So Niseko is a 2 hour journey from the airport and you want to grab some sushi in Otaru on the way. Or you’re staying for a week (or a month) and want to resort hop to hit the best powder every morning.
Many people are choosing to rent a car in Niseko, and why not? A lot of what’s great about Niseko is a short drive but a long, confusing bus ride away. The thing is… driving in Hokkaido winters isn’t for the faint-hearted.
If you’ve never driven in snow before, prepare for a challenge. Flakes of powder, 2 meter tall 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 road conditions mean you won’t be able to tell otherwise.
Getting goosebumps? It gets worse.
Your tires WILL fail you, 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 your car will do about half as much as you expected on clear pavement, or sometimes nothing at all. And this is happening to every other road user around you, at the same time.
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.
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. Get used to a bumpy ride.
Get used to a ten 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.
Ice: white, black and every shade in between
Beware the evening on a sunny day, when melted snow refreezes into ice. Your car will have very weak, tenuous grip on icy surfaces – *Black ice” is infamous because it looks just like pavement until you’re on it, heart in your throat as instead of finally catching a grip your car instead slides right out of your control.
Pro tip: Don’t underestimate how little grip your car has. Drive slow, keep three or four car lengths between you and the next driver. Always leave enough space to recover if you skid, slide or if your brakes don’t work.
Snow Drifts and Powder Pileups
Like sand dunes, snow dunes will form and drift across the land. Snow ploughs can’t always keep up with Niseko powder. Your car is heavy; your car will sink in soft snow. Snow is like mud, once stuck your tires will spin and dig you in deeper.
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 clear a path before you drive.
Heavy snow, strong winds or mist cause bad visibility. We’re talking can’t-see-past-the-hood-of-your-car bad.
Pro tip: Turn on your headlights and your 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 20 km/h slow.) Forget your lane and stick to the middle of the road. Give way slowly when you meet another driver.
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.) If you fall through there may not be a way to get back out again – this one
Pro tip: Know the terrain, take no unknown or unproven shortcuts.
Only bears sleep through the winter. Deer, foxes, racoons and Tanuki racoon dogs are active, often at night. Deer are famous for jumping out of the forests and straight into your headlights.
Pro Tip: Watch for animal road signs. Take care in flat forests or near lakes and rivers.
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.
When things go wrong
If losing control of your car:
- Don’t freak out, don’t with reflexes. Don’t over-compensate.
- Pump the break up and down many times rather than pushing hard and heavy.
- Drop to a lower gear instead of braking
- Save your accelerating, turning and braking for where the pavement is clear
- If you have to crash, minimise damage – aim for snow, aim away from oncoming cars
If you crash or roll:
- Make sure you’re all right
- Make sure everyone else is all right
- If practical, remove yourself from the traffic stream
- Get your hazard lights on
- Set off the emergency flare (under the glovebox in every Japanese car)
- Call the police and/or ambulance
- Call your rent-a-car company or the car owner and tell them the bad news
- 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 ready to face the dangers, 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!