Camper skiing trip to Minakami hot springs. Part I: can you camper in snowy Japan?
And a visit to Okutone ski area. Winter fun does not always include winter sun; it was an ice cold 5-day skiing trip!
But what great snow and how quiet the Japanese slopes can be!
This article covers using the car in winter and the first part of the trip; the Okutone to Minakami Kogen ski-area. The rest is in part 2
When read this? If you:
want to enjoy superb Japanese powder snow
like to discover several ski-areas and hot springs in one adventurous trip and
want to find out how to do that: in a rental camper car!
Travel light with bulky gear
It creates a bit of a challenge, traveling light while bringing ski gear for 2 adults and 2 kids. You can’t bring too much because a camper is not big. And you should travel light, especially if you first go pick up your camper by public transport. Our journey on foot, by train and by bus went well and ended at the rental company. Tom and I collected the car while Mirjam and Rik bought supplies in a supermarket nearby. After completing the paperwork we picked them up, along with supplies for 5 days, and set off to the mountains. Destination Minakami Onsen, in Gunma province, Japan.
Good night, sleep (quite) tight
For this trip we opted for a van, smaller in size than a ‘real’ camper car so it would be easier to drive up the snowy mountain roads, quicker to heat and overall a little cheaper to rent. The (blue Toyota) van we selected officially sleeps 4 people. It has a bunk bed for two, one person (or two little ones) can sleep on the back-seats-transformed-into-a-bed and you can sleep in the narrow space next to the bunk, which transforms into a matras too. There are seat belts for five people in the car and I would say 2 adults and 3 kids could be a maximum, if tight, fit. Four adults in winter in this van would get rather cozy…
Camper with a microwave: Yes or No?
There is tiny kitchen although ‘cooking-space’ would be a better word since it has a sink with tab and that’s all. You get a separate gas stove along with the car, which has the benefit that you can take it outside to cook too. And there is a microwave! Use it only with the engine running! Maybe not the first piece of equipment that comes to mind for a camper but it turned out very handy. Buy packets of already-cooked-rice at any convenience store, heat it, and done! Leaves you the gas stove for cooking your secret sauce. Or just go convenience all the way and microwave yourself through the meals. It is handy for a quick cup of hot milo too! So from me, the microwave gets a big Yes!
The Challenge: ‘living together with wet ski gear in one van’
All campers have smart but tiny cupboards all around that let you stow away quite a few bits and pieces. But winter brings fluffy clothes and ski equipment, and things got pretty wet too. How to deal with that? We move our ski gear in a wheely case, which is 2 meters long and fat enough to contain 4 sets of skis, poles and boots. This smart little van has a way of absorbing that huge bag in such way that you can use the bag as a slide-out cabinet (see image). Open the back door, slide-out the bag a little; out and in goes all the snowy equipment. Very handy! It does mean you have little storage space left under the lower bunk bed.
Another smart compartment is the rear end of the car (see same image). You close it off with a little door. Big bags, wet boots and supplies are out of the way. You can hang stuff to dry too (bring a couple of S-hooks and some string for that).
Private shower and toilets?
That’s a quick story. Not available in the van. As is the case in most Japanese rental campers (read more about global differences here). The toilet-matter is easy to solve, especially on a ski trip. We always stayed at the bottom of the slopes for the night, on the parking near the lifts, ready for a quick start. And for another reason, I will explain later. These parkings usually have restrooms in one way or another. From a tiny portable cabin to bright, warm and luxury spaces with heated toilet seats. Yes, you do have to go out of the car for it. But you get to gaze at a million stars on the way. And little boys come through the night with an empty bottle..
Showers are useful too, especially after some hardcore skiing. This is where the hot springs called ‘onsen’ come in. And Minakami Onsen has many. If you do not know about this delightful Japanese custom yet, please read How to.. wash, clean and enjoy.. Most are private, inside hotels which you can use as day guests too. I normally chose a public hot spring; easy to access, free parking and at lower costs. Locals come in for a quick scrub at the end of the day. Japanese day trip skiers won’t go home without a dip either, so join them and relax in the hot waters. Get all clean and warm; ready for the cold night! Where and how you can find the Minakami onsen? Get your the Ride details at the end.
Night temperatures: a layer of ice inside..
Snow and freezing wind made for sub-zero temperatures. The van has a great heater that warms it up fast. It dries your wet gear quickly too. To run, the heater uses fuel from the van and some electricity from the separated camper-battery. The fuel is fine, you are in control, but how about the power in the battery?
How can I improve this?
Normally you use the battery mostly at night, sleep and drive again to reload it the next day. Not so much so on this ski trip; it seems we did not drive enough between nights to sufficiently reload the battery. So the heater stopped in the night. Oops.. At least that is what I figure the problem is. We did not like to let the car running all night, to use the normal heater instead. So we put on a few extra layers and hats to toughen it out. 2 degrees celsius in the early morning and ice all over the windows inside was the result. Please do leave a comment if you have ideas and solutions, I am looking fff-forward to learn more about heating!
Skiing in Japan: night skiing!
Most ski areas in Japan are small in size, compared to the kilometers of slopes in many European resorts. Also the mountains here are not so high; top of the lift at 1,500meters is high in Japan, which is often only the village level in other countries. But it is not important. Temperatures are low and snowfall is high. Very high. And consistent. For example, on our trip we found the snow base to be from 250 centimeter to 450 centimeter in the various resorts. That would be the skier’s ultimate dream in Europe, especially these last 15 years of limited snowfall!
Another very interesting option of skiing here is night skiing. It is not big overseas but in Japan where time and space are always maximised it is the trick to offer you more hours on the mountain. Not available everywhere so do your research. Night skiing means you buy another skipas to use the lifts from about 5pm to 10pm or even midnight. It depends on the resort and the dates. Holidays have longer opening hours.
Speaking of holidays and weekends; as usual these are peak periods. Especially in resorts closer to the big cities like Tokyo it gets very busy. On the slopes, roads and in the hot springs. If you can, plan for weekdays. Or ski when many Japanese don’t; early, late and during lunch time.
On the mountain and at the base are usually restaurants but also communal spaces where you can picnic in comfort, find toilets and buy drinks from machines.
Want to know more and have updated info on all resorts, lifts and slopes? Including updated snow levels? I always go to SnowJapan.com for that.
Start the ski: Okutone ski area
The drive from outside Tokyo to Minakami took around 3 hours, using toll road at a cost of 5,500yen. I am not a big fan of toll roads but to maximize skiing time it is the best choice. So at 4pm we reached Minakami town and a little further, entered the parking of Okutone. It rained (yes..) very badly but we were so excited to start that we had a snack and went up the mountain anyway. Two out of 5 chairlifts were running, beginner and intermediate slopes accessible. Our boys (5 and 6) skied once before but that was 3 years back so we started from level 0 and descended the easy slopes with them sliding along between our skis. It was great fun, shared with 8 snowboarders and 2 other skiers only!
After a break in the heated and deserted restaurant on the mountain we did a few more rounds, after which we had dinner in the camper and the kids went to bed. I put on my hood once more and carved around the slopes for another 2 hours, until at 10pm the lifts closed. We had parked close to the restrooms of the parking lot and decided to stay there. Heated and 10 meters away it was convenient enough. That night, the temperature dropped and rain turned to snow. The next morning we woke up on a large, empty and very white field Time for some skiing without rain!
We had breakfast with hot porridge and tea from our friend the microwave. Slowly the surroundings came to live, workers arrived and the first early skiers too. To let the children slide around by themselves we chose another ski area for that day, with more very beginner slopes and focus on kids. Minakami Kogen 200. So we packed up and drove off.
Spinning wheels and stuck on an icy road..
The road was quiet, snow falling heavily. Thanks to the snow tires we drove up curve after curve without a hitch. High banks of snow on two sides, sometimes over 3 meters high from being ploughed away by the cleaning crew. Trees covered in white powder. So beautiful and so impressive, we all looked around with excited smiles. Passing tunnels and around a large lake we climbed up the last 50 meters to Minakami Kogen, I could see the parking right there ahead, when the wheels started spinning. And spinning. Slowly I dropped back a bit for another try, and a couple more. It was not steep really, just a layer of ice on the road which apparently the snow tires could not deal with. After a while I gave up and a van stopped behind us. It was one from the resort area and the driver got out. He asked if we had 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive. “2 only” I replied and he looked again at the car then took out his mobile phone. “You need help” he said. After a while a small truck came, the kids were up ahead enjoying the snow already. A towline was hooked onto us and with a little help and 20 seconds I arrived safely at the parking. A Big Thank You was all I could give the gentlemen, more they would not accept. The famous Japanese service attitude!
So what did I learn from this, apart from that help is never far away? Rent a 4-wheel drive if you can, for winter escapades. Bring snow chains as backup to the snow tires. And most importantly, drive later in the day, when the road is already used by others. So the ice is crushed and your snow tires have no difficulties. From then on, we would always leave in the end of the afternoon to safely reach a new spot for the next day. Problem avoided.
This story continues in Part II, including a rough breakdown of costs. Again, feel free to leave comments and suggestions, thank you!
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