Skiing and boarding Madarao’s abandoned snow resorts

Madarao Sympathique
Pic: Cory White from White Collective Film & Photography.

During the Japan ski boom of the 1980s, the nation’s ski resorts were filled with long lift lines, crowded slopes and lots of money. It’s a far cry from the majority of Japanese ski resorts today that bear the scars of Japan’s economic bubble bursting in 1990.

Many of the 500 plus resorts that remain (and those that aren’t propped up by foreign investment) are deathly quiet with old chairlifts and buildings that haven’t been updated since the days that fluoro jumpsuits were cool. Many ski resorts were shut down completely and now lie abandoned.

So what’s one to do with all these abandoned resorts? Some savvy cat skiing operators have made use of the former resort terrain – Chisenpuri Cat Skiing and Niseko Weiss cat skiing in Hokkaido and Mikuni Cat Skiing in Honshu all operate on ski resorts long closed down.

The less fortunate abandoned resorts have simply been left to accumulate dust – or more accurately, metres of powder snow. These remain a point of interest only for those obsessed with hard earned fresh tracks and ‘haikyo’.

Haikyo is the Japanese word for ‘ruins’ but it is more often used for the practice of exploring abandoned places (the Western equivalent being urbex).

Skiing and boarding Madarao’s two abandoned resorts

Madarao resort, that little gem tucked away on Honshu that is famous for inbound gladed tree runs, has two abandoned resorts nearby.

Madarao Toyota Ski Resort can be found on the same mountain as Madarao, just off to the rider’s right of the resort in a separate bowl. It opened in 2003 then closed seven years ago and offers a nice variety of cleared runs, pine forest and classic Japanese tree skiing if you’re willing to do a bit of hiking and have a friend pick you up at the end. 

You can also access it via a guided Madarao Backcountry Tour so check in with Aki at Nagano Outdoor sports and see if he’ll take you on his ‘Secret Resort Tour.’

The other abandoned resort is just a 15 minute walk down the road from Madarao’s little town. It’s attached to the back of the dilapidated but still semi-operational Madarao Sympathetique Hotel that opened in 1984.

The resort only has two chairlifts and a vertical drop of 190m, but when you and your six friends are the only ones there it’s pure magic.

How we did it

First, we checked out the resort on a few apps. FATMAP was great to look at the terrain, gradient, avalanche risk and also the aspects of the mountain as we wanted to get the morning light. 

For this particular mission there were seven of us and we planned to ride at sunrise. So we picked a clear day, organised to meet at 6am and did a car shuttle whereby we left one car at the bottom of the resort for the drive out and one at the top. This would mean absolutely no hiking or skinning if we wanted to do multiple runs (which we couldn’t really fit in as most of us had work at 8:30am).

From where we parked it was an easy one minute walk out to the top of the resort. We were all ready to drop in around 7:30am. There was only one problem – the sun was blocked by a large band of cloud and it was lightly snowing. No glorious sunrise photos for us.

While the light wasn’t perfect, the riding was surprisingly fun in knee-deep powder on runs that hadn’t been touched for years (or so we told ourselves).

riding ANY abandoned resort counts as out-of-bounds so check your travel insurance closely. 

Since these resorts have been left unattended for years, there is also a great possibility of hidden obstacles under the snow (abandoned fences, concrete pillars, fallen chairlifts) and the avalanche risk can be high. So ride with buddies and check avalanche conditions for nearby resorts and if you don’t know, please, don’t go.

On our venture, we wanted to ride the one black run that the resort had to offer but found that it, and other areas in the resort, had formed huge glide cracks that cut across the entire run. So we stuck to the green runs, and the crew rode with avalanche beacons, shovels and probes.

The allure of skiing an abandoned resort is a mix between urbex and backcountry riding. You’re out where there are no people and there’s a real sense of adventure to get to these resorts. Then there are the stagnant chairlifts and stale restaurants that invoke a real nostalgia for the hey day of Japanese skiing.

It is definitely not for everyone and you need to know what you are doing and be prepared for the consequences should anything go wrong.

Check in with locals first

Check with local skiers and riders and see if it’s considered ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’ (or even legal) to ride the abandoned terrain near your location and again, check with your travel insurance to understand your own risk.

Depending on the area, you may even find a qualified local guide, such as Aki, willing to take you.

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Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

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