Madarao is making some solid efforts to increase it's visitation numbers & with further improvements will continue to be an excellent drawcard as part of the overall Myoko region.
Before our trip, I was really excited to be going to Madarao, with it's terrain, deep powder, quiet reputation & higher altitude village all appealling. Constantly looking across at the skyline runs of adjoining Tangram Ski Circus during five days at Myoko further increased the excitement. Although the first day was marred by light rain, from then on, I think Madarao almost met my expectations.
Madarao is really targeting the international market & the first sign of this is ease of access. One can approach via three directions - from Myoko city, from Iiyama city or direct from expressway from Nagano. The Iiyama approach seems to have most snow & has some excellent untouched side/ backcountry easily accessible from the road. Staying at the Madarao Kogen Hotel, we were picked up directly from our accom in Myoko which made me feel quite spoilt. Winding up higher into the mountains builds the expectation on approach to the village. At about 1000m asl on a freestanding mountain plateau, views are outstanding in all directions - looking west across the mountains of Myoko, east at the vastness of Shiga Kogen & north looking down into the Nozawa village.
The village, like so many, displays the hallmarks of the glory 'bubble' days, now long burst. Grand 'faux' confederate American buildings lurk empty & destitute under tonnes of accumulated snow, the heavier snowpack & harsher conditions of the higher altitude magnifying the rate of decay for abandoned infrastructure. The Madarao Kogen Hotel sits in prime position perched on a ledge overlooking the main bowl. Inside it is being gradually renovated, while still being quaintly Japanese, outside the dull concrete exterior is calling for some of that fancy paint stuff to brighten it up!! Having some westerners stay seemed to be quite the novelty for hotel staff & we received special treatment from their English speaking staff member who actually requested we speak English to the other staff so they could practice & continually enquired as to how we like the place & how they could improve things to the liking of westerners! All the attention was actually a little eerie, especially walking into the huge restuarant on the first night, being the only customers with a large buffet layed out & about ten staff watching our every move. Thankfully, it got busier into the weekend.
Onto the snow. The day we arrived from Myoko just happened to be one of the first 'rain' events of the season. Not really to bad, just low cloud & light mizzle, after arrival we opted to head into Nagano to sort some equipment. We returned that afternoon hoping conditions would be improved & we could hit up the nighta, unfortunately it was still warm & nighta is Saturday only now.
Finally, the good stuff returned overnight & we were back on. From the hotel one can check conditions on the mountain from window or open air onsen, stroll out the front door, take about five steps, strap in & drop the small but fun front slope down to the main lift area. Unfortunately the walking saved by the ski out hotel location will rapidly be forgotten with all the skating required for snowboarders at the bottom of the main lifts, which on the Madarao side, are all guarded by a couple of hundred metres of dead flat ground which I believe is tennis courts & craparks in summer. Once you know where the flats are lurking, they can be avoided by straightlining higher up but with a foot of fresh snow, I saw endless hordes of Japanese beginners floundering themselves back to the lifts after stopping well short!
Actually on the main ski area, aside from the bottom flats, terrain was pretty much as expected. A quite big natural mountain amphitheatre, with numerous smaller bowls & pockets of good trees. Vertical is quite modest, but is made up for by excellent terrain on the upper mountain. Far skiers right (Airwave I course) was still hitting rain crust underneath but after finding a long flat walk out from this side due to lift layout, I avoided this area.
Lifts are all chairs, as expected a few not operational but once you work out which lifts are operating, with a bit of zig zagging you can access most terrain quite easily. By far my favourite area was the upper centre section of mountain. Several steep funnelling bowls combined with the newly opened 'Airwave II' area of open trees meant hours of fresh snow fun here. Top single chair was out of action on the first day but with a short walk from the top ridge chair at Tangram, I was able to have fresh runs through the bowls & trees all day. Hidden from the masses below by limited vis, could not believe I was the only rider up there enjoying deep fresh tracks most of the time. The only frustration of this area was the long flat run-out at base which entailed a short but extremely slow magic carpark ride back to main lifts.
With the combined lift Tangram lift ticket, which is required to use the top Tangram lift needed to access the Airwave trees, I briefly visited that side of the mountain. Suprisingly steep for Japan, the trees are generally quite small & tight & they are yet to open up off-piste areas in this side of mountain. That said, again no one was in steep upper bowl here either & I enjoyed fast fresh lines down 'King Slalom', several sections of the snowpack where showing some instability here & I was suprised the course was still open. Tangram has large very flash base buildings & a large Burton retail outlet (if your into that kind of nonsense), the place actually seemed like a bit of a Japanese trendy scene with more posing than riding going on. Ski Circus is more than appropriate name for this place. After a few steep runs here, I was happy to return to the trees & open bowls just over the ridge at Madarao.
In summary, Madarao is a great mid-size mountain to ride. Mountain village is very quiet with limited eating options but still very nice being up high looking down on surrounding areas. Lift ticket is good value & with new terrain being opened up, Madarao has plenty of snow with some excellent tree & relatively steep bowl riding, hopefully some more of the off-piste will open up in future. Still very Japanese in feel, the area was quite busy with 'locals' on the weekend but during the week extremely quiet. If this mountain was in Australia, it would be top of the class (& extremely expensive). Places like this need outside international visitation to stay afloat. Madarao should be encouraged for making improvements to accomodate more adventurous visitors rather than just quietly sliding into closure like many of other ski areas close by.
From 28 January, 2010 To 30 January, 2010
Snow condition on visit:
Deep base, mildly rain affected surface initially, rapidly changing to moderately light powder with deep wind blown areas.
Things I liked:
High altitude ski out village, connected ski areas, steep upper bowls & tree riding.
Things I didn't like:
Quiet at night, neglected grand buildings, non-operational lifts (as usual), flats at base.