Family road trip to Shiga Kogen

We just got back last week from our first snow trip of 2011. It also marked some other landmarks: at 644Km in 3 days, our longest trip as a family in a car, our first multiday trip with offspring #2, our first long run with the ETC, and of course, our first with the the (non metal) snowchains!

For background, we have an old Toyota Vitz (that’s a Yaris in a few other places), which is fine, but we knew we couldn’t get all the snowboards in the car, so we takkyubin’d them a few days before departure. Takkyubin is a wonderful thing – for 2 snowboards and our boots etc. as two bags, it cost 2,500yen all together, and even though I carried them a few hundred yards to the local Family Mart, they would have picked them up for not much more.

A rental car any bigger than the Vitz, for the time would’ve cost ~¥30,000, and then would cost more in fuel, so we decided to stick with the Vitz as a trial and spend that rental money on an ETC unit for it (~¥14,500 fitted at Autobacs) and some CarMate Biathlon Athlete ‘non-metal’ snowchains (~¥16,500 from 8&7 Wholesale @ Amazon).

The ETC unit would be a bit of a universal benefit – it’s the electronic toll road payment system unit so you don’t have to fiddle with change at toll booths, and gives you some discounts, so this was a nice to have anyway.

We got most of the car ready the night before, and followed some of the tips from flying – made sure the elder offspring had plenty of entertainment on the iPhone, a couple of books, toys, and drawing utensils for the stops. It’s also trips like this where buying that cheap car stereo which takes iPod/USB input pays off – we could have our whole music collection plus podcasts and audio books to listen to en route.

Trees n Snow
Trees n Snow in Shiga

Some other things I like to have in the car anyway, and especially for this trip: jump cables (booster cables here), a tow cable, some bungee cords, a couple of flasks of hot water and a hand crank torch/flashlight and radio. Also, I had the tip of never letting your tank get below half full, which might sound overly paranoid had a lot of people not got stuck in their cars for over 24hours last month in Japan on a major road, and with a 3 month old offspring in the vehicle, I didn’t want to take any chances.

The drive up took a long time – we weren’t pushing hard, but stopped for a couple of lengthy breaks to allow offspring #2 to be fed and changed and relax, though to be fair he, like his elder sibling – is a great traveller it seems. It’s fairly picturesque ride too, at least once you’re out of Tokyo and on the Kanetsu and then Joetsu expressways.

About 20Km before the hotel we got to the tyre/chains changing point. We chose this one because it has a large roofed area where a lot of the busses put their huge metal chains on – it’s impressive to watch. It only took us about 5 minutes per wheel, barely needing the tutorial video (which I’d ripped to my phone), and the only difficulty really being yanking the rubber around the wet wheels, which is to be expected. I’d actually practiced this a couple of times in front of the house a week before we set off, and it was pretty much the same. Just colder. And wetter. And colder, meaning your fingers need some better gloves than the free ones to pull effectively.

This was the first time for me driving on snow in the mountains in an automatic and with chains, and to be frank it was fine. The rubber chains make the car shake a little bit more, but we made good, safe time using the ‘2’ and ‘L’ settings on the ‘gearbox’ and getting the benefits of their effective engine breaking (which is what was my main concern). After I while I was actually enjoying it, stereo up, no one on the road and hitting crazy speeds of 35Kmh. Not quite rally speeds, but given the noise in the 998cc car it felt like it at times.

First things, the Prince Hotels were almost empty. Ours had almost empty car parks and as we were to find the place was about a quarter full, and three quarters of those were Australians – a main fixture of most Japanese resorts now – and the rest mainly being Japanese retirees. I wonder how long it is until the operators wake up to this demographic. More things are in English, things are more flexible and food quality has increased, but prices are moving away from what most Japanese families could afford (we only managed to get a deal by booking early). Anyway, that’s a much longer post going back years. I am glad I brought my spade though; I usually do in case there’s ramp building opportunities on the mountain, but on the Friday morning I had to dig the car our from under almost 30cm of powder snow. It was so light it wasn’t an issue, but moving the snow in front of the car the hotel snow plough had moved took a little more time.

Dig out your car!
Dig out your car!

The room was fairly large by Prince standards – they claim to be a premium hotel chain but are basically the room stay equivalent of Denny’s. It’s not bad then, and really is ideal for a boarding trip – you’re not in the room most of the time, aside to sleep or relax and read anyway.

The restaurant however did have a more premium approach to it’s pricing which would make some Tokyo places think again. A child’s meal (the only child’s meal) was 2,000yen. The cheapest adult meal was 1,800 yen. My tip: everyone order the children’s meal, you get much more and it tasted better. One odd situation, a waiter wouldn’t bring me my okawari bread, as I hadn’t received my first one. After some pleading the more senior waiter brought me one. [okawari means you get unlimited replenishment, such as on coffee refills]. There was a single person shabushabu set for 6,800yen. That’s a huge amount of money for what you got. I wonder if it’s to fleece wealthy Aussies.

One bonus – free wifi in the lobby area, and power if you just plug in to hidden wall sockets. Finally the internet comes to the mountains. How long did that take?

Finally getting down to business, the snow was excellent – great powder runs and a good selection of slopes – everything I’ve always liked about Shiga Kogen. We managed to get offspring #1 into a ski school both mornings for about 4,000yen for 2 hours and since she got 1-1 tuition and could work with English and Japanese instructors, I think she got a lot out of it. We hadn’t planned the second session but she was raving about it after the first. The only disappointment with the snow was that there was no nighter in our area except on Saturday nights – just after we left. I only mention this as I asked during booking if there was a nighter and was told there was.

Frozen Trees in Shiga
Frozen Trees in Shiga

That aside, the slopes were empty pretty much, meaning fast direct runs down some pretty decent slopes, waist deep powder on the fringes of the courses, and no moguls outside of the snow park.

We put offspring #2 into a creche for one morning, and he seemed to like it enough apparently to not wake up, which is usually a good thing. That was the first time in a couple of years to board together, which prior to the children was something we were doing a lot every winter. Still, a worthwhile tradeoff.

All in all then the whole trip went much better than we hoped. One situation we weren’t expecting: we put the eco tag out saying we didn’t need towels every day, which should qualify us for a few thousand yen in vouchers. Great. So, we didn’t receive towels or bed making, and when we asked if we could have our vouchers the front desk claimed the was no eco tag, so no, we wouldn’t get vouchers. After a few exchanges with my wife, they reluctantly gave us them, but it left us wondering what the training was like if they were encouraged to argue with guests in the lobby in front of other guests over a thousand yen. To anyone who’s spent time in ski hotels in Japan, chances are that doesn’t shock you.

On Saturday evening we started heading back, taking it slowly, stopping at some fairly unimpressive rest stops, and just plodding along, with me listening to podcasts whilst the tribe slept away, which is relaxing in itself.  The size of the car didn’t seem to be a problem at all, just a question of travelling light, which we generally do, and sparing the space for things the kids ‘might’ need.

We’re thinking of doing another trip next month if we can get a deal on a room, so we’ll be looking to repeat most of the things that worked, and fix some things that didn’t.

On the latter list was the mistake of not having drinks in the car on the way back (they were in the suitcase), which mean’t some people being thirsty for an hour as we hunted for somewhere to stop. The second was the familiar issue of packing too many nappies, but then, always better to be 10 over than 1 under for those.

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