Traveling Japan by camper van in the depths of winter might look pretty, but can it really be done without freezing to death?
We weren’t totally sure. If the cold weather didn’t get us, surely a snowdrift would, and there’s not a half-decent snow shoveler between us. Deciding that 2020 had left us with a much more fluid approach to survival, we layered up with Heattech, loaded up with supplies (a Costco tray of croissants would surely be enough, right?), and picked up the Dream Drive rental RV in Tokyo for our adventure.
Exploring Nagano in a camper van turned out to be a fabulous four days of being occasionally cold (but mainly because we wore “nice coats” instead of sensible ones), seeing some beautiful sights, and enjoying plenty of slightly burnt sausages for breakfast. We learned a few tricks along the way about “surviving” our travels, so here is the Tokyo Cheapo guide to exploring Japan by camper van in winter.
Driving Japan in a camper van: Winter tires to the rescue
The thought of driving in winter can be off-putting, with easily conjured images of sudden snow flurries, icy patches, and uncleared roads. Luckily, Japan is pretty great at keeping roads clear as the weather is anticipated and planned for with grit and snow plows at the ready. However, if you’re not a confident driver or aren’t used to operating a larger vehicle like a Winnebago, it can still seem daunting—but there are ways to gain confidence and drive safely. Ensure you rent your motorhome from a reliable and trusted company—Dream Drive are one of the best for camper van rentals in Tokyo and ensure you have safety checks, winter tires fitted, and safe heating systems installed.
Getting used to the camper van
Driving a larger vehicle is a learning experience, and winter roads can make it more of a challenge. It’s important to give yourself time to get used to the camping car and to generally go slower than you might in a regular car, so generous schedules are a must. Wind is a major factor, so keep your speed down, keep both hands on the wheel and prepare for extra gusts on exposed roads or when passing other large vehicles.
Dream Drive fits all RV vans with winter tires, which are specially designed to perform well in snow, ice, and rain as well as on dry, cold roads. The adaptability of winter tires makes them more suitable for Japanese roads than snow tires, as you are unlikely to be driving in heavy snow but could encounter ice, rain or light snow.
If you do encounter heavy snow (likely on private roads), then there are snow chains you can attach to the tires of your Japanese camper van. These fit snugly and offer extra grip. It’s a good idea to practice attaching them before you leave so you’re confident (the Dream Drive crew can help you with this before you set off).
In areas with heavy snow, there are often chain-changing areas with lighting and a safe area for pulling in. Keep an eye out for the signs if you think you might need to chain up soon.
Keeping warm: Heaters gonna heat
Snow is beautiful, but it also means you can freeze pretty fast if you don’t wrap up, especially at night. In preparation for winter, half of the Dream Drive camper vans have been fitted with parking heaters to keep campers toasty. As they run on diesel from the engine and have specially fitted external exhausts, they won’t deplete the van battery and can be safely used overnight without additional ventilation.
While outside, you can purchase firewood for around ¥500 per bundle, which lasted for a couple of fires, we found. While you’ll still need to wrap up when you head outside (and for that we recommend layers of Uniqlo’s Heattech!), knowing you have a cosy van to come back to makes it all the more bearable. For some bonus heat saving, at night you can attach the window covers for extra insulation. And the duvets provided are hotel-level thick, so you’ll be snug as a bug.
Staying fresh: Hello hot springs
Unlike large caravan-style campers, the Dream Drive vans don’t have bathrooms (although some do have sinks with small water tanks). This means you’ll have to stop for toilet breaks and showers, which is a little less fun in winter. However, it’s also the perfect opportunity to make the most of Japan’s hot springs. Impossibly hot in summer, they become a haven of warmth in winter and often come with stunning views, surrounded by snow.
Look out for onsen towns with public baths such as Nozawa Onsen, or check out the day access for hotels in onsen towns. You can often pay around ¥700 for a fancy hotel onsen, while public baths are generally charged at the national set rate of ¥420 yen.
In some towns such as Kusatsu or Nozawa, public hot springs are free, but are a simpler affair and don’t provide amenities such as soap or towel rental. Luckily Dream Drive camper vans come with towels, so just remember to bring them back with you!
Campsites: Off road and under cover
Unless you’re deep in the mountains, most auto-campsites remain open throughout winter, although some reduce to weekends and holidays. Winter tires should mean access is no problem as long a tracks and paths are cleared and maintained to some degree. If you’re in snowy areas, we recommend arriving in daylight so you can negotiate off-road tracks with more confidence—plus there’s less chance of ice patches.
If you’re camping in areas with heavy and continuous snowfall, it’s best to camp under a roof as vans can easily become trapped over night. If there’s a snowstorm approaching, it is best to shovel snow around the vehicle, so the underneath remains snow-free. Ths prevents the van from getting stuck and means once the surrounding area has been cleared, you can drive away without needing a tow truck.
If you would rather stay on main roads and don’t expect a snowstorm, then camping in roadside stations can be a good option too. They will be cleared of snow, have toilets and food, and you’ll be around people if anything goes wrong!
Japan van life destinations: Ski resorts, onsen towns and beyond
You’ve got your pick of the country but we suggest heading to destinations that combine wintery views with hot springs. Try out Kusatsu or Nozawa Onsen. Both are within reasonable distance of Tokyo and have annual snow meaning they’re used to keeping roads clear. There are plenty of wintery onsen escapes near Tokyo as well as some popular spots you might find tricky to visit using public transport, like the famous snow monkeys!
You can also use the camping car as a base for skiing, meaning you can hop between slopes whenever you feel like it (and avoid the busy shuttle buses). There are plenty of great resorts in Nagano and beyond—check our guide to the best options within reasonable distance of Tokyo.
You can add extra storage to a Dream Drive camper van for equipment and the mini-stove is perfect for a miniature cheese fondue (and that’s the only reason people go skiing, right?).