Driving and surviving in Hokkaido winters

By 19th September 2017 November 12th, 2019 Niseko, Snow, Travel Tips
Niseko Driving 101

A lot of what’s great about Niseko is a short drive, an expensive taxi, or a hard-to-understand bus trip away. So renting a car and driving yourself can add a lot of convenience to your Niseko ski holiday.

Anyone who is competent and confident driving in their home country should be able to get the hang of driving in snow. If you’re not confident driving at home on dry roads, perhaps driving in the snow is not for you. But if you are confident and comfortable driving in less than perfect weather, then should be up to driving in snow.

If you’ve never driven in snow before, prepare for a challenge. Flakes of powder, metres-high snow banks, icy roads and whiteout blizzards are part and parcel of a Niseko winter.

Most roads in Hokkaido have giant arrows overhead along the length of the road. These arrows point out where the edge of the road is – because often visibility is poor due to thick snow falling or blowing across the road.

If you push your speed there is an ever-present risk of skidding – just like your boots will slip strolling through the village because snow and ice is harder to grip than bitumen. When you brake or turn you should expect your car will may not be as responsive as if it were driving on clear pavement.

Essentials for Renting:

  • An International Drivers License, or a certified license translation (if you’re from Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan.) 
  • Parking on site (check with your hotel/lodge. Charges may apply)
  • Book ahead, car rentals will book out.
Niseko Driving 101

Some common hazards (and coping strategies)

Bumpy, Icy Terrain
Snow will pack into hard, icy lumps all over the road, with deep grooves where cars pass regularly.
Pro tip: Be alert with your eyes on the road at all times.

Constant Snow
Get used to a 10-minute snow-clearing session three times a day, every powder day. If powder is up to your knees, get the shovel out and clear the path to the road.
Pro tip: Keep it simple: windows, mirrors, number plate. Boom. Niseko local etiquette is to offer to brush your car in exchange for a ride.

Black Ice 
Be especially careful in the later afternoon and evening following a sunny day when melted snow refreezes into ice. “Black ice” is infamous because it looks just like pavement until you’re on it and you may have very little control until you’re off it.
Pro tip: Drive slow, keep three or four car lengths between you and the next driver and – this may sound strange but – don’t brake. Your tyres may not grip and actually this may cause your car to slide. Just keep your hands on the wheel and wait until you feel your over the ice and you can feel you’ve regained traction.

Snow Drifts and Powder Pileups
Like sand dunes, snow dunes sometimes form and drift across the roads – especially if they are low-traffic roads. If you’re not careful you could get stuck if you drive into deep snow, and like being bogged in mud or sand, once your tires start spinning and you lose traction you may need to dig your self or get pulled out. Pro top: Don’t assume a pile of snow is shallow or packed hard enough to drive over, especially fresh snow after strong winds. Carry a shovel and if possible snow traction mat or device.

Whiteouts
Heavy snow, strong winds or mist can cause low visibility. Windy days can be particularly hazardous when snow blows off the sides of the roads across or off fields across the road and can completely obscure vision.
Pro tip: Turn on your headlights and fog lights. Go slow, look for those arrows marking the road edge – there’s one every 50 metres. If you can’t see the next arrow, congratulations: you’re in a real whiteout! Slow right down (like 10 km/h slow) and within a few seconds the snow cloud will blow away.

Phantom Roads
This one is for pedestrians too. Not everything that looks like a road is one: snow ploughs will leave tracks when pushing snow into empty lots or ravines. A ravine full of snow can look like solid ground if you don’t know the terrain (see snow drifts above).
Pro tip: Err on the side of caution and don’t take any unknown or unproven shortcuts.

Winter Wildlife
Only bears sleep through the winter. Deer, foxes, racoons and tanuki racoon dogs are active, often at night.
Pro Tip: Watch for animal road signs. Take care in flat forests or near lakes and rivers.

Spring Slush
See snow drifts above. Car tires can lose grip and dig in to muddy or slushy places.
Pro Tip: Avoid steep hills. Avoid snow-packed roads that melt in spring.

Niseko Driving 101

Safety tips:

If losing control of your car:
  1. Don’t freak out, don’t with reflexes. Don’t over-compensate.
  2. Pump the break up and down many times rather than pushing hard and heavy.
  3. Drop to a lower gear instead of braking
  4. Save your accelerating, turning and braking for where the pavement is clear
  5. If you have to crash, minimise damage – aim for snow, aim away from oncoming cars
If you crash or roll:
  1. Make sure you’re all right
  2. Make sure everyone else is all right
  3. If practical, remove yourself from the traffic stream
  4. Get your hazard lights on
  5. Set off the emergency flare (under the glovebox in every Japanese car)
  6. Call the police and/or ambulance
  7. Call your rent-a-car company or the car owner and tell them the bad news
  8. Stay at the scene until the police says you can leave

If you get bogged: 

  • Your tires need a hard, solid surface to connect with to get your car moving again. Cardboard or tarpaulin under your tires can help.
  • If in deep snow, clear under your car body so that your car’s weight is on the tires.
  • If you don’t have a shovel, every house in Hokkaido will.
  • If you’re alone, kind strangers will help you. We’ve all been there.
  • Minimise your attempts to drive with the engine. Constant tire spinning will dig you in deeper, and can make the solid ground you need worse: clear under your car and around your tires as much as you can before each try.
  • When trying with the engine, use one person to drive and everyone else to push.
  • If you have the manpower, put the car in netural gear and push it into a better position.
  • Last option, call someone to tow you.

Hokkaido is one of Japan’s most remote prefectures. Train and bus access is minimal and most people drive. If you’re confident and ready for a unique experience, travelling by car in Hokkaido gives you the freedom to control your time and your journey and discover some of the amazing gems this road-faring island has to offer.

Just be cautious, be sensible and be ready to learn how to drive all over again!

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