The Road To Shiga 2012

Last month, the family once more hit the road to go up to Shiga in Nagano Prefecture to get a few days skiing and snowboarding in.

Compared to last year, a few things on the technical side had changed – this time we were in a Toyota Ractis since our beloved Vitz was written off by someone who just didn’t seem to understand traffic lights. The Ractis is slightly bigger, so was a bit more comfortable for all the hours on the road, but because of that, we had to buy some new snow chains. I’m not completely sure, but I think Carmate, who make the Biathlon car chains we used last year, have changed their product mix a little, since the most easily available model in their lineup was the ‘Quick n Easy‘.

One other change was that our son had outgrown his 0-12 month baby seat, so was now in a 12month – 11 year combination seat which we were a little unfamiliar with as we’d only installed it a few days prior, but it worked out very well, and he seems to love it. It’s the Aprica ‘Euro Impact Junior 01‘, and no, I don’t know who comes up with the names for these things; the ‘euro’ part though I suspect comes from the fact that it supports ECE R44.04, a European originating safety standard that all child seats now have to, or want to support.

Armed with all this, we set off from Kanagawa-ken, managing to be on the roads early, with ETC set up, a route in the navi, the kids well occupied (or asleep), and the usual rampaging DJs on FM Yokohama, we were away.

We kept to a stop every 90 mins or so, mainly for toilet breaks and such, to let the kids get out, and for additional tea breaks for the drivers – I’m apparently lucky that my wife doesn’t mind driving, so she took on the first third of the journey. Of course, as you get further up to the mountains, you eventually get to the snow line, and all the ice and fun which comes with it. We actually had to stop a few kilometres earlier than we did last year to put the chains on, and true to form and the couple of practice goes I’d had, the chains went on no problems at all – in fact, I think they were easier than the Biathlons we had last year.  If you’ve never driven with chains, especially on real mountain roads with a decent amount of snow, it is a very fun experience, providing you keep the speed down. I should say that going up a mountain always feels safer than coming down.

The hotel we chose was right at the end of the road we were on so at least we knew we couldn’t miss it. We got the booking sorted out through Snow Japan, a bit like we did last year, but for reasons I’ll explain later, I don’t actually think that route is really worth it. The hotel was the Okushiga-Kougen hotel, and we got a decent price on a family sized room, with breakfast included, and I’d read the breakfast was pretty good. So, to do the hotel review first: it *is* a good hotel – the staff were relatively efficient, the wi-fi (only in the lobby area) worked as advertised and got a decent throughput, and the carpark is right in front and fairly well sheltered and maintained, so I had less snow digging to do each morning. The breakfast was very good for a Japanese ski hotel, a decent western and Japanese buffet, with good sausages, bacon and scrambled eggs which weren’t swimming for a change. The down side is that all other meals are horrifically expensive – the dinners start at 2,500 for a childs set meal, go to a basic adult meal for 4,500en, and top out at 12,500en for a deluxe course. These prices are out of our range. What we learned are that for lunches and dinner it’s much better for quality and cost to either pop around to the Prince Hotel Shiga West, or over the road to the Hotel Grand Phenix, which oddly is an expensive place to stay, but reasonable to eat. The Italian restaurant there does a fantastic rabbit dish.

All of the Okushiga hotels are at the bottom of the slope, but let’s get something out of the way – the area is skier only – no snowboards are allowed. We chose the place though because our eldest is learning to ski, and the ski school there is excellent, reasonably priced, and even will sell you digital copies of some on piste photos of the kids for a small amount. When we were there, there were no other students. The ‘no boarder’ attitude, combined with some of the pricing means it’s pretty quiet, and the average age of people there is over 60 as far as I could tell. We simply put the eldest in ski schools in the mornings, which she loved, and then drove to Yakibitaiyama around the corner, where our youngest could play in the creche, and we could get some boarding done. I should also point out Okushiga does have a creche, but only on Saturday and Sunday, which was a minor fact they didn’t mention when we called in advance to confirm facilities.

The Okushiga Kougen hotel then worked out very well once we sorted the food sourcing out, and the onsen was clean, and the TV, though an aging CRT with a digital converter literally bolted to it, did allow us to use the audio/visual cable for the iPod so my daughter could watch her shows, which is invaluable when you’re a little bit confined for space. The in-room bath was also a little bigger than many other hotels, though still technically a unit bath/toilet room.

A notable experience for me on the snow side of things that was the first time I got to ski with my daughter, going up on the chair lift together and coming down and I have to say I was very impressed, though I think she was irritated with the grip I had on her on the chair lift, given she was quite relaxed.

When not on the slopes, we could play with the kids safely at Okushiga, though the snow is so powdery, it was difficult to make a snowman.

Coming back was as simple as going, but again, going downhill always makes me think a little bit, and we passed one person coming up who was sliding all over who apparently thought that normal road tyres on an SUV would be enough – it’s not.

As usually, we sent all of our boards and skis via Takkyubin, which is always the simplest way to do it. Perhaps next year we’ll try a roof gear holder for them.

Booking via SnowJapan used to get some decent discounts, but now I really don’t know since the prices we were quoted on the phone with hotels was the same as via their site, so aside from driving some traffic I’m not sure where the value is any more (and the SnowJapan make-over with Silverlight hotel finder was perhaps ill advised).

In all then, a massively successful trip for the whole family, and we managed to make use of all the lessons we learned last year, and learned a few for next year, as we wont be able to make another this year due to a stream of other commitments. I also got a nice ‘yuki 雪’ sticker for my old Macbook.