Though my 2019 trip wasn’t the first time I had driven a car while overseas, it would be my first time driving in Japan. Additionally, it would be my first time driving on the opposite side of the road from what I’m normally used to in the America. On top of that, I would get my first experience of Japanese driving while in the middle of a rainstorm.
My car rental agency was near Sapporo Station and I’d be driving a compact car that had a Toyota logo on the rear but on the front was a car logo I had never seen before. Though it was by no means a luxury vehicle it felt pretty nice compared to the busted old car I drive at home. Prior to arriving in Sapporo I had done my best to read up on driving in Japan and I had memorized the more important Japanese road signs but ultimately the only way to become accustomed to Japanese roads was to get behind the wheel and start the engine. With my backpack thrown into the rear of the vehicle I took a deep breath and began my road trip across Hokkaido.
Getting out of downtown Sapporo was a little nerve-wracking for me and I might have committed at least one traffic violation but once I was on the freeway I felt more comfortable. I’d first be driving to Daisetsuzan National Park, stopping briefly along the way near the towns of Furano and Biei. Then I’d head to the northern tip of Hokkaido to Wakkanai where I’d catch a ferry to Rebun Island. After that I’d have a long drive all the way back down to Sapporo. Certainly there are buses and trains that go out to the distant parts of Hokkaido but they’re not as frequent as in other parts of Japan, so the added cost of a rental car was worth paying for in exchange for the freedom and mobility it would give me.
Looking back at it now, it was good for me to get my first Japanese driving experience in Hokkaido. There’s little traffic outside of the cities and the major highways, so I didn’t have to worry much about causing problems for other people. The first few hours of driving felt awkward but my brain steadily adjusted and after some time it began to feel natural. Actually, it became so natural that when I flew to Korea and was in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from Japan my brain was telling me that something was wrong with how everything was oriented.
Oh, and as a fun little fact at the end, let me tell you that there’s seemingly no speed enforcement in Hokkaido outside of the towns. Just about everyone in Hokkaido drives at least 20-30 kph over the speed limit and I soon found myself driving like a local. No joke, when my brain had acclimated to everything being inverted I had probably the best driving experience of my entire life as I sped along Hokkaido’s scenic roads. Passing lanes and opportunities to get around slow vehicles are very common, so if you enjoy driving fast you’ll love it in Hokkaido. My GPS would tell me that it would take 3 hours to reach a certain destination and I’d smirk knowing that I’d shave at least 45 minutes off that time.