you from place to place with little breathing space or usher you to their ‘partner’ merchants. Two – and more importantly – I get to drive. Driving isn’t a chore, like it is to others. Tired as I may be, put me at the wheel and the energy bar tops itself up. It just defies logic.

First Things First

You can’t take the wheel in Japan without an International Driving Permit or IDP. Thankfully, applying for one is super painless – online application + get it delivered to your mailbox within a week or two for $20 + $4. Without this essential document, you wouldn’t be able to rent a car in Japan. Please also remember to bring along your Singapore driving licence and passport too.

Getting a Car


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Pink decal for foreign drivers

In Japan, car manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan don’t just sell new cars; they also provide short-term rentals. These options are more well-known, just based on Google search results. There are lesser known ones which require further digging. Through friends of friends and after thorough price comparison, we decided on OTS Rent-a-Car. Other options include ORIX Rent-a-Car and Nippon Rent-a-Car.

Why OTS? OTS provided the cheapest quote for the features it offered.

We got an almost-brand new 6-seater Toyota Voxy Hybrid (known as Noah in Singapore) with in-built English-speaking GPS (more on this later), an Electronic Toll Collection card and reader combo (without which expressway travels would be inconvenient), a Hokkaido expressway pass for unlimited expressway use (road tolls will cost a bomb without this) and very importantly, two motorised sliding doors (just because). All these and more, at over a couple of hundred of SGD cheaper than the competition.

To enjoy the lowest possible prices for OTS, you gotta submit your reservation four months prior to your trip. OTS would not deduct any amount till you collect the car. In fact, OTS doesn’t even take down your credit card details. Things may change in the future; enjoy while it lasts.

OTS rental cars are available at Okinawa, Hokkaido, Chushikoku Areas, and it allows you to collect the car from one office and return it at another. Just gotta pay a convenience fee for this privilege.


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | The Voxy, thankfully not us, caught many bugs. With only 400km under its belt at point of collection, I felt bad to see so many dead bugs on it. Had wanted to send it for a car wash. Such an eye sore. haha


Google Maps work in Japan, but you wouldn’t get far relying on it. Unless the Points-of-Interests are really touristy places, locations are typically labelled in Japanese. Don’t know how to type in Japanese? It’s best you rely on Map Code.

Locations in Japan are identified using a string of numbers called Map Code. For example, the Map Code for Hakodate Kokusai Hotel is 86 072 033*58. So, instead of typing ‘Hakodate Kokusai Hotel’ into the car’s GPS unit, you gotta type in the above-mentioned string of numbers. The GPS unit wouldn’t recognise English entries.

How to get Map Codes? Search for them on the World Wide Web, or ask your friendly car rental car company to provide you a list of popular destinations and their corresponding Map Codes.

On The Road


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Pay close attention to the lights.

The lights in Japan can be confusing. The green arrows are pretty faint, and at some junctions there can be as many as three different directional arrows. In the above scenario, only left turns and straight-ahead passes are allowed. STOP for the rest.

Pump It


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Cosmo fuel station in Hokkaido

The RED pumps are like our Regular fuel. Most cars would just need the RED pumps. Pump prices can vary quite drastically. Hakodate stations offered the cheapest fuel at ~120 Yen/litre. The more ‘ulu’ the town, the more expensive the juice gets. It reached as high as 140 Yen/litre – a difference of about 50 cents/ litre.

Want to save some $? Pump at self-service/ unmanned stations. No lack of such pumps in all the towns we went.


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | A self-service pump. Accepts payment at the pump itself. Change is disbursed either at the pump itself or a nearby change collection machine.



PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | Didn’t get to give such self-service parking lots a go.

Expect to pay for parking, from hotels to parks and tourist hotspots. Parking at hotels could cost over 1,000 Yen a night. And the price also differs according to car size. The larger your car, the more expensive it would get.

Road Signs


PHOTO | BIG_MOUSE | One of the least cluttered roads in Hokkaido. Typically, you will be treated to a mesh of power cables and overhead structures as well as road and tsunami warning signs.

Importantly, look out for 速度 signs along the expressways. Fixed speed cameras await you. Another way to tell is to monitor closely the driving behaviour of locals. With the expressway speed limit at 80km/h, you will definitely be tempted to go faster. Roads within towns are generally around 50km/h. Crawling.


Click here for the Itinerary in Summary; details in the following articles:

Protip #1: Taking the wheel in Hokkaido [You are here]
Protip #2: Enjoying some rest in the restroom
Protip #3: Avoiding bill shock at restaurants
Protip #4: Chilling and dropping off at convenience stores
Protip #5: Taking the Dreamliner Boeing 787


11 thoughts on “Taking the wheel in Hokkaido

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