Icy roads ahead in Hokkaido

Taking public transport, such as trains and buses, may be safer than driving on the icy roads of Hokkaido in winter. -- PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO
Taking public transport, such as trains and buses, may be safer than driving on the icy roads of Hokkaido in winter. -- PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Take precautions while on a winter holiday in Hokkaido, especially if you are driving

Last Tuesday, a coach carrying 16 Singaporean tourists and a tour guide skidded off a snow-covered road in Hokkaido and crashed into an adjacent field.

The tour guide lost two front teeth while a 68-year-old grandmother suffered a broken leg in the crash.

It was the second coach accident in six weeks. On Oct 23, the head-on collision of a tour bus carrying 33 Singaporean tourists and a truck killed both drivers.

With ice and snow on roads and unpredictable weather, winter can be a treacherous time to be on the road for even the most experienced drivers.

A spokesman for the Automobile Association of Singapore said snowy conditions result in low visibility, decreased traction for car tyres and longer braking distances.

In addition, if your car breaks down, it may be a challenge to locate you due to the road and weather conditions, he cautions. "Prolonged waiting times along with extremely low temperatures make vehicular breakdowns, in snowy weather, dangerous for drivers and their passengers," he adds.

Statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization and travel agencies here show that the winter months from November through February are the favourite time of the year for Singaporeans travelling to Japan.

The organisation observes that more than 75,000 Singaporeans visited Japan during the winter months last year. This is about 40 per cent of the 189,220 Singaporeans who travelled to Japan the whole of last year.

By far, the preferred month was December, when 38,100 Singaporeans flew to Japan. In comparison, the next most popular month was June, with 21,735 Singaporean tourists.

Similarly, about 40 per cent of the 5,000 tourists that Dynasty Travel sends to Japan each year choose to go during November or December.

"Winter holidays in Japan are very popular among Singaporeans, when families enjoy bonding timeduring the year-end school break. They like to get away from Singapore's tropical weather and enjoy snow activities," says Ms Alicia Seah, director of marketing communications at Dynasty Travel.

Hokkaido in winter is particularly popular for its hot springs, excellent ski fields and facilities, and winter festivals such as the Sapporo Snow Festival which boasts enormous snow palaces and brightly lit, multicoloured snow sculptures, sledding and snow ball fights.

But the 5m of snow the island receives every year can make getting to Hokkaido's highlights hazardous.

None of the tour agencies which spoke to SundayLife! offer self-drive itineraries to Hokkaido in winter, though they do at other points of the year.

For example, Dynasty Travel offers self-drive itineraries to destinations such as Hokkaido and Niigata in north-western Honshu only from April to October. During winter months, those looking for a winter experience can take one of their four group itineraries to the region, which use coach transport.

ASA Holidays does not offer self-drive itineraries to Japan and does not advocate self-drive tours in winter. "It is best not to drive around due to the language barrier and lack of familiarity with the country and its roads," advises an ASA sposkesman.

Instead, take public transport and take note of weather reports before heading out, he said.

Mr Daniel Yong, 40, learnt this the hard way when he and his friends got caught in a blizzard while on a self-drive tour of northwest Japan last year.

"It caught us all by surprise," he recalls. Their car got stuck in a deep snow bank and had to be pushed out with the help of other motorists.

A little later, they realised the roads were too icy for them to drive down into the valley where their ski resort was located. "A friendly local helped us drive the car down to the ski resort, then he went home on his own," says Mr Yong.

Though aware of the dangers, he does not regret the trip or let it discourage him from winter travel. Icy roads, rather than snowy ones, are the problem, he says. "Make sure your car has snow tyres and stay safe by driving slowly on the left side of the highway, with the slower traffic, and don't drive in the early morning when the roads are icy," he advises.

When Ms Mabel Ng, 39, and her husband, Mr Teh Chee Siong, 40, took a trip to Niseko in Hokkaido in 2011, they opted to use public transport rather than risk it on the road.

They felt perfectly safe using buses and trains, despite travelling through heavy snow fall.

"We never felt unsafe. The drivers were cautious. They drove slowly and safely. They are used to driving in those conditions and Japan has very high safety standards so we felt comfortable. I slept most of the way," she said.

This year, the couple decided to drive themselves during a week-long tour of central Japan. The key to staying safe on winter roads is preparation, says Ms Ng.

Even though snow was not expected, she and her husband played it safe by having snow tyres on their rental car.

They also researched road conditions and read up about winter driving online before their trip.

"It is important to be careful. We come from a tropical country and have no experience with driving in snow," she says. The couple also spoke to the car rental agent to learn what they should do if they encountered snow and who to call in case of an emergency.

Fortunately, the trip went smoothly, though it was not without scares.

"We forgot that the sun sets very early and we were driving in the dark on mountain roads with no street lights. That was a bit scary, but we drove slowly and got to our destination safely," she recalls.

According to a spokesman for the Automobile Association of Singapore, those who would like to drive themselves should consider driving as part of a convoy to provide support and assistance to one another.

Ms Susan Ong, deputy director of the Japan National Tourism Organization, says: "It is best and safe to travel by public transport, such as the coach or trains in winter, or wait till any bad weather clears before proceeding."

Flying into the airport nearest to your destination and then using public transport is the best way to get around.

There are 12 airports in Hokkaido, for instance. From there, travellers will be able to board trains, buses or arrange for hotel transfers to their desired location.

Railways connect the major cities in Hokkaido. They run on time and are generally more reliable than cars or buses, which can be hindered by road conditions.

Tourists can buy multi-day passes, from 15,430 yen (S$169) for an unlimited three-day pass to 22,630 yen for a seven-day pass, which will let you travel around the island. Children from six to 11 years old pay half-price for tickets.

Alternatively, Hokkaido has a number of reputable bus companies, such as JR Hokkaido Bus, which picks up passengers from most cities and airports in Hokkaido, or SkyBus, which can be hired for private minibus tours or transfers.

Though this takes longer than train travel, the buses will go to resorts and towns not accessible by rail.

They are also cheaper than trains. The longest and most expensive trip, from Sapporo to Nemuro, costs 7,200 yen, for example.

Even though winter travel can be precarious, by taking public transport, snow bunnies can minimise their risks on the road and focus on beautiful sights instead.

vlydia@sph.com.sg

How do you stay safe travelling on overseas roads in winter? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg