Friday, December 28, 2012

Winter Tires and Chains in Japan

If you live in the mountains of Japan like I do, you probably have seen your local service stations fill up with lines of cars waiting to get their tires changed.

This winter tradition has always mistified me. Despite being from a part of the US with plenty of snow, I almost never see anyone change their tires seasonally. But then again we don't really have any mountains and dangerously curvey roads to speak of. Also, just about every other car has four wheel drive and roads are plowed regularly.

While you may be tempted to be a dare devil, investing in a good pair of "stud-less tires" is a good idea, especially if you live somewhere where snow accumulates.

Why Two Sets of Tires?
If you have been living in J-land for a while, you have probably noticed that many towns do not plow their non-expressway roads (save for places like Hokkaido, of course) and, at best, you might get an occational road salting. Coming from New England--a place where you can't so much as leave your house without a double wide snow plow--this has always vexed me. Moreover, cars in Japan tend to be smaller and big 4WD SUVs a relative rarity. In addition, a lot of sedans and wagons are rear-wheel drive (korin kudo 後輪駆動), meaning that, despite a smoother ride, they handle poorly in wet and slippery conditions.

Therefore, most people invest in an extra set of tires especially for winter time. These are called "stud-less tires" (sutaddoresu taiya スタッドレスタイヤ) and tend to be a bit wider with deep frictive treads for slippery roads.

You can pick up studless tires at just about any gas stand, auto shop, or dealer. Sometimes big chain auto shops like Autobacs and Yellow Hat will even sell private label brands at a significant discount. As for wheel hubs, you will have to bring your or pay extra.

Snow Tires vs Studless Tires
Personally, I had never heard of a "studless tire" until I arrived in Japan. I don't know enough about cars to say for certain that they are Japan exclusive, but their doesn't seem to be a lot of all-weather tires avaliable here.

However, according to the internet, their is a difference between "snow tires" and "stud-less tires." The former have specialized treads but generally are made out of the same material as a run of the mill spring/summer tire. Stud-less, on the other hand, in addition to having special deep treads to maximize contact with the ground, are also made out of special fictive materials to minimize sliding and skidding.

How much of this is true and how much of this is just slick tire company marketing, I could not say.

Do I Really Need Winter Tires
Winter tires aren't cheap, often costing well over 25,000 yen plus disposal fees for your old tires and labor costs for putting them on. Also, there is a good chance that they aren't solde with hubs. Not to mention the seasonal costs of putting them on and taking them off (about 2000-3000 per visit). To add insult to injury, unless your dwelling has a storage unit, you may have to pay a yearly fee to your local auto store for the pleasure of haning on to your old tires.

Stud-less tires? Oh, you mean pussy wheels.
 Those new to driving in Japan may be tempted to sherk a nice new pair of winter wheels and just brave the icy roads with their regular tires. However, this is not a good idea for several reasons:
  1. In the event of an accident, not having the proper tires can count against you. That means if you slide gracefully into the bummer of your neighbor's ride you will be at fault and then some (in the civil liability sense). Even in accidents where you are not at fault, having improper tires can get you in trouble or even cited for reckless driving.
  2. Having you ever driven on a unplowed highway? Then you must know how much it sucks, especially if you have tiny car.
  3. Checkpoints (see below). Expressways generally get the plow treatment, but many highway operators and localties put so-called "chain regulations" in effect for all cars not equiped with snow tires.
Tire Chains
While cruising along a big national road or an expressway, you may have seen small stops labled (chein chakudatsu-jo チェーン着脱所), or "tire chain attaching and removal area." These are for those extra snowy days when there is a chein kisei-chu (チェーン規制中) or "manditory chain regulation in effect" warning. If you have VICS equipped navigation device, your GPS will usually alert you to stretched of highway covered by manditor chain regulations. Lighted billboards will also give you a heads up as to areas where chains are neccary.

A tire complete with chain
Chain regulations generally are only put into place when it is snowing very heavily and a fair amount is accumulating on the roadway. And keep in mind that this isn't a polite suggestion. Highway companies set up mini-checkpoints where you are expected to stop as an employee shines a light to check out your tires. Luckily, if you have well treded snow tires then you can pass throught without a hassel. But if you don't then you will be ordered to pull off the road and put on your tire chains for the duration of the regulation.

However, there are very rare times when even cars and trucks with brand spanking new studless tires must strap on chains. This is known as zen-sharyo chein kisei (全車両チェーン規制), or "all-vehical chain regulations" and it is only put into place during the heaviest of heavy snow storms. Luckily, chains generally come standard with most cars and are stashed in the emergency kit for just such an occasion.

Have any experience with winter driving in Japan? If so, let us know in the comments!


  1. I've been using studless tires in the US for as long as I can remember. They exist and are easy to get, but the problem is not many people know about them.

  2. Anon- That is good to know. I know less about tires than I do about cars. I assumed that Japan was not crazy enough to implement its own tire standard, but then again you never know here!

  3. Nice article Dan, scoured the net for a good half hour looking for something like this. I'm up north and it's snowing heavily today. Had some questions, how much do they charge to attach the actual new tire onto the old rim and to then to the car, like labor costs, probably go to Yellowhat or Autobacs. And for a new set, kei size. Also, I heard about all-season tires, do you know what are these called in Japanese? And are they as effective, guess it'd be a more pain free option as I wouldn't have to head back every half year. Thanks in advance.

  4. Anon- Tire changes aren't too expensive, especially on a kei-car. I don't know how much it is without rims but I have seen advertisements for 2500-3000 yen a change. Autobacs or Yellow Hat are always safe bets although I notice some home centers do tire changes as well. Try asking friends and coworkers, that's what I do. You can also do it yourself if you know how to work a jack.

    As far as tire sets go, I see a lot of packages at big auto stores advertising all inclusive sets (Rims, changing, disposal) for a 30,000 yen or so. I don't have a kei car but I know kei tires are much cheaper compared to full sized cars.

    I think all-season tires are just regular tires and, if you get caught on the high way when it snows, they won't get you out of putting on chains at a check point. Snow tires exist but studless seem to be the tire of choice in snowy areas. If it is as snowy as you say, I would just bit the bullet and get some snow tires. The cost of changing them is much less than your new insurance rate after getting into a rear-ender.