Hokkaido is massively popular with winter sports enthusiasts for its beautiful, dry, and abundant powder snow. That gorgeous winter weather is also a hazard for inexperienced cold weather drivers. Before you arrive we have prepared some basic tips for driving in this climate. Especially if you’re from someplace that doesn’t have cold, snowy winter weather we advise that you read these tips and learn what driving here can potentially be like.
Driving in Snow and Ice
Hokkaido is a gorgeous, mountainous island with very heavy snow. (Our area receives around 10 meters per season at the base of the mountain.) It’s a skier’s paradise, but driving in this climate has its unique challenges.
All that snow comes from somewhere – sometimes these snowstorms can reduce road visibility to zero at a moment’s notice. You can and will be driving on packed powder snow (not bad at all), ice (very bad), or a mix of these two (very messy!) in bad visibility. Here are some tips to help you get prepared.
1) Be aware of the weather forecast.
Make sure you check in on the weather forecast before your trip and during your trip. There are lots of phone apps for this, the television in your accommodations, etc. Many convenience stores in Japan display weather information. The Kutchan/Niseko region has bilingual warning signs up that will display when areas are under storm warnings. Avoid driving in bad weather, especially blizzards and especially at night.
2) Avoid driving at night.
Visibility can be bad enough during the day if it is snowing. Don’t plan on driving far after 4 30 pm (sunset) in bad weather. Hokkaido is covered in rural mountain roads, and they are very dark at night with no supplementary lighting. Blizzards at night are very dangerous. All you will see is a sheet of white – and this is incredibly dangerous on those winding mountain roads. Stay safe. Stay at or near your accommodations at night if the weather is bad. Please note the sun goes down around 4 to 5 pm in winter here, so being prepared is a must!
3) Know your route/plans.
Plan beforehand. Know your route. Expect to take a lot of extra time in bad weather. Please feel free to ask us questions about your route and your plans – better to be safe than sorry! What looks like a thirty-minute drive by Google Maps – our number one recommendation for route planning here! – May end up two hours or more if the roads and weather are terrible.
This is why we recommend against picking up our vehicles at New Chitose Airport (Sapporo) in winter if it can be avoided. We do not want you to be under pressure to make the drive if the weather is bad. Especially if you just got off a plane, you will be tired, you’re in a strange place, and the roads can be very difficult.
You have just arrived from an international flight for your holiday with family or friends – and you have been traveling for several hours. It can potentially be whiteout conditions, as described above. Please let the professionals take care of your transfer to Niseko – take a bus, private transfer, or the train! (We offer free rental pick-ups from Kutchan Station!)
People who have lived here for years and drive all the time in winter (including us!) actually avoid driving the New Chitose Airport route in bad weather for the reasons mentioned above. This route is a winding road going through mountain passes and valleys that are hit with amazing blizzards. It is fine on a good day with good visibility, but can turn to bad conditions in a matter of minutes.
This link is an example of some of the worst conditions:
4) Be aware of your brakes. Drive slowly.
On dry, warm roads, brakes can let you stop in a second. This is not true in winter weather, sometimes in snow and especially on ice.
The weather may warm unexpectedly, especially in the valleys and especially towards the beginning or end of the winter season (November/December and March/April). The roads may be wet during the day and covered in black ice at night. Black ice is, as the name hints, nearly invisible ice on dark roads. It may appear the road is only wet, when it is in fact an ice sheet.
Trying to make a sudden stop on ice will likely result in the car spinning out of control. Driving on ice requires you to carefully slow down and “tap” the brakes, not hold them. A common inexperienced ice-driver mistake is to push down on the brakes harder, which just causes them to lock up and the vehicle to skid further, even with ABS Brakes.
The normal dry road following distance of three to five seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds. This increased margin of safety will provide the longer distance needed if you have to stop in a hurry.
The Well-Prepared Vehicle
We provide automatic transmission four-wheel drive vehicles with dedicated winter tires for a reason – you and your family’s safety is our 100% priority! Hokkaido may have some real surprises for the inexperienced. Be prepared, know what you’re getting into, and be ready to take a break from driving so you don’t risk it.