Mum, dad, 2 teenagers, 7 snowboards and one white van? Not your normal Japan family snow trip recipe perhaps, but it sure worked for the Owers family. Joel Owers has the down low ..
Standing in the departure lounge at Sydney airport a nervous tension was building in all of us. In less than a day we would be in Japan, embarking on a month-long trip around Honshu chasing down some of the gnarliest weather conditions that would bring some of the heaviest snowfalls we had ever seen, all while living in a small camper van.
My mum, dad, sister Zahlee and myself are all experienced snowboarders and we often go camping in Australia during the winter and spring. Camping in Japan in winter is a new story for us. Not only will we be dealing with a new language and a different culture but also Japan’s freak weather systems that bring all the snow it is famous for and the plummeting temperatures at night. This trip was going to be a challenge and we were looking forward to our life on the road.
Arriving in Japan is always a welcome sight. Seeing the glistening Tokyo skyline and iconic silhouette of Mt Fuji in the sunrise is a remarkable view.
From Narita we immediately got on a train to the nearby hire company where our van awaited. Our campervan home for the next three weeks was compact, cosy and warm. We managed to get our gear inside, which included seven boards and all our boots, jackets etc.
Once the van was sorted we hit the road and headed north. Two hours in we stopped at the first of many amazing Michi no Eki for a freshly made bowl of ramen. With wonderful amenities, food and local produce they are a roadside station providing travellers with a place to rest and also promote local tourism and trade. The Michi no Eki network is dotted all over Japan. They were our lifeline around Honshu for the next three weeks.
Due to the weather and snow we decided to continue north to Geto Kogen “King of Snow” Resort in Iwate Prefecture. Almost a metre dump was predicted, more than any other resort, so we rushed up there.
Geto did not disappoint. The free shuttle bus that took us from the town of Kitakami kept climbing higher and higher through a thick layer of cloud. All the while more and more snow fell until we emerged into a magical winter wonderland of trees covered in thick powder.
Soon we were riding the gondola up. Snow had fallen so quickly that just getting out of the top station was challenging. In blizzard conditions and zero visibility we quickly lost our bearings and couldn’t see the trails down. Our instinct was to keep following the trail and head to Geto’s unique space station style main building.
Geto is known for having some steep and serious terrain and being a powder haven. At every slight turn would explode into a massive white cloud of snow. We rode untouched waist high powder all day.
We stayed at Geto Camp 88, their backpackers style set up in the main resort building. With outstanding views, convenient access to the mountain and friendly and helpful staff this place was awesome!
The van and being able to move around with relative ease was a huge advantage for us and it soon became clear that we were on a pretty amazing road trip. Our journey of chasing storms, mountains and snow had just begun.
With a hungry eye for more powder we left Geto with great memories and a definite “we will be back”.
Next destination Tazawako in neighbouring Akita Prefecture. Having experienced the sometimes chaotic resorts of Australia and other big Japanese resorts, coming to these smaller resorts with a few lifts offers a refreshing day of riding.
Uncrowded, relaxed runs and great views over the deepest lake in Japan make this place worth a visit. With good terrain and amazing scenery, food and cultural experiences like onsens, the region is easy to free camp in.
Christmas was coming and so the idea of having our first white Christmas was exciting and in the van too, which we had now nicknamed Uki.
The snow forecast was promising so we headed to Appi Kogen Resort in Hachimantai for an ‘Appi Christmas.’
It’s one of the biggest resorts that far north in Honshu. With leg burning long runs there was plenty of fun to be had and areas of untouched calf deep powder. The Japanese mostly like to stay on the groomers. So we considered ourselves super lucky to be able to ride all Christmas day in great conditions and then stay in the carpark in the shadow of the iconic Appi architecture as gentle snow fell.
More big snow was predicted so we headed south to Yamagata Prefecture and hit some cultural areas on our way to Zao Onsen.
We drove to Mt Haguro, one of the three sacred mountains of Yamagata, the Dewa Senzan, and hiked to the Five Story Pagoda. This magnificent, intricately carved wooden structure built in the 13th Century sits in an ancient cedar forest.
At Zao we found a great camp under the ropeway just in time for the predicted snow. It snowed all night and for the next two days, resulting in about a metre.
Zao has interesting terrain but it was almost whiteout conditions, so we often found ourselves disorientated. Zao was uncrowded and we found some good runs and enough to keep us all happy.
Waking up right outside one of Zao’s main ropeways and almost snowed in was something very special. After a long day riding knee deep powder unwinding in one of Zao’s onsens, with a relaxed village feel while snow bucketed down, just topped it off.
We continued south to Inawashiro in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Lake Inawashiro is known as the Heavenly Mirror Lake. The drive was slow as we hit snowstorms, strong winds and snow graders making their way down the highways ploughing up the snow as we crossed snowy plateaus, snow covered fields and mountains. It showed us just how much snow Japan gets and the effort it takes to maintain the infrastructure.
There are a few resorts on offer around the Mt Bandai/Inawashiro area, and the Michi no Eki we found was state of the art, with excellent restaurants and amenities and snow cams for all main roads in this mountainous region.
We bunkered down here whilst the snow kept falling and watched the road snow cams. We had read up in Snow Action about this area and were interested in a small resort called Nekoma. We decided to leave the van and use the free shuttle service from the train station.
Nekoma is spectacularly beautiful, a great resort with a strong snowboarding feel and plenty of open and steep terrain. I got some of the best runs of my life here charging down a lift line making first tracks. The staff were super friendly, the vibe relaxed and the food great as well.
We had a weather window to get to our next destination, Myoko, which had been getting a heap of snow and had 80cm forecast for New Years Day. Between Myoko and Joetsu we found another great Michi no Eki and spent New Years Eve eating miso soup and amazing sushi from the local supermarket watching snow fall from our window.
They had special highway patrols checking vehicles had chains and turning people around due to the conditions. We were all very keen to see 2019.
I remember waking up early to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains reflecting off the fresh snow. Mt Myoko was being touched by soft pink light, the skies were clear, the air crisp and the snow fresh, fluffy and deep.
We rushed up to the resort. Just under a metre had fallen, some places more, it was the deepest snow we had been in. The terrain was something else as well, steep cliff drops with fluffy white pillows cascading down the steep walls. My sister, my Dad and I just constantly looped these tree runs, which no one had gone down, and it got my sister hooked on going through trees in powder as she had never done it before. She did really well – the snow was deeper than she was tall and if she fell she would probably have disappeared.
We spent the next couple of days around Myoko, finding loads of fun in Suginohara Ski Resort with its long, long runs and excellent ramen, and resorts like Tangram Ski Resort which links nicely to Madarao Mountain Resort. Lots of really varied terrain and fun riding, magical views at every turn, and places which were fairly easy to navigate around with the van.
We were heading to Hakuba next, more mountains in a beautiful and unique country that offers so much on so many levels. Seeing the Hakuba mountains in all their glory was like seeing our old friends, we have been there many times before. As we approached the snow got heavier and heavier. We had a few more days in the van free camping in Hakuba Valley.
The riding was good and surprisingly not too crowded. Visiting Cortina was a crazy dream five years ago for us as a family, and to realise this dream in the van was special.
With some sadness we realised that the journey was nearly over and soon we would have to leave Uki.
Spending three weeks road tripping Japan in a van chasing mountains and snow teaches you a lot as an individual and as a family. You see a lot and ride a lot.
The simple day to day life of riding-eating-sleeping-moving has its own special rhythm. The pace and the ability to see Japan the way we did – the people, the beauty, the riding and the mountains – makes you more humble and you appreciate things in a whole new way.
It is hard to put into words in many ways. The unavoidable stresses of navigating around a foreign country, the snowstorms that rocked our van, the bitterly cold nights that left our van frozen, to the days of riding fresh powder all day long, these are memories made and not easily forgotten.
The sense of adventure we all tapped into with this trip and life on the road has given us all a new sense of ourselves and made clearer what we hold most dear to us, which is the precious time we have together.. and riding.