Madarao Kogen is a beautiful resort with superb skiing and plenty of character. But on a powder day, it is truly something else.

For two and a half days we skied groomers, bumps and chopped up powder – leftovers from a large snowfall before we arrived at the resort. Madarao Kogen is a mid-sized resort by Japanese standards, but there is enough variety in terrain – much of it ungroomed – that it feels larger than it is.

Beginners are well catered for, with mellow, open runs; for advanced skiers, there are steeps (somewhat limited), moguls, and gladed areas. The resort’s 16 lifts (Tangram included) service more than 34 km of marked trails as well as several designated tree skiing areas, for which the resort is developing a very good reputation.

Madarao ski resort

Our first two days in Madarao looked like this. We weren’t complaining…

Two and a half days into our trip, the skies opened and, in typical Madarao fashion, the resort was blanketed in a heavy sheet of snow. If Madarao’s website is to go by, we had 60 cm in a 24 hour period – opening the doors on an opportunity to see Madarao in its true “Madapow” glory, a name that has been coined for the massive snowfalls that the resort receives on a regular basis.

“…we had 60 cm in a 24 hour period – opening the doors on an opportunity to see Madarao in its true ‘Madapow’ glory”

Madarao on a powder day is a different beast entirely, and two hours into the day we realised we were experiencing something very special, though apparently not unusual for Madarao.

Madarao powder day, January 2019

A snowboarder finding powder under the Tangram No. 1 Lift

Anyone who has skied one of the globally recognised resorts on a powder day (think Whistler, Chamonix etc) will understand the chaos around getting to the lifts when there’s fresh snow to be had. Lines can stretch for days, and there’s often a tension in the air as skiers jockey for position and mentally assemble a plan of attack for the morning. In Madarao, arriving a leisurely 10 minutes before opening put us onto the fourth chairlift up the mountain, ahead of a modest lineup of skiers of around 20 or 30, many of them internationals and all buzzing with excitement and anticipation.

Note that Madarao timed its biggest snowfall for us on a Monday, so there were fewer Japanese guests than there had been the two days prior, many of whom come for the weekend from Tokyo. This was definitely a bonus.

From the first lift onwards, we skied fresh tracks in as many different parts of the resort as we could. Lift lines were non existent after a couple of laps. There’s a certain anxiety on days like these to get the most out of every run before the mountain gets tracked out, but this faded quickly as we realised that there would be no shortage of snow. Madarao boasts a perfect blend of accessible off-piste areas (tree skiing is encouraged, in contrast to many of the ski resorts in Japan) and modest crowds.

Madarao lift lineup

A few dedicated skiers waiting for Madarao’s No. 15 Lift to open for the day

As first-timers to the area we were not familiar with the terrain, but it certainly wasn’t a problem. Darting off marked trails into treed areas would invariably lead to fresh tracks, and as the day progressed the search for fresh snow only got marginally more difficult.

Our hotel manager would later tell us that with a bit of local knowledge, it is not difficult to find fresh lines inbounds even a couple of days after a big snowfall.

A word of advice: an additional 500 yen on top of your standard Madarao Kogen lift ticket will give you access to its neighbouring resort, Tangram Ski Circus. The extra space to explore is well worth the small investment, especially as some of the best skiing can be found by dropping down from the ridge that separates the two resorts into Tangram. There’s also some excellent skiing on either side of T-No.5 Lift, in addition to a generous beginner area called Heartland Line.

Tangram ski resort

Tangram’s lower slopes are excellent for beginner skiers and snowboarders

The town

Madarao is a small town by anyone’s standards, but there is some life in it that is not always present at Japanese ski resorts. Partyers are best advised to head to Hakuba or Niseko, but those content with a decent meal and a cold beer or sake at the end of a big day on the slopes will find options to please.

Shaggy Yak is a cosy watering hole just a short walk from the lifts, offering an eclectic selection of Japanese craft beer, whiskies and sake. Its food menu is an appetizing mix of izakaya-style sharing plates and western bar snacks. It’s reportedly a favourite for season workers.

Shaggy Yak, Madarao

Shaggy Yak

Our favourite meal may well have been at Sakura, a Japanese restaurant specialising in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki – a savoury pancake of sorts, made with flour, egg, cabbage and your choice of shrimp or pork (or a mix). The place is run by a lovely elderly Japanese couple who have lived in Madarao for decades.

We advise making dinner reservations in advance, particularly during busy periods (i.e. Christmas, New Year, CNY). We learnt the hard way that restaurants in Madarao fill up quickly and many have very limited seating.

As for eating during the day – there are several cafeteria-style buildings spread around the resort, all serving a simple, hearty dishes including ramen, soba, udon, karaage (fried chicken), and Japanese-style curry. Heidi, the largest and most central of the lot, has an 800-person capacity and serves as a good meeting place.

Our accommodation

Hakken by Active Life

Hakken is a lovely 15-room lodge, now in its second season of operation and just a two minute walk from the lifts. Rooms are on the small side, but beautifully presented, with tatami floors and tasteful decors. A stay at Hakken comes with a continental breakfast included (plus a couple of hot items), which is a convenient way to start the day and means fewer things to think about before getting on the slopes.

Other amenities include a bar, which is open in the evenings and serves a selection of beer, whiskey and hot meals. There are also heated ski storage facilities, a public bath and a laundry room.

Hakken by Active Life Madarao

Hakken by Active Life Madarao

Where Hakken really shines is its service. PK, the hotel manager and part-owner of the lodge goes out of his way to meet each guest and ensure their stay is a positive one. His team are likewise very helpful – always ready to share information on the resort or make a dinner recommendation.

It’s also worth noting the two services that are quite unique for a ski lodge (though admittedly, we made use of neither). There is a shuttle to a neighbouring resorts that runs Monday to Friday. If you’re staying in Madarao for a lengthy period, this would be a great way to see other ski areas. Hakken also offers free ski lessons through the Active Life Snow Club for guests staying four nights or more. We saw several classes underway while we were on the hill, and it looked like a very professional setup.

Xplore

Xplore, like Hakken, is part of the Active Life Group, so it shares a number of the same benefits – not least the free ski lessons and shuttle to one of six neighbouring resorts. 

Xplore, Madarao

The hotel itself is larger than its Active Life counterparts (Hakken and Active Life Madarao), and the building has been refurbished this year for the opening. Final touches were still being added during our stay, and there were some inevitable kinks being ironed out that are not unusual for a new hotel. Rooms are simple, but comfortable, and the short distance (roughly three minutes) to the ski slopes is always a luxury.

Service from hotel staff was excellent, and Xplore’s General Manager Lisa was determined to do anything necessary to make out stay a good one. This included personally lugging bags between Hakken and Xplore when she realised the shuttle was in use!

For more information on Madarao, read Ski Asia’s comprehensive resort guide