I thought I’d write an update on what happened in the last few days. If you follow me on Instagram, I’m sure you already know what this will be about, as I posted about what happened as the hours passed, but this experience deserves a quick and impromptu article on this space as well.
We were on location in Niigata from Tuesday to shoot in snow for a winter themed project. The weather forecast was not being very clear about whether there would even be snow, so we were already prepared to make changes to the concept of this project if we would not find any snow at all. But we did find snow… And we found a lot of it. Once we drove through the tunnel that was famously described by Kawabata Yasunari in Snow Country (雪国, yukiguni), it was the most snow I had ever seen in my life.
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.”
This was Tuesday, and it was the first snow of the year. After snowing for merely one day, the white mass already reached one meter. I was considering cancelling the project altogether, as there was too much snow and the situation was becoming dangerous. On Wednesday, there was still a lot of snow, but we were well prepared with lots of equipment and the snowfall during the day was not so bad, so we managed to get the footage we came for. That evening we kanpai‘d and slept like babies after a job well done.
On Thursday morning, we packed our bags and were ready to drive back to Tokyo. The news reported that there might be heavy traffic due to the snow, but nothing really extreme came up as far as we could see. One hour from our hotel, we drove up the Kanetsu expressway. Traffic was slow but still moving, but after about 30 minutes, we came to a complete standstill. A long line of cars was starting to appear behind us and we were completely blocked on all sides. After 2 hours, we moved forward for about 100 meters, but then we stood still again. Hours passed by without any news or updates from authorities. We were getting hungry and started eating our snacks and omiyage (souvenir snacks) for lunch. We still had some water and soda in the car, but we drank as little as possible to avoid having to go to the bathroom. At around 3PM, people from the Nippon Expressway Company came up to every car and truck to hand out Calorie Mates and portable toilets. We asked the woman who handed over our package about the situation and what our best course of action would be. She told us that getting back to Tokyo that day would be close to impossible, and she wasn’t even sure whether we would get off the expressway that evening. She told us that at the they were trying to clear vehicles one by one at the front of the line. This gave us a tiny sprinkle of hope and we started looking up hotels in the area. All was already fully booked. We then called our hotel we stayed at before, we explained the situation and they still had rooms available for us. Hours passed by with no news from authorities. One of my absolutely lovely colleagues and friend reached out and kept me updated on whatever appeared in the media. Then she said one thing that scared us more than anything: be careful of carbon dioxide poisoning. This played with our heads, and we looked up all kinds of tips and recommendations for this type of situation. We opened and closed our windows, turned the engine on and off, went outside for fresh air once in a while. We were “lucky” to be stranded next to a wall of snow, with no cars on the other side, which meant that this was fresher air to breathe. We were also incredibly lucky that we fueled up right before leaving, so we could keep the engine running for heating and had electricity to charge our phones. At 7PM, we made the executive decision to split up and a part of our group would walk to find food. We made sure that each group had a Japanese speaker, in case anything would happen once they left, so I stayed as a Japanese speaker with the group in the car.
The group that left for food walked for a total of 5km. They did not even reach the exit they they planned to reach, but a friendly older man told them about a secret staircase that connected the expressway to another road. They climbed the stairs and hopped the fence to the other road, they walked until they found a Chinese restaurant where they warmed themselves and filled their stomachs. Then they ordered as much takeout as they could carry and brought it back to the car. I was so happy to finally have some food that day, and suddenly felt extreme guilt and sadness for all the people around us they could not eat, that ran out of fuel and were probably extremely cold. We had some leftover food and gave it to the man stranded beside us.
At 7PM we read an article that Niigata asked the Japanese Self Defense Force to come for help, and at 9:40PM we saw a huge convoy of army trucks pass by on the other lane. There was no movement around us for the longest time, but at around 10:30PM we saw the JSDF dig out cars behind us, and we pulled out our shovels and started digging around us as well. By the time they reached us, we could quickly be evacuated. They helped us make a crazy narrow U-turn and led us to the police barricade. The police directed the freed cars to make a convoy of about 10 to 15 vehicles, and then after standing there for another 30 minutes, we could finally drive off the Kanetsu expressway at 00:30AM.
We reached the hotel at 1:20AM. And now I want just want to write a special thank you to Hotel Yumoto in Niigata, and especially to the man at the front desk. As we kept him updated on the phone about our situation, he told us he would wait for us as long as is needed and all that mattered was our safety. The front desk normally closes at 12AM but he stayed up for us and when we arrived, he even opened the onsen specially for us to warm up. My team said they had never seen my eyes sparkle more than at that exact moment. That night, we got to sleep in a warm room.
Yesterday, we left the hotel at around 9:00AM and upon much research of the weather and road situation, we took a different route and made it back safely to Tokyo around 5PM.
As we were driving back to Tokyo, we saw the news of all the people that were stranded on the Kanetsu expressway overnight. The realization dawned on us that if we had left one hour earlier on Thursday, we would have been stranded further ahead on the expressway, and would have had to spend the night in the car. We were extremely lucky, despite having stood still and being snowed in on that road for over 13 hours. My heart goes out to all the children, older people, people without warm clothing and people without gas, heating or food that had to spend the night in their car, and many more hours after that.
This is my personal experience from my point of view. You can read about this in international press as well: