Ski trips by camper are awesome! Go ski Japan
Combine several small ski areas and enjoy hot springs at the same time
450cm of deep, dry powder snow and near empty slopes. Skiing Japan is paradise!
This article continues where Part I stopped. That was about how to use a camper in sub-zero conditions and on icy roads. And how not to use it.. And about Okutone ski area.
Here you can feel what 3 other ski areas are like, including where to park for the night and two hot springs we enjoyed to fresh/heat up and relax.
Why read this? If you:
want to enjoy superb Japanese powder snow (450 centimeters of pow..)
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!
Without safety bars and no footrests
After the adventurous arrival in Minakami Kogen 200 we parked and took the skis out. This area is small with about 6 lifts but it is nice and sheltered in windy conditions. Tree runs make it scenic and it was again seriously not busy (on a Tuesday). Snow kept falling as we taught Tom and Rik the basics; how to break (‘point your skis like a pizza’). And the next step; make your first turns (‘shift to your other leg and push push push’). Kids learn so fast, in no time they did the simple slopes by themselves and we could all make some independent turns.
Chair lift quality varies in Japan, some lifts are new detachable quads including safety bar and footrest, but some are rickety old two or even one persons chairs. Without safety bars and no footrests. Some 1-person lifts do not even have a backrest. You just sit on a tiny wooden platform and hold on to the one bar that attaches to the cable! ‘Omoshiroi’ means both ‘fun and interesting’ and is a great word for these lifts, but I doubt many parents feel comfortable letting small kids ride lifts without safety bars alone. So we could not let them do a run by themselves yet or even with just one of us, as the lifts would only seat one or two. A pity, with fields of fresh, untouched powder waiting for me on all sides. So much for the expression ‘No friends on powder days’ once you have kids..
Cheese fondue a la Japan
Lunch with a snowy view from the camper was extra great today. Mirjam bought ready-made cheese fondue, Hello Microwave!, which we enjoyed using chopsticks. The road was nice and slushy by now so we headed back down, to Minakami town. This is one of the many onsen towns in Japan, hot spring towns, where most hotels have their own facilities. These you can use as a day guest too but there are also public onsen.
We stopped at a small one right in the centre of town, near the post office. Most tourists use their hotel so here we found locals only, and to my big surprise, a guy half covered in tattoos! This is impossible in a hot spring, if you read about ‘tattoos and onsen’ anywhere online, but it seemed no problem here. Read about ‘using hot springs on the road as your bathroom’ here and before stripping down, about onsen etiquette.
This local bath called turned out small and very hot. Great for me, too hot for the boys so they played semi-quietly with water instead. A friendly local suggested us another onsen for next time and the lady at the desk pointed it out on a map. A little Japanese combined with a big smile gets you almost everywhere!
Just out of town is the only Seven-eleven convenience store, something a city person cannot pass without a stop so we topped up the supplies and continued to the next resort, Norn. I still wonder where that name comes from, it seems impossible to pronounce for a local and there are no Japanese letters to write the sound down. Anyway, it is just 3 kilometers uphill from the tollway exit to Minakami and does good marketing because for the first time the parking was a little full. By now it was about 6pm, getting dark and the day trippers switch with night skiers. Music and light everywhere, and still snowing. We decided to call it a day on a sort of horizontal spot next to a toilet cubicle. By 10pm the night skiing stopped and the parking was empty, slowing turning white.
Morning came early with the sound of the shovel clearing the parking at high speed. It was not much more than a couple of centimeters but it did look great. Especially when the sun came out, and we could actually see the mountain range, a first time for us after rain and snow. As soon as I opened a curtain, a friendly face motioned that we should move the car a bit so our still snowy spot could be cleared too; yes, things need to be perfect in Japan!
Norn ski area
Norn we liked very much. A little bigger, several great slopes for wide turns and a steeper area left untouched to ski powder. The kids became real skiers that day. After a morning with more pizza-point-practice I took them one by one up to the top of the (‘experts-only’…) chair lift, helped them down the first section that was just steep and onto the nice and gentle rest of the long slope. I figure there was about 2km left to ski and they did it, turn after turn, all the way down! Exhausted and very proud they claimed their spot in skiing history and decided to just play in the snow for the rest of the afternoon. So it was piste and off-piste for the parents, in turns of course.
Now everybody could ski it was time for the real thing. In Japan for skiing, Hokkaido is most famous. For number of resorts and for meters of fresh snow. But Tanigawadake Tenjindaira with its difficult name and so close to Tokyo is officially number 3 in the ranking of best snow in Japan. There was 450 centimeters of powder during our trip. So who cares about the long name now? (and locals call it just ‘Tenjin’ anyway). To get there from Minakami is easy, follow route 291 almost till the end. It takes about 30 minutes only, and these are beautiful minutes in pure mountain scenery. Again banks of snow lined the road, meters high. Lonely houses and small villages covered in white, a river flowing through it all and the railroad; just two black lines in a white decor. At one point you see the cable car station and you know you are there, can’t miss it.
High valley, deep powder, experts paradise
To ski Tenjin you take the gondola aka rope way to climb about 600 meters in 10 minutes. Around you is the perfect valley, with a few smaller valleys branching to the sides, all white and covered in trees. Leaving enough space to ski, if you can. Up at the top are 3 lifts. One for short beginner slopes, one for longer beginner-plus slopes and some ungroomed terrain and one to the right that takes you onto a ridge that leads to long, long forested slopes back down to the valley. Endless tracks can be made. But, these are NOT part of the ski area and are NOT patrolled. To ski some amazing and patrolled powder, just turn back towards the lift and descend anywhere in the large bowl near it. Ungroomed. The perfect steepness, a couple of trees for decorum and quite a long run before you reach the chairlift again. No queue, only a few others to share the joy with. There is also a patrolled path all the way down the mountain. It gets narrow and a little steep in places so not suitable for beginners. It is beautiful though and you end up close to the car park.
Where to sleep?
The parking is covered and has several floors. A campervan cannot enter so you can either park in front of the main entrance which looks a little less isolated but the doors are locked at night so it is a long way to the toilets. Better is to drive down the short sloping road to the parking entrance and park there. Just inside are toilets, heated, and washing basins. It is not the spot with the best view but you are more sheltered from the wind than up at the entrance.
We skied 1 full day here. Kids did not need to pay and somehow for the greatest of all snow the adult pass was cheaper than anywhere so far. And ladies even pay 500¥ less 😉 You can find prices and all trip information in the Ride details, below. Okay it is not big if you do not ski powder. But if you do… I have skied in Europe a lot and never ever I had such a great snow quality, or even half as much powder as in Tenjin. Add no queues and long, untouched descends through trees. Paradise found!
Bath next to river
We had only Friday morning left as we planned to go home after lunch to return the car on time. It had finally stopped snowing so we decided to drive down to an onsen and see if we could still return to our spot at Tenjin afterwards. The road was clean so it seemed no problem. This hot spring is called Yutherme and besides a large inside bath it has several outside baths, right on the riverside. These are called ‘rotenburo’ in Japanese. Unfortunately we found out that Thursday is cleaning day, and the outside part is closed. Inside is also a small cold bath and a let’s say lukewarm, small pool which the boys enjoyed very much.
Clean, warm and intensely happy we drove back up to the bottom of the rope way, to our Tenjin. This time we stayed up at the entrance, not to risk the somewhat icy road down to the better spot. As a reward we had a million stars over the roof and the next morning, blue sky with a view all the way up to the top station. Perfect!
There were sunny spells and perfectly groomed slopes that morning. And more long runs in nearly untracked powder for me. When we got home later that day the whole trip already felt like a dream.
What did this little adventure cost?
Roughly 120,000¥ or 1,000USD for 5 days, for the 4 of us. Not including food and we did not rent equipment. Cost of skipasses add up quickly, so note that our kids are still often in the no-pay-zone (not yet elementary school/ under 7 years old). More details in the Ride summary below.
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