Driving in Hokkaido

Hokkaido is a big, sparsely populated place, and as such, towns can be quite far apart. If you weren’t lucky to be placed somewhere along the main thoroughfare between Sapporo and Asahikawa, it’s possible that you don’t even have a train station in your town. Buses are reliable, but sparse, especially in the countryside. For these reasons, it can be very useful to own a car.  For more information head to the JAF website via the link below:

Road rules

  • Drinking and driving is ZERO tolerance in Japan. If you are caught you will risk a fine between 500,000 – 1,000,000 yen. Plus, your time on the JET program will be terminated. If you refuse a breath or blood test you could find yourself with a hefty fine and spend up to 3 months in prison.
  • It is also forbidden to accept a ride from a driver who has been drinking. If pulled over, all passengers are treated equally as guilty as the driver.
  • Talking on the phone or texting is also illegal while driving. 
  • You must come to a complete halt (for 3 or more seconds) at train crossings. Make sure to look both ways and listen for potential hazards.
  • Drivers and front seat passengers must always wear a seat belt. On highways all passengers must wear one.
  • Drivers must give way to pedestrians. Be extra cautious with pedestrians on bicycles as they sometimes seem to pop out of nowhere.
  • All signs are in kilometers and kilometers per hour (kph). Generally, in towns, the speed limit will be between 40-50 kph. There will be signs indicating this every 500 meters or so. If you don’t see a sign, the speed limit defaults to 60 kph. 
  • On the highways, the speed limit varies between 70-80 kph in summer and 50 -70 in winter.

Japanese road signs. What do they mean?

Road signs here in Hokkaido are more than likely a lot different to the ones you are used to. Before you get behind the wheel make sure you are familiar with Japanese road signs and signals. The JAF website has all the details you will need.


What if I get pulled over?

Police cars often drive around with their flashing lights on – this doesn’t mean you’re being pulled over. If they do pull you over, they’ll say so over a loudspeaker. 

Stay in your car until the policeman comes to your window. 

The policeman will ask you to get out of your car and get into the patrol car, and this is totally normal. From here, the same beats as in your home country will play out: an exchange of identification and the writing of a ticket (or a warning, if you’re lucky).

What if I’m in an accident?

If you’re in an accident, the first things you need to do is call an ambulance on ‘119’ if anyone is injured.

Get people and vehicles out of the road and out of danger. 

You must call the police to report the accident.

Contact your Contracting Organization.  

It’s a good idea to take note of any other drivers’ information, as well as the scene of the accident. Make notes. 

Then call your insurance agency (they usually have an accident report hotline), or have someone you trust call them for you. After giving your insurance agency the information, they should contact the police and negotiate liability with the other person’s insurance (if necessary). 

What If I need roadside assistance?

If your trouble is of a less legal nature (e.g. you locked your keys in the car, you ran out of gas, you are stuck in a snowbank, your battery is dead), you can generally call the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) and they’ll get you out of it. However, their baseline fee for just about everything is 12,500 yen. If you can, call upon a friend, your supervisor, or a person driving by, before calling JAF. Keep in mind as well that JAF only operates in Japanese, so you might need someone to call for you.

Owning a car (things to consider)

It’s said that buying a car in Japan is quite cheap, but owning a car is quite expensive. This is true. Here’s a short list of the expenses you may face, owning a car: 

  • “Shaken” vehicle inspection: This occurs every two years and generally costs upwards of 100,000 yen for a white plate and between 50-70,000 yen for a yellow plate/Kei car. 
  • Vehicle tax: Occurs in May according to whoever owns the vehicle on April 1. Compact white plate cars (e.g. Toyota Vitz, Honda Fit) are looking at about 35,000 yen — the bigger the car, the higher it goes from there. Kei cars cost about 7,000 yen. 
  • Parking: If you live in a city, you may have to pay for your parking space — this can be anywhere between 3,000-9,000 yen per month. 
  • Insurance: Under Japanese law, all registered vehicles must be covered by Compulsory Automobile Liability Insurance. This compulsory insurance is designed primarily to protect third parties from injury by any vehicle in an accident. For a mid-size car, it can cost about 45,000 yen per year if you pay it all at once; depending on your car and history it can go up or down from there. Additional insurance is available, including collision coverage and additional liability cover.

What are “Yellow & White Plates”?

Yellow-plate (kei) cars and white-plate (regular) cars. Kei cars are small, cheap cars with engines under 660 cc. They’re allowed to do everything that white plate cars do, but they usually have great gas mileage (at the expense of poor emissions). Generally speaking, taxes and road tolls are also cheaper for kei cars. However, they can’t go very fast and often wouldn’t pass safety regulations in Western countries – they often don’t even have air bags. 

White-plate cars are regular cars – the same kinds that we get in our home countries.