Madarao – come for the price, stay for the powder!
Madarao Mountain Ski Resort is one of Japan’s hidden gems. The resort is located in northeastern Nagano, on Japan’s main island. It sits between Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen – two of the region’s better known ski resorts.
But Madarao is its own beast. The resort is known for its light, dry powder (“Madapow”), which it receives in spades (~12 metres per season). Most importantly, Madarao permits skiers to venture off-piste, something that cannot be taken for granted in Japan. With 60% of its runs ungroomed—including some beautiful tree lines, the resort offers excellent value for powder hounds.
Madarao is little known outside of Japan. The resort is rather quiet in comparison to its neighbours. Long lift queues and congested slopes are a rarity. As Madarao continues to build its reputation for powder (on a shoestring budget), this will inevitably change.
Lifts & Terrain
Mount Madarao peaks at 1382 m, offering skiers 440 m of vertical to play with. The resort is serviced by 15 lifts, including two high-speed detachable quads.
Beginners have plenty of ground to cover towards the base of the mountain. Beginner A&B, Utopia and Shirakaba are all ideally suited to first-timers. More experienced skiers should head up to View Point, atop the No. 13 lift. From there, skiers can access all parts of the mountain. Crystal Bowl and PowderWave2 offer some of the resort’s best tree skiing. On the other side of the resort, WorldCup was previously used as a moguls course at the 1988 Freestyle Skiing World Cup. It sits alongside Powderwave, another of the resort’s gladed areas.
By Japanese standards, Madarao is a mid-sized resort (small by European standards). Skiers will only need a day to get the lay of the land. However, guests can opt to purchase an all-mountain pass, allowing access to the adjoining Tangram Ski Circus resort. This ticket gives skiers access to 34.8 km of runs in total—just shy of Nozawa Onsen’s 44.5 km.
Located on the northwestern side of Mount Madarao, Tangram Ski Circus offers a bit of variety for beginners and intermediates. The resort comprises 15 runs over 520 vertical metres. Experienced skiers won’t be challenged much by Tangram’s mellow groomers. However, one of Tangram’s five lifts (No. 2 Lift) can be used to access some of Madarao’s best tree skiing. Perhaps reason alone to spend the extra money.
For a resort that attracts a predominantly Japanese crowd, Madarao employs a fairly liberal attitude to off-piste skiing, atypical of many Japanese-style resorts (including Tangram). This is perhaps one of its biggest selling points. Madarao has embraced its reputation as a powder haven, opting to keep 60% of its slopes ungroomed. The resort not only condones tree skiing, it encourages it. Madarao has gladed much of its forested area, opening up some beautiful tree runs. There are also backcountry options for those keen.
Madarao has earned a reputation for world-class powder, receiving on average 12 m of snow per season. Though it tops out at a modest 1382 m, Madarao benefits from its proximity to the coast and its northerly aspect.
When Siberian winds accumulate moisture over the Sea of Japan, the resort is perfectly aligned to receive buckets of powder. Additionally, Madarao’s relatively high base (942 m) means that it doesn’t suffer from sludge towards the foot of the mountain. This is particularly beneficial to beginners.
Madarao’s ski season generally begins in mid-December and finishes in early April. This varies significantly year by year. By April 1 2017 (the back end of the ski season), Madarao’s official snow depth was 250 cm. At the same point 12 months prior, there was only 55 cm underfoot. In peak season, average snow depth falls between 150 cm and 350 cm.
Accommodation options can be found in Madarao village, on the northeastern side of the resort. There are a number of hotels and chalets to choose from, all within a stone’s throw of each other.
Active Life Madarao
Active Life Madarao is one of Trip Advisor’s top-ranked Iiyama hotels. Renovated in 2016, the hotel offers cosy western-style rooms within a 3-minute walk from the ski lifts. Active Life is reminiscent of a European-style Chalet. It features a beautiful terrace and garden area, not to mention its own restaurant, bar and coffee shop. The hotel also operates a small rental shop on-site.
Active Life’s English-speaking staff can offer guidance to those new to the area. Guests coming from Iiyama Station are entitled to a complimentary shuttle service.
Just one minute’s walk from the slopes, the newly-renovated Altitude Madarao is another excellent option, offering comfortable western-style rooms and 270° views of the mountains. The stylish ‘family suites’ are perfect for larger groups, accommodating up to four people.
The boutique hotel features a ski storage facility, games room, lounge (with unlimited Netflix) and private hot tub—all the necessary ingredients for a relaxing post-ski experience. For those in need of creature comforts, the hotel serves a western-style breakfast and employs English-speaking staff.
Excellent deals on Madarao accommodation can be found on Ski Asia’s deals page.
Madarao Kogen Hotel
The Madarao Kogen Hotel is one of the more popular spots in the village. The hotel is renowned for its high quality dining and beautiful onsen baths. Offering both Japanese and western-style rooms, all tastes and budgets are catered for. Post-ski options include use of the hotel’s games room or karaoke booth!
Hakken by Active Life
Ideal for families and couples, Hakken by Active Life is warm and cosy, 15-room, westernised lodge renovated in 2017, approximately 2 minutes’ walk to the Madarao Kogen chairlifts.
Based on a whopping 68 reviews last season, Hakken was ranked at 9.2 on booking.com, giving it the highest ranked new hotel in Madarao and almost the highest rank from all hotels in Madarao.
For most of the season, guests can ski in/out of the lodge. Hakken also offers all guests their own private rooms and bathrooms, Netflix/Youtube enabled Smart TV’s, in-house laundry services, vegan/vegetarian friendly food and a great, cosy whisky bar serving a variety of meals and drinks.
Services & Facilities
Ski Schools & Tours
Madarao is lucky enough to have its own international ski school. Action Snow Sports is the resort’s first official English language academy, offering both private lessons and a range of clinics. Private lessons can accommodate up to four people and run for 2-6 hours at a time. A full day of instruction costs ¥45,000. This price is divided between the number of participants.
Various clinics are on offer, including ‘Powder Prep’, ‘Powder Blaster’, ‘Brush Up’ and ‘Confidence’. These clinics run for 3-6 days at a time and cost up to $1797 per person. Emphasis is placed on ‘the bio-mechanical understanding of the body movements and development’.
Elsewhere, Madarao Sports Academy also offers private lessons in English. A full day (4 hours) is priced at ¥20,600 per person (3 maximum) while a half day costs ¥15,500. Group lessons are only available in Japanese.
Guests staying four nights or more in any of the Active Life Group Hotels are entitled to complimentary level 1–3 adult group lessons and all-day kids lessons as part of their Active Life Snow Club membership. The hotels are all within a 3–5 minute walk from the Madarao chairlifts or ski in/out access. Lessons are provided by English-speaking, certified ski and snowboard instructors.
For those looking to sample Madarao’s reputed backcountry, North Nagano Outdoor Sports offers guided tours. These tours begin running in late December and continue throughout March. Half day tours (3 hours) are on offer from ¥8000 per person. Private tours are priced at ¥60,000 and split between the number of participants.
Shops & Rental
Equipment hire can be arranged at Shirakaba Rentals, open from 8:30am to 5:30pm daily. The shop stocks all the big-name international brands, including K2, Salomon, Volkl, Atomic and Rossignol. A set of skis, boots and poles can be rented for ¥3,700 per day. Typical of Japan, multi-day discounts are minimal (dropping to ¥3,200 after the third day). Options for more experienced skiers are also available (and priced accordingly, of course!).
Many of Madarao’s hotels and chalets also offer equipment rental.
Food & Nightlife
Madarao Ski Resort is reasonably small, even by Japanese standards. The village is unsurprisingly quiet. The majority of Madarao’s hotels offer half board—Japanese guests tend to dine in. But for variety’s sake, there is a small handful of restaurants and bars within the village, including some western options.
Just down the hill from Madarao’s No. 1 ski lift is Restaurant Rudolph, a family-owned pizza joint offering a mix of Japanese and European-style comfort food. The restaurant is known for its cosy atmopshere, and is one of the cheaper spots to grab a bite. Beer and sake also available.
Madarao’s Jazzy is a jazz-themed restaurant bar, named after the music-loving owner (who has quite a favourable reputation!). Like Rudolph’s, Jazzy offers a mix of western and Japanese favourites plus a range of alcoholic beverages. The restaurant is well known for its friendly service, cheerful atmophere and jazz memorabilia.
A larger selection of bars and restaurants can be found at nearby Iiyama town, just 11 km away from the resort. Iiyama is fondly known as the “little Kyoto of snow country”.
Culture & Ambiance
International crowds are yet to discover Madarao (give it time!). Madarao’s clientele is predominantly Japanese. The resort enjoys a very different atmosphere from Hakuba, Niseko or even Nozawa Onsen. There is zero in the way of a western-style après-ski scene. The Madarao version of après-ski involves a good meal and a soak in a traditional onsen bath. These can be found at the Madarao Kogen Hotel—available to non-guests for a small fee.
Anyone wanting a brief escape from the village can make the short trip to Iiyama. The tiny rural town of Iiyama hosts an annual snow festival, known to feature some incredible ice sculptures. Other day trip options include Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Zenkoji Temple and the Togakushi-Soba Museum. These are a little further afield, requiring up to an hour’s commute.
From Narita Airport
Japan’s largest international airport is located in Narita, an hour outside of Tokyo. The Narita Express train is the easiest way to reach the capital from the airport.
If you arrive at Haneda International Airport (also in Tokyo), you’ll first need to take the monorail to Hamamatsucho station. From there, change onto the JR Yamanote Line (colored green on the JR rail map). Tokyo Station is only three stops away.
From Tokyo Station
From Tokyo Station, board the Hakutaka Shinkansen (bullet train) to Iiyama Station in Nagano (one stop after Nagano Station). This is a limited stops service on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. Other trains on this line will not let you off at Iiyama. The Hakutaka operates daily between Tokyo and Kanazawa, as part of the JR-East Railway System. It departs from platforms 20-23.
The journey to Iiyama takes less than two hours. The early bird train leaves from Tokyo Station at 6:28 am. Otherwise, trains run frequently (but irregularly) throughout the day—rarely more than an hour’s wait between rides. The last train departs at 8:12pm, pulling into Iiyama Station at 10:06 pm. Passengers will need to purchase a JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area).
The town of Iiyama is only 11 km from Madarao Mountain Ski Resort. Direct buses are available from the station, leaving between 8:45 am and 9:20 pm. Passengers disembark at the Madarao Kogen Hotel (village centre). The timetable may be subject to change. Otherwise, some of Madarao’s hotels offer a free shuttle service to and from Iiyama Station.
Nagano Snow Shuttle
If you can stomach a long bus ride, Nagano Snow Shuttle offers a direct route from Tokyo to Madarao (Madarao Kogen Hotel). The shuttle operates out of both Narita and Haneda airports. The journey takes between 5-5 1/2 hours and stops at various Nagano-based ski resorts before reaching Madarao. This service costs ¥12,000 for adults and ¥11,000 for children.
One of the lesser known resorts in the Nagano region, Madarao offers exceptional value for money. Prices on accommodation, lift tickets and gear rental are some of the lowest in Japan.
A one day ‘Area Pass’ (lift ticket) costs ¥4,500 for adults and just ¥1,500 for children. An upgrade to the all-mountain pass (which provides access to Tangram Ski Circus resort) is just ¥500 extra per day. A 3 day Area Pass costs ¥11,900. By comparison, Niseko United sells its combined lift ticket for ¥7400 per day.
Transport to and from the slopes isn’t a huge expense either. Madarao is just 250 km from Tokyo. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Iiyama on the Hakutaka shinkansen costs roughly ¥8000 (US$70). A JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) can be purchased for ¥17,000 online, allowing unlimited travel between Tokyo and Nagano for any 5 days within a 14 day time frame.
For deals on Madarao accommodation, please consult the Ski Asia deals page.
Snowfall (annual ave): 12 m
Runs (total): 31
Runs (km): 34.8
Top elevation: 1382 m
Base elevation 942 m
Vertical: 440 m
Nearest international airport: Narita International Airport
Transport: Shinkansen, public bus, coach, private transfer
Madarao Trail Map
The Breakdown | Madarao
Japan's hidden gem