Planning a Self-Drive Holiday in Hokkaido, Japan

Cars and Not Trains:

When I think Japan the first thing that comes to my mind is a bullet train. Imagine my surprise when a friend suggested a self-drive holiday in Japan to an island near Russia! Hokkaido, a scenic island towards the northern end of Japan with coastlines along the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk is a popular destination for tourists. With its beautiful volcanic mountains (don’t worry, there have been no eruptions since 1850), natural forests and National Parks declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO it is not hard to understand the magical pull of the island.

Burrrr … It’s Nice & Chilly Here

Did I mention Hokkaido is near Russia? Yeah, I’m still trying to get over it. We all know what that means – cold! The island has a very harsh winter with lots of snow. If you are a skier or are into winter sport, this is the place for you. Snowfall of up to 11 meters has been recorded on the eastern side of Hokkaido. Tourists flock to the area between November and March despite the icy weather to enjoy outdoor winter sport and to participate in the Sparrow Snow Festival. For those not excited by outdoor sport, this famous Japanese holiday destination offers good excuses to visit.

Sleeping on a Woven Straw-Mat?

Accommodations for people with all kinds of budgets are available. You can get a Western style 5-star hotel or you can book into a Japanese style rooms with woven straw mats for bedding. You can enjoy either a Western or Japanese style lodging within your budget – backpackers, celebrities, businessmen, pensioners – Hokkaido has something to offer everyone.

Seafood so Fresh that Some of Them Still Moves!

Dishes in Hokkaido are made simply and are reliant on their natural flavors. Common restaurant specialties include scallops, salmon and crab. You must try the famous lamb barbecue called Genghis Kahn easily available at beer halls all over the city. It comes with different sauces that are unique to the restaurant you are eating at and is usually paired with the famous Sapporo beer.

Ramen shops are scattered throughout the streets on the island’s main cities like Sapporo (capital of Hokkaido), Asahikawa and Hakodate. Noodles served in soy sauce, miso sauce or simple salt-flavored sauces are a favorite with tourists. Their popularity is evident by the fact that whole streets sell nothing but noodles that you can devour sitting by walls covered in autographs from celebrities from around the world.

In summers, the famous local melons are ready to be picked. Being the main vegetable producing area in Japan, the fresh and natural flavors of locally grown vegetables like onions, asparagus and potatoes add a hint of magic to the most mundane dishes.

Tourists can also find Chinese restaurants in the area as well as ones catering halal food to Muslim customers.

The Perfect Hokkaido Drive Holiday Itinerary

Be careful while planning your holiday. Though the distances may not seem like a lot on the map, yet it takes a long time to get from one place to another. It would be wisest to pick a certain area of the Island and explore that fully rather than doing a touch-and-go trip all over.

If you are planning to visit the southern part of the Island, 5 nights and 6 days should be enough. Your starting point should be Sapporo. I’ll share my trip breakdown to make it easier for you to plan the holiday.

Romantic Otaru – Start your holiday by flying into Sapporo and picking a car from the Chitose Airport. The scenic port city of Otaru is only a 25 minutes ride from Sapporo and is frequented by Russian and Japanese tourists. Its main attraction is a canal running through the city adorned by Victorian style lamps giving it a very romantic feel. It’s a joy to behold especially at night when the lamps come on. If possible plan your trip in February to enjoy the Snow Light Path Festival. Floating candles are placed in the canal and lanterns are displayed in the snow along its side. Stay at the Dormy Inn Premium Hotel. It’s only a 10 minutes’ walk to the canal, the staff speaks English and it’s comfortable plus inexpensive. Did I mention it has a free Onsen?

Ski-Haven Niseko – On the second day, head for the famous ski-resort city of Niseko. Take the southern route to see the breathtaking Shakotan Peninsula. The deep blue color of the sea reminds many of the Great Sea of Italy. Take a quick half an hour boat ride – it’s worth the slight delay in reaching Niseko. Along the way, take out some time to stop over at Iwanai and visit the famous Japanese Whiskey distillery, Nikka Whiskey. Upon arriving in Niseko, head straight for the wonderful spring baths it has to offer. Niseko United is where four of the city’s main ski resorts are located. You can ski them all on one lift joint lift ticket. Hilton Niseko Village is a joy to stay in. It offers free parking, a view of Mountain Yotei from your room, a business center, and multiple restaurants catering to different palettes. If you are traveling on a budget, try the Green leaf Niseko Village Hotel. It features an indoor and outdoor Onsen and offers a free breakfast buffet.

Night-Lights Hakodate – Travel to Hakodate the next day. Devour some sushi, taste the salmon caviar, experience the city’s famous squid. After getting your energy back get a cable car or drive yourself up Mount Hakodate to enjoy the world-renowned night lights. La Vista Hakodate Bay is one of the top hotels in the city and is conveniently situated near Mount Hakodate.

Transparent Toya – You can’t visit Hokkaido and not visit Lake Toya. The lake remains unfrozen even in the harsh Hokkaido winters and is considered one of the most transparent lakes in Japan. Before reaching Lake Toya, take a short break and spend some time at the Onuma National Park. For a luxurious experience, stay at the Toya Kanko Hotel with its sauna and open-air spa facilities.

Fun Shikotsu – On Day 5, start your self-drive holiday driving towards Lake Shikotsu. Stop over at the Rusutsu Resort Amusement Park for some fun. Ski down the perfect powder snow slopes, race around in snow-mobiles, or go horseback riding through the snowy-trails. Get the adrenaline pumping and head out for your last stop on an exciting Hokkaido holiday. Lake Shikotsu gets its fame from not only being the northern-most lake that does not freeze during winters but also from being a part of the Shikotsu National Park. If you are still feeling the adrenaline rush from the Rusutsu Resort, climb up Mount Tarumae. An active volcano, the summit offers a gorgeous view of Lake Shikotsu. The Dormy Inn Tomakomai is located 16 miles from Lake Shikotsu and offers a free sauna.

Sushi, locally brewed beer, relaxing spas, beautiful snow-capped mountains, untouched natural forests – if this sounds like your perfect holiday then you want to visit Hokkaido. Arigato gozaimasu. (Yes, learning a little Japanese is a good idea to gel in with the locals).

Cheat Sheet

Roadside rest stations provide some of the following features to make your already amazing drive more pleasant, and they also take the role as a window into regional culture. Expect the following:

  • Free parking, clean restrooms, payphones
  • Staffed or automated information facilities
  • Shops selling local specialties
  • Snack shops, restaurants

Hokkaido has more than a hundred roadside stations. Each of them has a unique identity giving you an introduction into their region’s culture.

Tired of daily traffic woes and never ending placement of traffic lights in cities? You’ll enjoy some of the world’s most crisp air while cruising in Hokkaido. Just make sure you follow the traffic regulations in Japan and don’t end up ruining your memory of a once in a lifetime amazing drive holiday.

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