How to.. enjoy skiing in Japan: winter camping in a camper car
Japan by campervan in winter? An epic ski trip in the Land of Secret Powder?
Yes, you really can. And actually, you should!
Read this article if you:
want to know about skiing in Japan and the 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!
Information about skiing in Japan
Small resorts, super deep powder
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 last 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!
Make the most of your day: night skiing
Another very interesting option of skiing in Japan 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. My favourite source is Snow Japan.com.
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 even longer opening hours, often till midnight.
How to avoid busy periods
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 morning, late afternoon and during lunch time.
Facilities on the mountain
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.
Lift quality: no safety bars, no footrests
Chair lift quality varies in Japan, some lifts are modern. 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. To keep in mind especially when you ski with the family, as I doubt many parents feel comfortable letting small kids ride lifts without safety bars alone.
Information about a ski trip in a camper
How it works:
where to park for the night
using toilets and showers
choose a big or a small car
driving on snowy roads
and many more suggestions
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. We always journey on foot, by train and by bus to the rental company. Tom and I collect the car while Mirjam and Rik buy supplies in a supermarket nearby. That’s time management. After completing the paperwork we pick them up, along with supplies for the trip. And set off to the mountains. Destination Snow!
Good night, sleep (quite) tight
If you opt for a van, smaller in size than a ‘real’ camper car, it will be easier to drive up the snowy mountain roads, quicker to heat and overall a little cheaper to rent. Last time we selected one that officially sleeps 4 people. It had 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 were actually seat belts for five people in the car but I would say 2 adults and 3 kids would be the maximum, if a little 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 sometimes 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 turns 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: ‘sharing your van with wet ski gear’
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 get pretty wet too. How to deal with that? We move our 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 can be out of the way. You can hang stuff to dry too (bring a couple of S-hooks and some string for that).
So, rent big or small?
After reading about a small campervan consider this. In winter you have meals indoors, at night you cannot sit outside and you bring more clothes. A bigger car is more always more convenient, and especially in cold temperatures. You will have more space to store and dry things and a bigger, better equipped kitchen too.
Private shower and toilets?
That’s a quick story. Mostly not available in Japanese rental campers (see also ..). The toilet-matter is easy to solve 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 can 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 Japan has many. If you do not know about this delightful Japanese custom, please read How to.. enjoy hot springs 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 these onsen? In Go Camper Japan-articles there are always ‘Ride details’ at the end. Here you find a lot. If you sign up as a Member you receive these details and even more, directly into your inbox.
Night temperatures: a layer of ice inside
Snow and freezing wind made for sub-zero temperatures. Good campers have a heater that warms it up fast. It dries your wet gear quickly too. To run, the heater uses fuel from the car and some electricity from the separated camper-battery. The fuel is fine, you are in control, but how about the power in the battery?
Normally you use the battery mostly in the evenings and at night to heat while you sleep. Drive again to reload it the next day. Not so much so a ski trip; it seems we do not drive enough between nights to sufficiently reload the battery. So on a recent ski trip, 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 forward to learning, and sharing, more about heating!
Is driving in winter safe?
A little story about ‘spinning wheels and getting stuck on an icy road’ Once while driving our van in winter, 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 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 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 a mere 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 story, 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. So is driving in winter save? Yes, I think so. As long as you have snow tires and drive slowly. And stop/turn back when things get tricky.
- For updated info on all resorts, lifts and slopes, including updated snow levels, I always visit SnowJapan.com
- 2 articles about our latest epic ski trip in Japan are linked, part 1 and part 2. They cover 4 ski resorts in Minakami Onsen and how to enjoy them by camper. (Okutone, Norn, Minakami Kogen 200 and the hidden off-piste gem, Tarigawadake Tenjindaira aka Tenjin)
- All about exploring Japan by camper you can find in How to.. before you go and How to.. on the road
- Adventurous and suggestions are mixed in our posts in the Rides in Japan section
…enter your email address and receive our free weekly updates. Useful information that helps you create your own unique trip! Go Camper Japan!