Let’s face it, it’s hard to find a ski resort in Japan not filled with Australians. Most times you have to travel further afield to places like Shizukuishi in Honshu. There’s one resort, however, closer to Tokyo, that slips under the radar, for now.
Madarao Kogen Ski Resort sits between the better known Nozawa Onsen and Myoko Kogen ski resorts in the Nagano Prefecture. Australians that know of it tend not to talk of it for fear it will become the next hip ski destination. We certainly met Australians that had purchased property, opened lodges or were looking to develop property while we were there, so go sooner rather than later.
Strong intermediate skiers will be happy with the terrain on offer with 15 lifts at Madarao (plus 5 lifts at Tangram Ski Circus on the other side of the mountain) accessing 30% beginners, 40% intermediate and 30% advanced. There is even a dinky little single seater which accesses the advanced terrain and is great for photos.
There isn’t really any expert terrain at Madarao but there is a lot of powder tree skiing with a decent pitch to ensure a thigh burn. Unlike other resorts you will not have your lift pass taken if you venture into the trees (on the Madarao side) but ensure that you abide by signage and ropes constructed by ski patrol.
Don’t expect huge aprés offerings, do expect more intimate drinking dens like The Shaggy Yak (see below) that you can count on one hand. It is, on your first visit, part of the charm.
There’s no one there
Literally, no one. Apart from the awesome lifties who are mostly farmers from the surrounding area who smile with missing teeth and more joy than their counterparts in other countries. The longest lift queue mid week will be, well, just you and your friends. Weekends are different, at least 30 people in the main lift line, 50 on a ‘busy’ weekend.
It’s super easy to get to
Catch the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Iiyama (100 minutes) then it’s a half hour drive by shuttle, taxi or bus to Madarao. Voila. You’re there.
An adult lift pass will set you back Y4500 for Madarao but for an extra Y500 you can get an all mountain pass that accesses both Madarao and Tangram Ski Circus resort (accessed by skiing over the top of Madarao). That’s Y5000 or AU$61. Enough said.
Ever since japow became part of the powder skiing vernacular, other resorts have come up with their own versions. ‘Be happy in Appi‘ is one and Madapow is another. That’s the term for the powder snow that falls in Madarao by the bucket load (up to 13 meters a season). Like most Japan snow forecasts, the figures are never reliable and you could be hoping for a 20 centimeter snowstorm only to discover 50 centimetres fell over night. Bonus.
Head into the side country off the other back of the mountain with Aki for a backcountry tour with Nagano Outdoor Sports. Aki is a Madarao legend, a former ski racer for Japan and a qualified mountain guide. Hike 20 to 30 minutes with Aki and his team of guides for some super smooth backcountry fun amongst deep powder and trees. A half day tour will set you back Y8000 (including beacon rental).
Tangram Ski Circus
If you think there’s no one at Madarao then Tangram Ski Circus (yes, that’s a real name) is a relative ghost town, apart from a host of Japanese school kids in ski lessons. Which means super fast laps on groomed runs and, when there’s fresh snow, the dedicated and gladed tree runs all to yourself. Though be warned, they are stricter on this side as to what you can and cannot ski off piste so heed the warnings.
Some of the best soba noodles in all the land can be found in the Soba noodle restaurant in the basement of the Tangram Ski Circus base lodge. Get there early as it is small and fills up quickly. No need to take your ski boots off either.
Dan and Andy Solo from Bondi in Sydney have done a great job with their first season as lodge owners in Madarao. Their Snowball Chalet is spitting distance to the slopes (and Aki’s Allpress coffee). Dan LOVES to snowboard and he will take you to his favourite runs on the mountain if you twist his arm, just a little. Tell him we sent you.
Snowball Chalet has seven different intimate room offerings from deluxe (with ensuite) to family (two rooms connected with a shared bathroom) to the two room suite that has it’s own private entrance.
Expect a really cool communal lounge area with some seriously on trend lighting where guests can swap stories at the end of the day. Breakfast is included and the Shaggy Yak (see below) is next door (they own that too).
Kids will love the onesies they get to wear while in the chalet and the crew can book any tours or day trips you are keen to do.
Aki’s Pub and Cafe (yes he of the Aki’s Backcountry tours) is a ski in ski out option for fuel throughout the ski day and a good place to meet friends. It is also the home of AllPress Coffee and baristas who know how to make the best coffee outside of Tokyo. Be warned, they don’t traditionally open till 9.30, sometimes later.
Nozawa Onsen is half an hour away
The beauty of Madarao is that you can still experience the very popular traditional feudal onsen town of Nozawa Onsen and ski the magic slopes (you can see Nozawa from Madarao peak) and return to the peace and quiet of Snowball Chalet. It’s a mere thirty minutes by taxi or bus.
New this season is the Shaggy Yak yurt bar and restaurant, right next to Snowball Chalet so you can stumble home. Most of the local seasonaires end up here at some stage throughout the week so you’ll get to meet the village while sipping on a gin cocktail and munching on Japanese fusion fare. Live music is also on offer on different nights, as is a rocking vinyl collection. You’re welcome.
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Rachael Oakes-Ash was a guest of Snowball Chalet and Madaro Ski Resort