Driving on Hokkaido, Japan

In the March ’06 “Person to Person” section, on page 130 Kathleen Nichols asked about planning a one-week trip to Hokkaido, an island at Japan’s extreme north. I would like to give some suggestions.

First, renting a car is an option worth considering if you’re planning to explore Hokkaido. We recommend one of the following plans for a one-week driving trip:

Plan 1, Nature and Fall Colors — Day 1: Drive about two hours from Memanbetsu Airport to Shiretoko and stay overnight. Day 2: Enjoy Shiretoko, where the cliffs stretch for miles, home to cormorants and white-tailed sea eagles. Drive three hours to Nemuro and spend the night. Day 3: Visit Lake Furen and Shunkokutai. Whooper swans migrate through in early October. Drive 2½ hours to Akan and stay at the hot springs. Day 4: Explore Akan. Lake Akan-ko is well known for marimo, curious-looking spherical moss. Experience traditional Ainu (Hokkaido’s natives) culture at their kotan (village). Spend the night in Kushiro (1½-hour drive). Day 5: Explore Kushiro, a port town lying in the mist of Kushiro Marsh. Drive 2½ hours to Tokachi Hot Spring. Day 6: Drive about four hours to Sapporo. See Hokkaido University, the clock tower and Odori Park. Stay at the Jozan-kei Valley Onsen (hot spring), southwest of Sapporo and famous for its fall colors. Day 7: Drive to Chitose Airport.

Plan 2, Culture and Fall Colors — Day 1: Drive from Hakodate Airport to Matsumae (2½ hours). The only castle town in Hokkaido, it boasts 10,000 cherry trees in 250 varieties. Day 2: Drive 2½ hours to Hakodate for the morning market and the city’s seafood. With its blend of Japanese and Western architecture, the city is known for its nighttime views. Day 3: Drive to and stay at either Lake Toya, with its lakeside spa resort and the smoking Showa Shinzan Volcano (2½-hour drive), or Noboribetsu’s Jigoku-dani Valley, with its volcanic vents and a primeval forest (3½ hours). Day 4: Visit Shiraoi, seeing Ainu culture and traditional dance at the Shiraoi Ainu Museum. Drive to and stay at Jozan-kei Valley Hot Spring (2½ hours). Day 5: Drive to Sapporo. Day 6: Visit Otaru and see a retro town with glasswork shops. Day 7: Head for Chitose, stopping at the outlet mall near the airport.

Plan 3, Hot Springs and Fall Colors — Day 1: Drive to Sapporo from Chitose Airport (1½ hours) and spend the night. Day 2: Tour Sapporo, then drive 1½ hours to Otaru. Day 3: Drive 2½ hours to Asahikawa for its thriving art scene. Drive 1½ hours to Sounkyo, a hot spring bordered by cliffs. Day 4: Go to Asahidake. A 10-minute cable car ride takes you up Hokkaido’s highest mountain (1,600 meters). Day 5: Drive 3½ hours to Lake Shikotsuko, which does not freeze over and which has visibility to a depth of 25 meters. Day 6: Drive one hour to Shiraoi for its Ainu culture. Drive a half hour to Noboribetsu Hot Spring and spend the night. Day 7: Drive 40 minutes to Chitose Airport.

I hope this gives Kathleen and other ITN readers some ideas for a trip to Hokkaido.

To drive a car in Japan, you must obtain an International Driving Permit prior to arrival and carry it with you. In the USA, you can get the permit at AAA. Some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, do not have a reciprocal agreement with Japan to honor the permits; check with your automobile association.

Driving in Japan is on the left.

Note that signs are posted in English on main roads to major destinations, but in rural areas this may not be the case. For more remote areas, it is advisable to purchase a reliable English-Japanese road atlas before you depart. Companies such as Shobunsha and Kodansha publish bilingual atlases, which are available at www.amazon.com.

A Metropolitan Expressway map in English is available within Japan from the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. (Nittochi Bldg 9F, 1-4-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8930, Japan; tel. [03] 3539 9259 or fax [03] 3503 7678).

Tolls are levied on expressways and other major routes. Toll charges will depend on how far you wish to travel and which roads you intend to take. Example — tolls for one route from Tokyo to Kyoto cost about ¥4,770 (near $41).

Parking can be difficult to find in some urban centers.

The Japan Automobile Federation (call the International Affairs Department of JAF at +81 [0] 3 3436 2811, fax + 81 [0] 3 3588 6055 or visit www.jaf.or.jp/e/index_e.htm) publishes an English guide to driving in Japan called “Rules of the Road,” available at JAF offices throughout Japan.

All accommodations in Japan are subject to a 5% consumption tax. First-class hotels also impose a 10%-15% service charge. Tipping is not customary except at top luxury ryokan, where guests tip the maid when she first serves them tea.

To search for accommodations, go to www.jnto.go.jp/eng/ps.

If you have additional questions, call the JNTO at 213/623-1952, e-mail info@jnto-lax.org or visit www.japantravelinfo.com or www.jnto.go.jp.

YOHKO SCOTT, Japan National Tourist Organization, 515 S. Figueroa St. #1470, Los Angeles, CA 90071