Self Drive Experience
It was our first self-drive experience in Japan.
We book our car rental in Japan through a local agency NTA Travel Agency. I discovered this agency at the Travel fair, I like that they are very flexible with arrangements because I have a lot of requirements and they were very helpful in my planning especially especially with my Hokkaido leg. I could do everything online on my own including the car rental but since they have already helped me with quite a bit of stuff, I decided to let them handle the car rental as well as 1st 2 night of my Hokkaido trip with them. I rented the car for 4 days for travel around Kanto Region and for 8 days for travel in Hokkaido.
Kanto Region (Fujikawaguchiko/Hakone)
Picking up car at the rental location was easy even though the person speak limited English. Everything was basically covered and prepaid for through the agency but I have to pay cash for the ETC card rental(something like our cashcard) as well as a bit extra for insurance to cover everything ie to reduce my liability to 0. The extra insurance was really cheap compared to renting in Australia or Europe. It was barely S$20 for 4 days, you’ll never know what happen when you are overseas so its better to get yourself covered. You pay the toll fees at when you return the car.
A sample pic of the car that was given to us, its a Toyota Sienta, a mini wagon under category Type W1. It is boxy and not that big but it can seat max 7 but with luggage you can only seat 4 comfortably. The boot space isn’t really that big, we just barely managed to fit in 2 big luggage, 2 cabin-size luggage, a backpack size hand trolley bag and a hand carry bag. All in its about S$480 for 4 days which makes up an average of S$120 per day.
The car comes equipped with English GPS however it heavily relies on knowing your destination telephone number to get you there. Unfortunately, I think the GPS in the car is not the latest or not updated as it didn’t even recognise the telephone number of Sengokuhara Prince hotel which is where we are going next. So the toyota staff had to input the destination location for us using the japanese address. Because of this, we couldn’t divert anywhere else on the first day and decide to just faithfully follow the directions to our hotel for today.
We did however made a rest stop at Ebina SA along Tomei Highway. (SA-means its a major rest stop with many shops and eateries as well as petrol station, PA means its just a toilet/rest stops with drink vending machines or a small convenient store.) This rest stop is really amazingly BIG. The toilets are clean and huge! BTW the toilets have these indicators right in front that will let you know which cubicle is vacant and which is occupied (much like those red and green lights you see at carparks). There is a supermarket here, food court, as well as many snack and souvenir shops. Hence it is also a crowded place with most people choosing to make a stop here including tour buses. We took our time to try out the snacks, had an ice-cream, a Char Siew pau(yes you heard me right, cha siew pau from a stall selling Yokohama chinatown pau) as well as bought some chicken karagge to munch along the way.(pic below: Ebina SA)
As we continue our way, we miss our exit and had to take a longer time to reach out destination. But Japan GPS is very quick to respond to our mistake and re-routed very fast, we lost a good 15mins due to the mistake. By the time we were at Hakone, it was almost evening and the sun was setting and it was getting dark. I had hope to prevent this situation since its the first time we are driving in Japan. To make it worse as we were nearing our destination, the roads became really small like single lane and there was not much lighting, we see a lot of residential houses but it really doesn’t seem like there is any big hotel around. Finally when we reach the spot as the GPS indicated, we saw this huge big lighted up sign that has our hotel name on it. Phew what a relief, we’ve made it safely to our destination! hurray!
For the short 4 days, we did quite a bit of driving but we try to stick to highways which are usually toll roads since it is our first attempt at self-drive in Japan. And if you think SG’s ERP is expensive, wait till you see Japan’s tolls. We paid about S$100 in total tolls just for 4 days drive. So suddenly the S$1.50 ERP fare in SG seems so economical.
Japan roads are pretty well maintained and drive is smooth and for most of the time scenic~unless you choose to drive in city. Overall first impression of self-drive~it was not as difficult as imagined. GPS guidance was ok(anyway I had my google map guide backup), plus the road signs do have English text so it was pretty easy to look out for it. It was a pleasant drive experience so far and certainly boost our confidence for our next Hokkaido leg!
It is not difficult to book the car rental online without an agent, links for them with English navigation as below;
Of course, there are many other options, but just take note not all may be foreigner friendly as in English communication may not be as easy. Do take note however, most car rental locations are off site from airport not on site. So do add extra time when returning car before flying. What we did, park and drop everyone off at the airport, check in then driver return car, the rental company will shuttle the driver back to the airport.
Unlike in Tokyo, where we pick up in city centre, we pick up our car in Hokkaido at Hakodate airport when we landed. Similarly, they only have a counter there, we were shuttled to their car rental location not too far away to pick up our car.
In Kanto, we paid for the tolls fees at the end, but for Hokkaido, they have a prepaid toll card called HEP(Hokkaido Expressway) which charges a fixed charge per day. I took this up since I didn’t have time to check out the exact toll charges and since we will be driving a lot in Hokkaido. I paid around S$100 for 8 days of driving in Hokkaido which is equivalent to the 4 days travel in Kanto.
This time, we were given a bigger car Toyota ISIS as compared to the one in Kanto. The car also falls under W1 mini wagon. This car can easily fit 8 persons comfortably. It has a bigger boot space too but Alan says it has no power. Pic below(cr:Toyotacarrental)
I would like to say that the GPS equipped in this car was way better than the one provided in Kanto. It is definitely newer and more up to date. Other than that, it provides navigation for cafes/restaurants/petrol stations in English as a sub menu. It also has 3D navgation plus it tells us when the next toll gate/rest stop is. I guess maybe more foreigners drive in Hokkaido hence the better equipped and more advanced GPS? Cost of rental in Hokkaido appears to be higher as it is about S$150 per day. But do take note that I probably paid higher because I went through an agent, it is cheaper if you book direct with them online.
Japanese car are also fuel economical. The amount of mileage we cover in one tankful is pretty amazing. We only top up fuel on return of car for Kanto and we did just one fuel top up for Hokkaido plus a refuel to full tank on return.
Driving in Hokkaido is also very pleasant and easy. For 8 days, we covered the main areas in South/Central Hokkaido which is Hakodate, Sapporo and Otaru. We also went to Lake Toya as an enroute. However, do take note that Hokkaido’s weather changes drastically within minutes. It could be snowing heavily and in a flash you see blue skies. So do check out the weather forecast before you drive especially if you drive in winter.
We drove from Apr6-Apr13(Spring) but as Hokkaido is in the northern area, it is still very cold and you still can see snow around, it even snowed when we were there. But the roads were cleared of snow so it was still easy to drive. Even driving along the Hokkaido Expressways you get great views everywhere from the sea to your left and the mountains to your right. But one thing I do take notice while driving in Hokkaido was there is this sign almost everywhere. “Beware of Horizontal wind” strong winds can be felt in Hokkaido in most parts and I really mean strong winds, sometimes our car can swerve a little bit because of it. Make sure you do not drive too fast on these stretches of road.
This self-drive trip has changed my mind about self-driving holiday in Japan. If I return Japan for holiday, I would definitely do self-drive, it is highly recommended especially if you travel in groups or family. The flexibility of a self-drive holiday definitely surpasses tour groups or even train travel(because you need to adhere to train timings and moving around with luggage).
Unless you prefer to sit back and do nothing, self-driving in Japan is actually doable and enjoyable. They have many scenic drives and nice non-touristy places which is not easily accessible without a car. I’ve been to Japan at least 6 times and mostly travelled using trains but if a Shinkansen ticket cost hundreds of dollars, it is more economical for a family of 4 of us to do self-driving. I think this would be the way we travel in Japan the next time we decide to visit again.