Family-friendly and just the right amount of outdoorsy, it’s totally easy to see why Hokkaido is one of Singaporeans’ most beloved holiday destinations. And now that budget airlines Scoot and Jetstar both fly to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido’s capital city Sapporo, a trip to Hokkaido doesn’t cost an arm and a leg like it used to.
But while flying into Hokkaido is easy enough (though be prepared for a multi-leg journey and at least 9 hours in total on a plane!), getting around the massive island is another story altogether. Because Hokkaido’s attractions are quite spread out and not very well-connected by public transport, renting a car is almost mandatory.
I’ve put together a first-timer’s guide to understanding the car rental options and prices, as well as some very important things to know about planning your first self-drive holiday in Hokkaido.
- When and why consider car rental in Hokkaido?
- Which are the major car rental companies in Hokkaido?
- Car rental aggregators vs direct – which is cheaper?
- Which type of car should you rent in Hokkaido?
- GPS, internet & finding your way around
- Hokkaido expressway toll fees, HEP & ETC card
- Are there alternatives to car rental in Hokkaido?
When and why consider car rental in Hokkaido?
In case you missed it the first time round: Hokkaido is huge. Freaking huge. The total land area is 83,454 km², which is more than 100 times the size of Singapore.
Although Sapporo is a wonderful city with lots to see and do (and eat), if you want to fully experience Hokkaido’s natural wonders, you’ll inevitably need to cover fairly large distances. Here are some of the most popular attractions and how far they are from the capital:
- Otaru (port city): 38 km from Sapporo
- Niseko (ski resorts): 90 km from Sapporo
- Lake Toya: 91 km from Sapporo
- Noboribetsu (hot springs): 119 km from Sapporo
- Asahikawa (Asahiyama Zoo): 137 km from Sapporo
- Biei (Hokkaido’s famous patchwork fields): 163 km from Sapporo
- Hakodate (historic city): 310 km from Sapporo
- Shiretoko National Park: 421 km from Sapporo
If you’re the kind who’s too lazy to drive from your house to the nearest shopping mall, this list will probably make you balk. However, driving around Hokkaido is, arguably, a whole lot more scenic and enjoyable than driving through Punggol Central.
More than the beautiful scenery, however, the main reason to rent a car in Hokkaido is pure convenience. Hokkaido does not have a robust public transport network, so for many of these must-see places, driving is the most efficient and cost-effective way to get there and (when you’re there) get around.
However, one big issue to consider is how comfortable you are driving such long distances, and in potentially challenging weather.
I’m not going to mince words: driving in Hokkaido in winter can be very dangerous. Think heavy snow, iced-over roads, darkness by late afternoon, and low visibility.
If you’re getting the jitters already, feel free to jump to the last section for some alternatives to self-driving in Hokkaido. But if you’re up for trying something new, read on for a primer to the car rental options in Hokkaido.
Which are the major car rental companies in Hokkaido?
Visit any Hokkaido travel forum and you’ll be confronted with a bewildering bunch of names being thrown around. To cut through the clutter, there are basically two types of companies you can go through to find a rental car.
First, there are the car rental companies themselves, such as:
- Toyota Rent A Car
- Nippon Rent-A-Car
- Orix Rent-A-Car
- Nissan Rent a Car
- Times Car Rental
- JR Eki Rent-A-Car
- Honda Rent-A-Car
Notice that many of these are car makers themselves, so if you have a preferred brand (perhaps because that’s the car you drive in Singapore) or already know which rental company you want, there’s nothing stopping you from going direct to the rental company.
For those who want to shop around, there are also a lot of aggregators and travel booking sites where you can more easily compare prices and get promotional deals:
- Tocoo (probably the most popular site with cheapest deals, but a bit confusing)
- Rakuten Travel (for those looking for a particular car, cars here are listed by make and model)
- Japan Experience
- Jalan.net (Japan B&B and ryokan booking site, has a car rental aggregator but it’s in Japanese only)
- Kakuyasu (no price comparison feature, but allows you to look at the car rental packages specs easily)
- Klook (non-aggregator, sells only Orix car rental packages)
- KKDay (non-aggregator, sells only Budget car rental packages)
Most of the aggregators are quite simple to use, and often you’ll find better prices than from the car rental company’s website. However, it can’t hurt to go back to the company and ask if they’ll match the price.
When choosing a car rental company, you should read independent user reviews carefully. Although travel scams aren’t an issue in Hokkaido, you still want to go with a company of some repute, just so you’re assured that the car is in well-maintained condition, and the after-sales support (e.g. if your car breaks down) is good.
Car rental aggregators vs direct – which is cheaper?
Just like how we at MoneySmart constantly nag at you guys to comparison shop before signing up for a credit card or home loan, the same SOP goes for car rental in Hokkaido. There’s a HUGE range of prices available through the different car rental companies and aggregators.
Here, let me run the numbers and show you what I’m talking about. Parameters:
- Rental duration of 3 days / 48 hours / 24 hours + 1 day
- Pick up and drop off at New Chitose Airport
- Dates are omitted for most. If forced to enter a date range, I used 1 Dec 2018 (12pm) to 3 Dec 2018 (12pm)
- Selected cheapest car with the passenger capacity
- Ignored Kei (ultra-compact cars), electric and luxury cars
|Car rental company||Compact car (5 seater)||Minivan/SUV (7 seater)|
|Tocoo (Car Rental Hokkaido)||¥5,556 (S$67.29)||¥10,186 (S$123.36)|
|Tocoo (Honda Rent-A-Car)||¥7,800 (S$94.47)||¥13,200 (S$159.87)|
|Rakuten Travel (Times Car Rental)||¥10,068 (S$121.93)||¥20,054 (S$242.87)|
|Tabirai (Times Car Rental)||¥10,300 (S$124.74)||¥17,300 (S$209.52)|
|Tocoo (Budget)||¥10,773 ($130.47)||¥17,075 (S$206.80)|
|Rakuten Travel (Orix)||¥10,811 ($130.93)||¥24,675 (S$298.84)|
|Honda Rent-A-Car||¥12,420 (S$150.48)||¥17,820 (S$215.90)|
|Toyota Rent A Car||¥12,960 (S$157.02)||¥22,680 (S$274.79)|
|Nippon Rent-A-Car||¥12,960 (S$157.02)||¥22,680 (S$274.79)|
|Budget||¥12,960 (S$157.02)||¥24,300 (S$294.41)|
|JR Eki Rent-A-Car||¥12,960 (S$157.02)||¥21,600 (S$261.70)|
|Times Car Rental||¥14,040 (S$170.11)||¥23,976 (S$290.49)|
|Nissan Rent a Car||¥17,280 (S$209.36)||¥35,856 (S$434.43)|
|Orix Rent-A-Car||¥17,820 (S$215.90)||¥17,820 (S$215.90)|
As you can see, some of the prices on aggregators like Tocoo, Rakuten and Tabirai are insanely cheap. And not all the cheap rates are from unknown rental companies like Car Rental Hokkaido either.
What gives? A quick glance at the rental packages shows that a lot of the cheapest rates don’t allow you to select the car model you want.
Unless you’re a very seasoned driver, this could be a dealbreaker. You probably don’t want to waste precious holiday time trying to figure out how to drive a weird little Japanese car when you could be driving a familiar Toyota Altis instead.
By the way, winter is low season in Hokkaido, so you benefit from cheaper rates during this period. High season is Golden Week (late April to early May) and summer (July to August) and you can expect a surcharge then.
Which type of car should you rent in Hokkaido?
You probably already have a car size and type in mind based on the group you’re travelling with, but since there are subtle differences in naming and categorising conventions, I’ve compiled a list of common car types you’ll encounter when looking up car rental in Hokkaido:
|Car class||Description||No. of seats||Ideal for|
|K (Kei, Mini, 660cc)||Ultra-compact tiny car with very light gas usage and cheaper toll fees||4 seats||1 or 2 pax|
|S (Standard, Compact, Sedan)||Your typical small Japanese car e.g. Honda Jazz, still economical but more comfy than a K class car||5 seats||2 pax|
|A (Standard, Sedan)||The most common Japanese cars in Singapore e.g. Nissan Latio, Toyota Corolla, comfortable sedan||5 seats||2 or 3 pax|
|J (Station Wagon, SUV)||Larger, roomier and more rugged, able to handle rougher terrain e.g. Subaru Forester||5 seats||3 or 4 pax|
|MV or W (MPV, Minivan, People Carrier)||Compact MPVs like Toyota Wish, Toyota Sienta mainly for transporting more people comfortably||6 or 7 seats||4 or 5 pax|
|WA (Minivan, People Carrier)||Like the above, just bigger, e.g. Nissan Serena||8 seats||6 pax|
Other car classes/types you might come across are:
- ES/EA (Hybrid) – Hybrid cars e.g. Toyota Prius, more expensive to rent than S/A class
- Luxury – 5-seaters that are much more powerful and comfortable than compact cars, but also much more expensive, as the name suggests
- Vans – no need to consider unless you’re ferrying around a truckload of schoolkids
Most Singaporeans, being rather unadventurous, will probably ignore the K class, but if you’re travelling solo or are a couple up for a challenge, this is a very cool one to try out. The 660cc engine cars get charged a cheaper toll rate than all other cars too. But it can be dangerous to drive this on rural roads, because if a bigger vehicle comes at you at full tilt, you’re toast.
As for the rest, gauge for yourself based on how much comfort you want for your travel party and how much luggage you’re bringing along. Car rental prices obviously depend on car size; however, rental rates are usually cheaper for common generic models like the ones stated.
One more thing: check with your rental company if they include winter tyres for free. Some car rental companies charge thousands of yen (¥2,000 to 4,000) per day for winter tyres… but they shouldn’t. It’s standard for companies to throw this in for free during winter, so don’t get ripped off!
GPS, internet & finding your way around
Once you’ve decided on the car make and model and checked that it comes with free winter tyres, the next step is to make sure your rental car comes with English GPS. (The default GPS language in Japan is, obviously, Japanese.)
Certain car rental sites that target foreign tourists, such as Japan Experience and Klook, explicitly state that all their car rental rates already include English GPS. However, sites like Tocoo don’t. You will need to check all the details carefully when you book and/or enquire with the rental company how much it costs to add it on.
I doubt I need to emphasise the importance of GPS to Singaporean drivers, but even if you’re a seasoned navigator, you’d still want GPS while driving in Hokkaido. Non-highway roads may not be well signposted, and in winter, certain roads may be closed due to slippery conditions. An English GPS can help you re-route in a flash.
There’s no need to fiddle with entering place names, because most attractions in Hokkaido have clear mapcodes (similar to postal codes) which you can easily key into the GPS. Your car rental company should provide a brochure or at least a list of tourist destination mapcodes.
As a backup, you can use your phone for Google Maps. Since you’ll be travelling in a group, it makes sense to get a pocket Wifi router that everyone can use for the internet. It’s said to be a bit pricey if you rent from the airport in Sapporo, but you can rent one for $5 or $6 per day from Changi Recommends or Klook.
Hokkaido expressway toll fees, HEP & ETC card
Hokkaido has several expressways, which link Sapporo up to the farthest stretches of the island (which, as you know, can be 300 km or even 400 km away).
Using these expressways saves you a whole lot of time, especially in instances where the non-expressway alternatives are winding rural roads. However, you’ll need to pay toll fees at designated points on the expressways.
If you thought paying $3 for ERP was already heart pain enough, the toll fees for Hokkaido expressways will shock you. The farther you travel, the more you pay, and one trip can easily cost more than $50 in toll fees. Here are some sample toll fees from Drive Plaza:
|Driving route||Distance||Toll fees|
|New Chitose Airport → Sapporo city||47 km||¥1,410 (S$17.03)|
|Sapporo → Asahikawa (Asahiyama Zoo)||141 km||¥3,900 (S$47.10)|
|Asahikawa city → Otaru city||164 km||¥4,540 (S$54.82)|
|Otaru city → Sapporo city||31 km||¥1,220 (S$14.73)|
There are several ways to pay Hokkaido’s expressway toll fees: cash, ETC card (like our ERP CashCard), or Hokkaido Expressway Pass (basically a “season pass” version of the ETC card). Depending on your mode of payment, you go through either the ETC or General lane.
All car rental companies in Hokkaido allow you to rent ETC cards either for free or a nominal fee (e.g. ¥540 or S$6.52). You can pay a la carte. The good thing about renting an ETC card is that you won’t be paying more than you actually use, and since toll fees are dynamic, there’s a chance you can get a discount during off-peak times.
If you’re planning to use the expressways very heavily and would rather pay a fixed fee upfront for unlimited expressway use, you can buy the Hokkaido Expressway Pass (HEP) which is only open to tourists.
|Duration||Price of HEP||Cost per day|
|2 days||¥3,600 (S$43.48)||¥1,800 (S$21.74)|
|3 days||¥5,100 (S$61.60)||¥1,700 (S$20.53)|
|4 days||¥6,200 (S$74.89)||¥1,550 (S$18.72)|
|5 days||¥6,700 (S$80.92)||¥1,340 (S$16.18)|
|6 days||¥7,200 (S$86.96)||¥1,200 (S$14.49)|
|7 days||¥7,700 (S$93)||¥1,100 (S$13.29)|
As with the JR Pass, it’s good to do some cost estimates of your driving routes and decide if the HEP is worth it. With the HEP, you simply go through the ETC lanes at the toll booths.
Are there alternatives to car rental in Hokkaido?
In terms of cost-effectiveness, convenience and freedom, it’s really hard to beat driving a rental car when you visit Hokkaido.
And, even as someone who doesn’t like driving, I have to admit that the idea of driving around Hokkaido fills me with a bit of wanderlust. (For some inspiration, check out the Drive Japan Hokkaido site and the handbooks and maps on DrivePlaza.)
That said, I think the risks (and unpleasantness) of driving in Hokkaido in winter are very real. If you can’t or don’t want to rent a car and drive around, you have 3 options: hire a driver, take the train, or take buses.
|Hokkaido transport options||Cost for 3-day sightseeing||Cost per day per pax|
|Private car charter (Klook)||S$2,048.25 (6 pax)||~S$113.80|
|JR Pass (JR trains & buses)||¥16,500 (S$202.35)||~S$67.45|
|Tourist bus (Chuo Bus)||¥14,700 (S$177.30, based on ¥4,900 x 3)||~S$59.10|
|Car rental (Toyota Rent A Car sedan)||¥12,960 (S$157.02)||~S$26.17 (assuming 2 pax) excluding petrol + expressway tolls|
Chartering your own car and driver obviously replicates all of the benefits of self-driving, but at a much higher cost.
Private charters aren’t as widely available as car rental in Hokkaido, but a few travel sites like Easy Travel Japan and Klook offer it at exorbitant prices like $700 to $1,000 (WTF) a day. Even the most expensive rental sedan costs $220 to rent for 3 days, which works out to $70+ a day.
The second option is to take the train. Japan Railway lines do not cover every single part of Hokkaido, but they do connect the major cities like Sapporo, Hakodate and Otaru. For more remote sights, you will need to transfer to a bus.
The good thing about taking trains is that it’s a lot cheaper than driving. You can consider buying JR Pass Hokkaido which lets you travel unlimited on JR trains and buses, which starts at ¥16,500 (S$202.35) for a 3-day pass.
A third option, perhaps to use in tandem with the JR trains, is to investigate the tourist buses available in Hokkaido. You can choose from simple one-destination day tours or multi-day, multi-destination tours with accommodation included. Some companies that provide such tours are:
A one-day tour to and from the popular Asahiyama Zoo costs anywhere from ¥4,900 (S$59.10) (Chuo Bus) to S$85.79 (Klook). You can see from the above table that it can still cost more than driving a rental car, but there’s no effort on your part needed.
To sum it up,
- Renting a car and self-driving in Hokkaido is usually the most cost-effective way to get around, but it may be challenging in the winter
- Taking a tourist bus in Hokkaido is also cost-effective, and is a good alternative for those who don’t wish to drive
- JR trains connect the key cities and towns in Hokkaido, but it cannot get you to far-flung nature attractions easily
- Chartering a private car is the most expensive way to see Hokkaido, and is not recommended under most circumstances
Have you ever driven around Hokkaido? Share your travel tips in the comments section!