top of page

Japanese Wanderings Part 1: LAX to Nozawa Onsen

I promised everyone that I would post a little bit about our trip to Japan, and since we've returned -I guess that its now or never! In summary, we basically had the dirtbag dream tour of Honshu (Japan's main island). Three of us spent two and a half weeks in a camper van, traversing some of the country's best offerings, and exploring fantastic new zones almost every day. As might have been expected, we enjoyed a ton of powder skiing -but we also skied some gnarlier lines, sweated up some high elevation skin tracks, and even had some tourist and cultural experiences. By the end I had collected 15 ski days, including visits to 10 different ski resorts, and several long days in the backcountry (around 5-8 depending on your definition of "slackcountry" vs. backcountry).

Yes, it was a great trip! But first we had to get there -arguably one of the hardest parts. Japan isn't exactly close to the USA; its a 10-12 hour (direct) flight to Tokyo from the West Coast, or about 5,000 miles from San Fransisco. From Tokyo you then have to find the mountains (and the snow), which also aren't exactly close. Imagine driving from LA to Mammoth, from Denver to Aspen, from Seattle to Mt. Baker (or further), etc etc you get the picture -that is Tokyo to the good skiing.

Anyway, this first post is simply about that journey -so, sorry for the lack of ski content. Those posts will come later, so buckle up your boots for the ride.

Mt. Myoko. Did we ski it?? Find out soon (1-1000 days depending on my laziness with posting) .

All three of us had plane tickets from LAX, which were substantially cheaper than any from Reno or San Fransisco. Theresa and I had a long journey scheduled -including a 10 hour layover in Shanghai, while Remmington had waited until after Thanksgiving to buy his ticket, and scored a direct flight from LAX to Tokyo at a cheaper price than ours. In the future I will wait until Cyber Monday to buy plane tickets, as thats when the real deals came out! Our plane tickets (round trip) were all in the $400 -$600 range.

I was already in Los Angeles for a funeral, and so Theresa and Remmington picked me up after their drive down 395 (and some skiing at Mammoth). We didn't have too much time to spend in LA, but rendezvoused at Theresa's sister's place (huge thanks!) for some dinner, final packing, and planning. Remmington would drop us off at the airport that night, and then catch his flight in the morning. He'd actually beat us to Tokyo, and would be able to pick up our van for the trip (and then us hopefully).

With a little time to spare we made it to the airport. Theresa and I had flights with Eastern China Airlines, and after some haggling about our "ski boards" they let us check the bags for free. Eastern China Airlines is great for budget tickets, and they have a contract with United -so all the same policies apply. While their prices are great, the plane was very crowded and felt as if it was constructed for people who are smaller than myself (as are many asians). As a well-nourished 6'3" dude, this was to become a theme of the trip for me.

Our 14-hour flight to Shanghai was hellish, with every seat full and several very loud children seated nearby. I was planning to sleep for most of the flight, but that didn't really happen. Turbulence also seemed to kick in just about every time I would drift off. After what seemed like far too long in those cramped quarters, we finally arrived in Shanghai at 6 in the morning.

Theresa is stoked to get off the crowded plane and into a crowded subway instead.

With 10 hours to kill we decided to explore China a bit. We hopped onto the MagLev train from the airport, and then cruised into downtown Shanghai via subway. Its actually a pretty nice city, with a really beautiful skyline. The city itself is split by the very dirty Huangpu River, the last significant tributary to the Yangtze. Boats run up and down its polluted waterway, and the entire scene can be taken in from one of Shanghai's most well-known tourist spots: the Bund.

Morning views from the Bund

Riverboat on the Huangpu, with the financial district towering behind

We enjoyed the sights of Shanghai for a few hours, touring the main spots as well as a few dingy back alleys. Shanghai is full of motorcyclists, odd fashions, small shops, and video cameras (perhaps the government keeping an eye on things?). We also noted that we were the only people wearing sunglasses...which was odd since it was a very bright day. Perhaps, much as the internet in China is censored, large gatherings are prohibited, etc -sunglasses are somehow outlawed. Or maybe styles just haven't caught on?

Strange Food

After a while we decided to check out the other side of the river, and got sucked into one of Shanghai's worst (and oddest) tourist traps. It's called the Bund Tourist Tunnel -which we thought would be a walking tunnel under the river. We were wrong, as its in fact an overpriced "ride" through a very poorly themed tunnel. Imagine Disneyland but created by hobos with 1/100 of the budget and no sense of fun or artistry. Next time we'll save the $15, but at least it gave us a ride to the other side. There we enjoyed a hilarious scene including Chinese Children ice skating, bad techno-pop, and other oddities. Yes, it quickly became apparent that whats "cool" in Asia is far different than what is "cool" or "modern" in the states. We enjoyed some lunch and had just enough time to hop the MagLev train back to the airport.

Odd for a children's playground.

After another 4 hours via plane, we finally arrived in Tokyo! We managed to get ahold of Remmington, who had been able to pick up our camper van with no problems. He was a few train stations away from the airport, so we lugged our ski bags through the city for a while before finally meeting up.

Remmington (aka Daddy Rem) and our home on wheels for the next two weeks!

We rented our camper van through a company called Japan Campers, which seemed to be the cheapest. To save money we opted for an older version Toyota "Hi Ace" model, with two folding beds inside. When we first hopped in, it quickly became apparent that the van was not intended for three large adults and all the gear we brought. It was full up! But, we optimistically figured that it would be easy to pull our skis out in the evenings, and knew that we'd make the best of it!

The upside to having a van, was that we could go wherever we wanted. Checking the weather forecast, it seemed to be snowing heavily in a place called Nozawa Onsen, and most of our potential destinations were slated for heavy snow over the next few days. I knew that Nozawa was renowned for its good tree skiing and lift access, so we opted to give it a shot!

And so around 10 PM we finally left Tokyo, headed to Nagano and then Nozawa. It would be about a four hour drive to get there, and so we hopped on the expressway with the hopes of making it at least part-way that evening.

Japanese freeways are not like those in the US. They are all toll roads (which can be quite expensive), with very few on and off ramps. They can also be pretty confusing as many places have several stacked layers of road, odd circular onramps, "slip roads" that parallel the freeway, or other oddities. In Japan you also drive on the left side of the road -quite the adjustment for us.

We immediately made a wrong turn, and ended up stuck on a section of expressway with no off ramps for many miles. Whoops! According to Google maps the re-route would add about 45 minutes to our trip, so we soldiered on through the night, taking shifts behind the wheel. After about three hours driving, we opted to pull off the expressway and sleep (those three hours ended up costing about $80 in tolls). We stopped at a roadside rest area, pulled out the skis, and noticed that it was snowing! Stoke was undoubtedly high.

First night in the van...and it still seemed so novel rather than crammed.

The next morning we woke up to a fresh coating of snow on the ground, and enjoyed our first vending machine coffees of the trip (there would be many more to come). As we continued towards Nagano, the snow intensified and the mountains loomed larger. We passed through Nagano, and finally arrived at Nozawa Onsen to full blizzard conditions and a lot of fresh snow! We had made it to the promised land of Japanuary JaPOW!

To be continued...

You're going to want to wake up with a Black Boss... its "for all can coffee lovers"

bottom of page