Hokkaido’s Winter Roads

In Hokkaido, there are many winter activities, such as skiing, snowboarding and enjoying hot springs. Since the baggage required for these activities tends to be big, this is when rental cars can be very convenient. Winter roads, however, require advanced driving skills. Remember this basic knowledge to avoid serious trouble.


Compacted-snow roads are roads on which snow has fallen and then been pressed down and compacted by the movement of vehicles. Icy roads (Eisbahn) are those that are covered with thin ice formed by the refreezing of snow that fell and then melted on the roads, and these are especially slippery. Winter roads are very dangerous, because once a car skids, it is hard to control it.

(Extract from the website of Bureau of Lifestyle Safety, Bureau of Daily Life Safety, Daily Life Safety Promotion Division, Department of Environment and Lifestyle, Hokkaido Government)

Don’t be tricked by black icy roads (Eisbahn)!

Black Eisbahn is the worst type of icy roads. The road is covered with refrozen melted snow after rain. They look a little like wet roads, however, they are the slipperiest roads. Be very careful on black shiny roads in winter!

It’s impossible to see!

Strong snowstorms can obstruct your view forward and snow being blown up from the road may also lead to low visibility. In addition, your range of vision may be reduced suddenly due to powdery snow blown up by oncoming trucks. Drivers just have to slow down in such situations.

Slow down and drive with caution

On snowy roads, poor visibility from snow blown from snowbanks at the shoulder or from snowfall frequently makes it difficult for drivers to know their position on the road. In such cases, delineators (arrow-shaped pointers) indicate the left-hand roadway edge. In your lane, please keep to the left and drive slowly and carefully.

Getting stuck!

If you drive into deep snow, you may not be able to get your car out. As far as is possible, find cleared roads or drive along wheel tracks left by other cars.

Be careful of snowdrifts

Strong winds and snowfall cause snowdrifts to form on the roadway when snow from beyond the road is blown onto the road. When the wind blows fallen snow, snowdrifts can form even on the days without snowfall.

Be aware that snowdrifts can grow quickly. Snow piles up especially easily on roads in flat areas without windbreaks and at concave road sections. Please keep this in mind.

Be careful of exhaust gas during standstill

If you must park during a snowstorm, the snowdrifts that form around your car can cover the front grille and block the tailpipe. Car exhaust contains carbon monoxide, which is toxic. A blocked tailpipe can cause toxic exhaust to back up into the car, which can be quite dangerous.

If you find yourself stuck in a snowbank, we recommend that you turn off the engine. If you do stay in the car with the motor idling, make sure to keep the tailpipe free of snow.

Things you must not do!

“Sudden braking,” “Sudden acceleration,” “Abrupt steering”. Your wheels will lock up (continue to slide without your tires moving) if you brake suddenly and your car gets out of control so avoid this.

Rental cars with snow tires

Rental car users who may drive on mountain passes should ask for a car with studless snow tires when they make their reservation.

When it comes to October, at mountain passes, road surfaces may freeze and it may snow. If you go to the mountain pass by a rental car, please confirm to the staff of the rent-a-car office whether studless snow tires are installed on the rental car.

Are brakes broken?

Drivers, who use ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) for the first time, may be surprised with how they function. When wheels lock (continue to slide without your tires moving) on frozen roads, a loud sound can be heard at the moment of braking. This is the noise cased by the actuation of the device to control the brakes automatically. Drivers need not ease up on the brakes in a hurry.

*ABS: This Anti-lock Brake System allows drivers to maintain steering control and avoid an accident even under heavy braking. However, it can also present disadvantages including increased braking distance on slippery surfaces, such as on ice, or smooth roads. ABS should not be solely relied upon.

Three key points to driving in winter

Drive slowly

The basic point is not to increase your speed. Driving slowly will give you time to avoid danger should the need arise.

Keep a safe distance between cars

Keeping a safe distance between you and the car ahead gives you enough time to react and cope with emergency situations.

Understand the traffic conditions ahead

Many winter traffic accidents are caused by a delay in drivers understanding traffic conditions ahead. Pay attention to the brake lamps of the front two cars as well as traffic conditions ahead.

Learn how to use the engine to brake!

Cars accelerate automatically on down grades. In such cases, drivers should use not brakes but the engine to brake to control the speed. Using the engine to control speed is achieved by utilizing the power of the gears and changing the mode of the automatic transmission from D (drive) to S (or 3 or 2 according to models). Be sure to change the gear slowly while slowing the car down.

Reference Info. 1:Average* first dates of snowfall, frost, freezing, snow-capped peak, snow cover of major cities in Hokkaido.

* the averages of observed data from 1981 to 2010.

Reference Info. 2:About traffic of NH Route 334 (the Shiretoko Pass)

NH Route 334 (the Shiretoko Pass) is planned to be closed from early November to late April. But it may be closed due to snow as described below when it comes to October.