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Old 13th January 2022, 15:32   #1
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Default Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Kuroguma (黒ぐま) means 'Black bear' in Japanese.

That's what we call our 8 month old Mazda CX-8 (odo reading 16,300 km).

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_1899.jpg

The idea was simple - a week-long road-trip in search of snow. Also, an ambitious plan, to try and touch the northern most tip of Japan, Cape Soya in a place called Wakkanai. On a clear day, it is said, that one could actually see part of Russia from there.

We are a family of four - dad, mom, 10 year old girl, 5 year old boy, and we come from Kochi, not exactly known for it's snowy winters. All of us, except the mom were super excited. She on the other hand, was paranoid to put it mildly.

So we spent a lot of time (and ¥¥¥) preparing ourselves for the trip. Gloves, caps, neck warmers, ultra warm thermals, snow boots, jackets - you get the picture. And the car got some snow blades, studless tires, and special windshield washer fluid that wouldn't freeze until -30 deg C.

Investing in a car with AWD, heated seats, mirrors, steering and headlamp washers was finally going to pay off. Yeay!

So we booked the hotels, the ferry tickets to cross over from mainland Japan to the northern island of Hokkaido, packed our bags, and set off on our craziest adventure trip yet.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-capture.jpg

So that was it, a family of four, having nearly no experience of traveling in the snow, setting off on a week-long trip, where we weren't expecting to see any roads without snow! And the temperatures were going to between -4 degrees (max) and -17 degrees (min) for most of the trip.

We also made a beginner attempt at making a travel video, entirely shot and edited with our iPhone 11 Pro. Hope it's worth sharing!


Last edited by Viju : 14th January 2022 at 01:42.
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Old 13th January 2022, 15:52   #2
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Default re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Day 1
Yokohama (our home) --> Aomori (ferry boarding point)

This was a 750 km drive, and we covered around 500 km without any incident. We had booked an early morning ferry the next day. The last 200 - 250 km was really tough. There was a sudden snow-storm, and the relatively narrow highway was ridden with truckers who didn't seem to care at all.

Most unexpected was the snow-storm throwing the ADAS system into utter confusion. The front camera and the radar (behind the emblem on the front grille in our car) was fully covered in snow, and this was causing a lot of malfunctions. That, along with the sleepiness made driving really tough.

Fortunately, we reached Aomori incident-free by 4 a.m., and I even managed to squeeze in a couple of hours of sleep on the way. Once we drove on to the ferry, we settled into our 'view seats'.

As the ferry was going to be nearly 4 hours long, I spent some time taking a time-lapse video of the amazing sky and ocean, and also watching the zillions of sea gulls engulfing the boat from all sides. I even got to watch a pair of lovely dolphins jump in and out of the freezing water, before I gave up and went to sleep mid-way.

Day 2
Aomori - Hakodate

As we slowly rolled off the (slippery) ramp from the boat, we (at least 3 of us) were delighted by what we saw - it was a sea of white!

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_e7239.jpg

After stopping for a quick breakfast at a convenience store, we quickly set off to our first destination - Lake Onuma. As expected, it had a nice cover of snow, but the place was absolutely stunning, with the trees poking their heads out of the pretty big lake.

As it was our first day in the snow, we didn't want to overdo the sight-seeing. We went on to Mount Hakodate, and had the most amazing tandoori chicken on the way. The ropeway up the mountain was a bit crowded, and slow. But the view was well worth it. Especially the night view from atop the mountain is considered to be one of the top 3 views in Japan. But it was getting really cold, and we were not in the mood to stay out for too long.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_6909.jpg


We went in, and had a nice softie made from the famous fresh milk of Hokkaido. Even in that weather, it was too good to pass up, and it just melted in our mouth like hot butter.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2750.jpg

After a nice dip in the hot spring at our hotel, we went out in search of food.

By the way, before starting off on this trip to Hokkaido, we had a list of things we had to try out:
1. Fresh crab
2. Wagyu (grass-fed) beef
3. Lamb
4. Softie

We found a nice 'yakiniku' (grilled meat) restaurant near our hotel. And we ticked off the wagyu beef from our list. It was tastier than any of the meat we have had in Tokyo / Yokohama area.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2884.jpg

Last edited by Viju : 14th January 2022 at 01:32.
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Old 13th January 2022, 15:54   #3
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Default re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Day 3
Hakodate --> Sapporo


We visited Lake Toya, which was surprisingly still in liquid form. It was pretty huge, and there were cute little ducks swimming around, although the banks were fully covered in snow. The kids had a gala time playing in the snow.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2703.jpg

After enjoying the serenity of the place for an hour or so (and having decided to return in summer), we left to our next destination - Makomanai Takino Cemetery (yes, you read that right).

As the cemetery closes by 4 p.m., we had to make a dash in the snow to be there at least by 3 p.m.

Driving in the snow was tough on day 1, but as I got used to how the car behaved in the snow, it gave me more confidence after each day. Although my wife usually drives some of the distance during our road trips, she had no experience driving in snow, and did not want to take a chance. I was only too happy to play Tokyo drift all by myself.

Makomanai Takino was on a totally different level that we had anticipated. The Moai statues, and the stone henges, along with the Buddha statues were breath-taking. Also the place is covered in flower fields during summer. That means we have to go back there as well in summer. Ugh!

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2715.jpg

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Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2743.jpg

As we spent a lot of time out in the cold, we went to a lovely little hot spring on the way to the hotel, and then checked in. The hotel itself was average, and all the eateries nearby were booked out, unfortunately. We had to make do with some 'ramen' noodles, which we can get anywhere in Japan.

Day 4
Sapporo --> Asahikawa


This was a special day. We went to this place called Biei - a little bit off the beaten track, but made famous mainly due to social media influencers. There were basically two things we wanted to see there - the 'Lone Christmas Tree' (self-descriptive I suppose!) and the 'Blue Pond' in which the water turns into multiple shades of exotic blue as the day progresses.

The tree was nice, and we took the mandatory photographs from the nearby street, as the tree itself is located on a private property. Blue Pond was unfortunately covered in snow, and all we saw was a single shade of white, and no hint of blue. I guess at this rate we have to re-do the whole trip in summer!

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2758.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2759.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2771.jpg

The surprise find of this day was the nearby Shirogane Onsen (onsen - natural hot spring) nearby, which we loved dipping in. Also, there was this waterfall nearby called Shirahige Taki, where the snow looked like a white beard. That kind of compensated for not being able to see the blue pond. Without any exaggeration, I have never seen a more beautiful waterfall ever before!

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2789.jpg

We had a lot planned for the day. The final destination was called 'Ningle Terrace' - an hour's drive away, and it was already dark, as the sun sets around 4:30 p.m. in winter. But we decided to try it out anyway. It was like a hobbit land, with little souvenir shops, and brilliant winter lighting all around. But we were a bit late, and most of the shops had already closed.

Nevertheless, the dinner that night was mouth-watering crab in a hot pot, and some very yummy wagyu beef. Satisfied, we went to bed, as the next day's drive was going to be long.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2810.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2811.jpg

Last edited by Viju : 14th January 2022 at 01:18.
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Old 13th January 2022, 16:43   #4
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Default re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Day 5
Asahiawa --> Wakkanai


Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2812.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2813.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2814.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2818.jpg

Wakkanai was my dream destination in this trip. Although it was no great achievement, I just wanted to go and touch that northern most tip of Japan. We drove around 350 km in the thick snow, but it was mostly fun, along with some scary moments.

On the way though, we stopped at Cape Kamui (which is unbelievably beautiful in summer), but the sensible folks had closed the access road so that idiots like us don't go and get stuck there. After taking some pictures, we resumed our journey to Cape Soya.

On the way, we took an unplanned detour, and ended up at Lake Kutcharo - which was like a heaven full of birds (mostly swans and ducks). Of course, it was frozen. But there was this care-taker of the lake wading through the icy water, removing the snow cover, so that the birds have some space to swim. What a wonderful sight it was to behold!

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2832.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2844.jpg

We somehow ripped ourselves from that place and managed to reach Cape Soya before sunset. It was a really satisfying moment.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2860.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2863.jpg

And the place is so close to Russia that even the sign boards include Russian! That is the first time I saw any language other than Japanese and English on a road sign in Japan, and I have been here seven years.

By the time we checked into the hotel, the snow-fall had become intense, and being a remote place, there were no restaurants nearby. Luckily we found out that the hotel gives out free soba noodles at night. It was yummy, and we went to bed happily.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_7371.jpg

Day 6
Wakkanai --> Otaru


Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2897.jpg

The plan was to slowly drive back down south, seeing some places on the way. Otaru is a beautiful place in the summer, and was equally beautiful in winter as well.

What was more amazing was the drive down to Otaru along the coast. There, we saw the most stunning landscape we have ever seen. It was dangerous, but probably among the top 3 drives in my 22 years of driving! And then we saw the real crazy people - a guy touring on a bicycle, and a few on motorcycles. All this when the snow was falling hard, at -10 degree C.

At Otaru, we spent some time at the amazing Ebisu and Daikoku Rocks, with their unique shapes.

We also went to the Otaru canal, which was beautifully lit, but we were too tired to do any boating in the harsh winter weather. We desperately needed something to eat, and found a place nearby with charcoal barbecued meat (called 'Gengis Khan'). We couldn't resist some delicious boiled crab as well, although it was a pain to cut up and eat.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2888.jpg

Last edited by Viju : 14th January 2022 at 01:36.
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Old 14th January 2022, 00:42   #5
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Default re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Day 7
Otaru --> Noboribetsu


The 'jigokudani' (meaning hell's valley) in Noboribetsu has a vast natural hot spring with an amazing landscape. The steam and the sulphur tainted soil were a treat to watch, especially with the white winter sun, and the snow.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2902.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2943.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2965.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_2968.jpg

We spent a couple of hours there, before moving on to find our way up the mountain slope nearby to a bear park (which was more like a zoo with just bears in it, to be frank). Here, the kids could feed the bears from behind an enclosure, and they had a great time.

As it was New Year's Eve, and it was snowing heavily, we were not in a mood to search around for a restaurant. We got some food from a nearby convenience store, and went to our hotel room early, to stay warm.

Day 8 & 9
Noboribetsu --> Hakodate --> Yokohama (home)


The drive from Noboribetsu back to Hakodate (ferry boarding point) was my last chance to have some 'fun' driving in the snow. The day was bright, and there was just enough snow on the highways to be quick and stay within safe limits.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_3074.jpg

On the way back, we boarded a smaller ferry which brought us to a different place on the mainland called Oma, which was 100 km further up north as compared to Aomori, from where we had boarded our ferry to Hokkaido.

This meant I had an 850 km overnight drive ahead of me. But being the weekend of New Year, the roads were nearly empty, and it helped us cover good distance. By 9 a.m. on January 2nd, we were back in our parking lot.

4 days later

The most amazing thing happened 4 days after we reached home. We had gone in search of snow, as it almost never snows in Yokohama (may be once in 2 - 3 years). And it snowed heavily on Jan 6th in the whole of Tokyo and Yokohama area. And the kids, missing the snow from the trip, had their fun making 'yuki daruma' (snow man) from the snow that piled up on our roof balcony.

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_3075.jpg

Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan-img_3076.jpg

And until the next road trip, we wait impatiently! Thank you for reading!

Last edited by Viju : 14th January 2022 at 01:41.
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Old 14th January 2022, 05:07   #6
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 14th January 2022, 09:44   #7
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Great to see a travelogue from Japan.

Beautiful place and you have captured it perfectly, I liked specially the frozen branches and the bridge. Also, the blue tint on some pictures made it even beautiful.

You have got some crazy skills with food photography, I guess that's your hobby? If not, at least you can make secondary income by selling those really good food pictures online.
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Old 14th January 2022, 12:19   #8
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Wonderful travelogue. That Shirahige Taki falls photo is hauntingly beautiful.

If you don't mind me asking, how is the economic sentiment in Japan? Are the Japanese still upbeat about the future prospects of the Japanese economy or is there a sense of gloom?
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Old 14th January 2022, 12:20   #9
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Excellent travelogue of a country which is usually not covered that often in Team-BHP! Also you have covered the northern islands which are featured even less.

I guess the road signs in the northernmost areas are in Russian too as it is very near to Kuril (Chishima) islands.
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Old 14th January 2022, 14:22   #10
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Beautifully shot and edited, much much better than ad commercials. Clip on 22:44 sounds really great, overshoot any top climax scenes of any Indian movie. It really need courage to visit to the northern tip braving snow and to consider kids/elders requirements. Thanks for sharing.
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Old 14th January 2022, 23:52   #11
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Thanks for sharing Viju. Well captured. We did the similar circuit in 2020 from yokohama except that we flew into Sapporo. Japan’s a lovely country all seasons. The Hokkaido Milk Softy’s are simply the best in the world.
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Old 15th January 2022, 02:56   #12
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Long time no see, Viju. But nice to see such a 'Winter in Japan' travelogue. Seems like you have put the Black bear thru it's natural habitat. How did you find the Mazda so far?
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Old 15th January 2022, 08:03   #13
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Quote:
Originally Posted by saikarthik View Post
You have got some crazy skills with food photography, I guess that's your hobby? If not, at least you can make secondary income by selling those really good food pictures online.
Thank you for your kind words, saikarthik!

All the pictures including those of the food items are stock photos from my iPhone. No filters or editing. I think the phone cameras have improved so much over the years, now that anyone can easily take good pictures. My hobby is only enjoying the food, to be honest!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Electromotive View Post
Wonderful travelogue. That Shirahige Taki falls photo is hauntingly beautiful.
Thank you, Electromotive! Yes, I fully agree with you. Shirahige Taki was indeed the most beautiful place we visited in this trip!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Electromotive View Post
If you don't mind me asking, how is the economic sentiment in Japan? Are the Japanese still upbeat about the future prospects of the Japanese economy or is there a sense of gloom?
I first visited Japan around 2009 (right after the global economy crashed). I lived here for a year and then went back to India. I returned in 2014 with family, and have been living here ever since.

In these 8 years, and having known so many Japanese people (some of them pretty closely), I have almost never found a Japanese who is 'optimistic' (especially about Japan, although they are really proud of it). I got used to their pessimistic way of thinking, and now find it quite normal. Coming to your question though, I see no major change after COVID.

Quote:
Originally Posted by catchjyoti View Post
Excellent travelogue of a country which is usually not covered that often in Team-BHP! Also you have covered the northern islands which are featured even less.
Thank you so much, catchjyoti! We actually got the CX-8 around 8 months ago, and already did four long road-trips to different parts of Japan, due to which the odo is well over 16,000 km right now. But this was our first snow trip, and I was really excited about it. Hence the movie, and the travelogue.

We travel quite often, and I will try to pen down the experience more frequently from now!

Quote:
Originally Posted by catchjyoti View Post
I guess the road signs in the northernmost areas are in Russian too as it is very near to Kuril (Chishima) islands.
Exactly. In fact from Wakkanai, it's just a 3 - 4 hour boat ride to Russia.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Wheels View Post
Beautifully shot and edited, much much better than ad commercials.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Wheels! Very motivating for me to put in more effort from next time!

Quote:
Originally Posted by BlackRaven View Post
Thanks for sharing Viju. Well captured. We did the similar circuit in 2020 from yokohama except that we flew into Sapporo. Japan’s a lovely country all seasons. The Hokkaido Milk Softy’s are simply the best in the world.
Thank you so much, BlackRaven! Glad to meet another person who did the circuit! We were so mesmerized by the beauty of Hokkaido in winter that we have already planned to go back in summer, but probably to the eastern side. Do you still live in Japan?

Quote:
Originally Posted by carthick1000 View Post
Long time no see, Viju. But nice to see such a 'Winter in Japan' travelogue. Seems like you have put the Black bear thru it's natural habitat. How did you find the Mazda so far?
Hey carthick1000, yes, long time! How have you been?

Yes, the CX-8 has taken us all over Japan in the past year, and it's been a joy driving it around. I upgraded from a 2013 base variant Swift (so the baseline for my family was pretty low), and when I looked around within my budget, I couldn't find something as refined and well-built as the Germans except for the newer generation Mazdas.

Also, I found the fully loaded 2021 CX-8 to be the best value proposition AWD SUV within my budget (roughly 35 lakh INR).

My review has been stuck in the 'Assembly Line' since ages due to my own laziness. I will get it out before the car turns one in April!
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Old 15th January 2022, 09:20   #14
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

Good to see a travelogue from that side of the world. How did you even get a good grip on that kind of snow with studless tires (I would have assumed one would need chains or studs to get good grip).

P.S. My car (CX-5) is a close cousin of yours (same engine/transmission) though without that fancy headlight washer.
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Old 15th January 2022, 15:07   #15
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Default Re: Kuroguma Files | A 3500 km Snowy Road-trip to the Northern Tip of Japan

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Originally Posted by infotech58 View Post
Good to see a travelogue from that side of the world. How did you even get a good grip on that kind of snow with studless tires (I would have assumed one would need chains or studs to get good grip).

P.S. My car (CX-5) is a close cousin of yours (same engine/transmission) though without that fancy headlight washer.
Glad to see a fellow Mazda owner! In fact the CX-8 is nothing but a stretched 3 row version of the CX-5, which is probably the most popular Mazda model globally.

We were carrying tire chains with us, but the combination of winter tires + stability control + AWD worked surprisingly well, even in that snow. Studded tires are illegal for on-road use in Japan.

I was initially looking at the CX-5, but we needed the additional legroom in the second row, plus the rear aircon and the heated / cooled captain seats in the second row.

In Japan, the diesel versions are popular among Mazda owners, but we got a 2.5 turbo petrol with 6 speed TC for the sheer refinement and power. I believe you have the same combo, right?

Please do post a pic of your car. Is it in the signature Mazda red by any chance?

Last edited by Viju : 15th January 2022 at 15:10.
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