DRIVING in Niseko’s snowy, icy, white-out conditions can be for many tourists like learning to drive again.
When getting behind the wheel here, no matter your experience, it can feel a lot like being back on your L-plates. Most who have spent any time driving on these often very dangerous roads have their own stories of being completely out of control in their car when losing traction over some slippery ‘black ice’. Or, all of a sudden not being able to see anything out of the windscreen besides white, after strong storm winds blew a flurry of snow across the road. Driving around, we are forever seeing cars and trucks that have slid off the road and laid to rest on their sides or upside down, met with the business end of a snow bank. One of the scariest experiences can be sitting in a car and having no control over it whatsoever. Hokkaido’s sometimes cruel weather conditions make for Niseko’s world-class skiing and snowboarding conditions, but with good comes bad: extremely treacherous roads. Local police told Powderlife there were about 30 accidents of a relatively serious nature reported last winter in Niseko and Kutchan from November to March – 11 of which were a result of common local environmental dangers such as white-outs, ice slips, and snow mounds on the road.
While there is a comprehensive inter-resort public transport system between Hirafu, Annapuri, Hanazono and Niseko Village, and plenty of buses to and from Kutchan – which are by far the safest option – it is still sometimes a cheap and above all convenient option to buy a car. For the most part, many people just try and drive as safely as possible and hope for the best, because the most experienced snow driver, or even a local, can in a split second easily be at the mercy of the harsh winter elements of Niseko.
Driver survivor tips:
Powderlife spoke to the Japan Automobile Federation’s (JAF) traffic economy manager Takao Yamasawa, who offered some helpful safety information for surviving on Niseko’s roads during the winter. Some of these tips are just common sense, but should be employed at all times. Takao-san also says many of these tips aren’t just for winter, and should be applied year-round…
• Know and adjust to the conditions of the road every time you get behind the wheel. Is it wet, icy, snowy, windy, or a combination of these? Remember, conditions can change over time, depending on weather, temperatures and the time of day.
• Drive slower in dangerous conditions. This means it will take you less time to stop quickly if required.
• Leave plenty of distance between cars – many seconds or car lengths in distance are needed to avoid collisions.
• Do not turn the wheel, accelerate or brake quickly. Do everything in slow, calculated movements.
• To minimise the need to speed, and stress on the roads, allow plenty of time to travel to your destination. If you have more time than you need, there is no need to speed.
• If you lose control of your vehicle, try not to panic. This may be difficult, but try to stay calm and collected.
• Always concentrate on the roads and never be distracted.
• Watch out for ‘snow piles’ that have accumulated on the side of the road after a blizzard.
• Beware of ‘black ice’. It may look like a wet road, but it is camouflaged ice and very slippery.
• Check what functions your car has – traction control, snow settings and anti-braking system breaks, for example – and, more importantly, make sure they are all functioning properly.
• Be aware of safety signs and information about road conditions, such as red and white arrows, which indicate the location of snow banks at the side of the road. These can make winter driving a little easier in poor conditions.
• Consider taking a driving lesson from a local school that specialises in winter driving.
What to do if you’re in an accident:
It’s bad enough being in a road accident at home, but a crash overseas in a non-English-speaking country can arguably be even more of a rattling experience. Okay, so unfortunately you’re in an accident in Niseko. What should you do?
• Firstly, make sure that you and all involved parties are safe.
• Check if yourself, or others, are injured.
• If necessary, call an ambulance.
• Ensure that you are not going to cause another accident with approaching vehicles. If the cars can be moved from the scene of the accident safely, move them to a safe place.
• If the cars are not able to be moved, turn on the hazard lights and ignite the flare (all cars in Japan should be equipped with an emergency flare).
• Call the police and make a record of the accident.
• If you have a rental car, be sure to call your rental car company.
• For members of JAF, phone for a tow truck.
• If you don’t have a mobile phone, or have no reception, safely try to wave down passing traffic or passers by and get them to send for help. The person involved must stay at the scene of the accident at all times.
Local emergency phone numbers:
We have compiled a short list of contacts to call in case of an emergency in Niseko.
• Police – 110
• Ambulance and fire – 119
• Emergency interpretation – 03-5285-8185
• Japan-English Helpline (nation-wide emergency assistance) – 0570-000-911
• Japan Automobile Federation’s
(JAF) – 011-857-7122, or visit www.jaf.or.jp