Skiing in Nagano: Madarao Kogen (900m-1300m)

Over the years, I’ve done relatively little skiing in Japan. The resorts are quite small compared to Europe, and although the snow quality is great, the weather is usually horrible. So I decided to apply the same system I use for hiking: go by shinkansen on one day trips when the weather forecast is favourable. Thanks to the Tokyo Wide Pass, and the JR East Welcome Japan Pass, many resorts in Nagano, Niigata and the Tohoku region became easily accessible. One year ago, I had a great time skiing on Hunter Mountain in Tochigi. This year, I decided to return to a mountain I had climbed a few weeks ago. Getting to the Madarao Kogen Ski Resort seemed fairly straightforward: I would ride the shinkansen to Iiyama station in Nagano, and from there catch a shuttle bus to the resort. The weather forecast wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either; I could even expect a little sunshine in the afternoon. Finally, the ski resort covered two sides of the mountain, so I was hoping that would be enough ski slopes to keep me busy the whole day.

View of the slopes from Madarao Kogen

I left Tokyo under clear blue skies. I had fantastic views of the mountains of northern Kanto, tipped in white. In Nagano, however, I was greeted by snow, mist and clouds. The weather seemed to be improving, but not quite fast enough. At least there seemed to be enough snow for skiing. After getting off at the new and compact Iiyama station (built in 2015), I headed straight for the bus stop. A nice lady came over and redirected me to a ticket vending machine inside the station which I had missed. My ticket bought, I went back to wait for the bus. As the snow flakes floated down before me, I wondered what the conditions were like up on the mountain.

View of Madarao Kogen from the slopes

I was amazed to see how much the landscape had changed in just two months, during the thirty minute bus ride to Madarao Kogen hotel. It was still snowing when I got off the bus, but it wasn’t windy and it didn’t feel too cold. This was good news since there were no gondolas here, only chairlifts. Visibility was good, except for the top of the mountain, hidden in the clouds. I was glad it wasn’t whiteout conditions, and I was optimistic about the weather improving later in the day.

Good conditions for skiing lower down

I wandered into the hotel to get cover from the snow, and stumbled upon their ski rental shop. Originally, I had planned to go to the rental shop next to the ski slopes just a little further away. However, seeing that this shop was deserted, I decided to save some time and get my gear here instead. The staff was helpful and efficient, and I had all my gear in a matter of minutes. They also allowed me to use the hotel’s changing room downstairs. Once I was ready, I headed to the ticket center, next to the Shirakaba restaurant.

Less good conditions for skiing higher up

I decided to buy the Mountain Pass, valid for the Madarao Kogen Ski Resort and Tangram (on the other side of the mountain), since it was only 500 yen more. If I returned it at the end of the day, I could get 500 yen back. At 11am, I was finally ready to start skiing. I put on my skis and skated towards the ski lift, and I was surprised that the slope went down instead of up. I then realised that Shirakaba (and Madarao Kogen Hotel next to it) was on a rise separated from Mt Madarao by a small valley. I had to ski down a short slope to reach the main chairlifts.

In the afternoon, the weather improved

I started with the Superquad lift which took me two thirds up the mountain. It was fast, and had a cover that shielded me from the cold. I used it a couple of times, and found that I preferred the right side slope for going down. Then, I headed to the Tangram side, where I had been hiking last November. I could either ride to the highest point of the the mountain and take a black down. I wasn’t too keen, as the top was still in the mist. Instead, I took lift #15 halfway up, and used a gentler blue (marked green on the maps) through the forest . I remembered walking along it, and it felt funny to be zipping by on skis.

Sunny conditions on the Tangram side

At 1h30, the sun suddenly came out and blue skies appeared overhead. I enjoyed nearly an hour of sunny skiing before the clouds charged back. Even though there were only four chairlifts (Madarao Kogen had 9), only one of them had a bar for resting the skis on. This is a curious thing about Japanese ski chairlifts: they almost never have that bar, so your legs are dangling in the air for the whole ride, which I find uncomfortable and dangerous. At 2h30, I made my way back to Madarao Kogen to have lunch. To avoid skiing a black in whiteout conditions, I used a blue to ski to the base of the resort. Oddly enough, it ended at the parking, and I had to skate a hundred meters over flat terrain to reach the lifts.

Mushroom & bacon Pizza at Aki’s Pub and Cafe

I had an excellent pizza at Aki’s Pub & Cafe. I had to use Google Maps to locate it, since it stood apart from other buildings halfway down the small slope between Shirakaba restaurant and Mt Madarao. At 3h30, I was back on the slopes. The clouds were still in although it wasn’t snowing anymore. I had one hour of skiing left, but it didn’t seem that the sun would return. I chose to stick to the Superquad for my last runs. At 4pm, as I stood at the top of the lift before the final run of the day, the clouds suddenly parted and I had a glorious view of the valley below, including Shiga Kogen opposite.

Great views at the end of the day

I now had the slopes entirely to myself as most people had already finished for the day. I took my time even though the ski patrol was on my heels, stopping here and there to take photos. I returned my rental gear at 4h30 after five hours of satisfactory skiing. I’ve always had problems with ski shoes, but, these ones were quite comfortable. I had a quick hot spring bath inside Madarao Kogen Hotel before catching the 17:20 bus back to Iiyama station, where I hopped on the shinkansen for the under two-hour trip back to Tokyo.

A little unusual – finishing the day going up

Check out the conditions at Madarao Kogen Ski Resort

Madarao Kogen Ski Resort at closing time

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