The powder snow at Madarao is undoubtedly world class. With a huge 60% of the mountain being ungroomed and heaps of tree runs officially sanctioned by the resort – there is no shortage of fresh tracks on a powder day. The team at Powderhounds frequently make the trip to enjoy the famous MadaPOW, saying “it was like the best heliskiing ever, for just the cost of a lift ticket!”
Japanese Powder: The best in the world
Japan is probably the most reliable place on earth for amazingly consistent, high quality powder snow. Usually starting in November, cold air passes over Siberia and draws up moisture from the Sea of Japan before dumping it all over the Japanese Alps. Peak powder season is between December and March – when many of the resorts will get over 10m of fresh snow.
Unlike snow in the Southern Hemisphere – Japanese powder is incredibly dry, making soft snow that you literally float through. A proper ‘Japow’ experience should be on the bucket list for every skiier or snowboarder.
In Japan there are hundreds of resorts spread across the two main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. Over the last decade some of these resorts have exploded in popularity thanks to heavy Western investment – so they are often very busy with tourists and lacking an authentic Japanese experience.
One mountain that has flown under the radar is Madarao Mountain Resort – a hidden gem situated in the northern end of Nagano Prefecture – only about 2 hours journey from Tokyo. Madarao is popular with those in the know for epic tree runs, deep ‘Madapow’ and virtually no crowds – ever. Most Westerners stick to the well known large tourist resorts like Niseko and Hakuba, so in Madarao it is rare to encounter any other tourists at all – let alone busloads of them!
On powder days at the large resorts, it is not uncommon to see large lift lines and the slopes getting quickly tracked out. At Madarao, the local Japanese riders tend to favour the groomed runs which means that a huge portion of the mountain often goes unridden. If you are the kind of rider who loves deep powder and a constant supply of fresh tracks – Madarao is well worth your attention.
Madarao – just tell me about the powder!
In the 2017/18 season Madarao had recorded 3.5m of fresh snow before New Years Eve – only 15 days after the official opening day. For the last six winters, there has been an average January snowfall over 3m – making for some amazing powder days. Throughout the season, Madarao typically maintains a snowbase between two and three metres – with constant top ups of fresh powder.
Thanks to the northerly aspect and unique bowl shape of the mountain, Madarao receives as much snow as possible from the passing winter storms. The powder falls on the steep upper faces and in the many bowls and gullies, producing a large range of terrain and some of the best tree skiing in Japan. About 60% of the runs on the mountain are left ungroomed, and there is easy access to extensive off piste areas. The best way to enjoy the mountain is to purchase the dual resort ‘Powder Pass’ that combines access to the Madarao Resort and the neighbouring Tangram Ski Circus for plenty of options.
Unlike many of the large Japanese resorts where tree runs and off piste skiing is strictly prohibited, Madarao actively encourages adventurous riding. During the summer months, resort staff ‘glade’ the trees to minimise shrubbery and keep good spacing for high speed lines through the trees. With 13 officially sanctioned tree runs Madarao claims the title as the Japanese resort with the most number of tree runs!
The crew from Powderhounds spent a few days in Madarao during a large storm system this season and scored some amazing conditions. They said “back in 2014 we first caught a bad case of Mad Pow disease at Madarao Kogen… Obviously, we were keen to get back there to go crazy in the powder.”
The crew said Madarao “was storm skiing at its best because barely anyone else was hitting the trees – not many others were silly enough to head out when it was snowing so hard!”
Back and Side Country Tours at Madarao:
Madarao has great potential for backcountry skiing and snowboarding that is largely left untapped. The bowl shape of the mountain and the fact that the summit is not above the tree line means that the avalanche risk at Madarao is much lower than other neighbouring mountains.
Ex-Japanese Ski cross and Alpine Racer, Aki Kitamura was born and raised in Madarao and knows the extensive side and back country areas better than anyone else. Aki runs North Nagano Outdoor Sports across the road from Kuma Lodge – offering ski school, private instruction and guided backcountry tours for those with an adventurous streak. With daily snow falls up to 1m, Madarao is a great place to explore out of bounds terrain in the search of untouched Madapow.
Some key facts about Madarao:
- The mountain is 1382m high, has 21 modern chair lifts between Madarao and Tangram and 27 official ski runs combined.
- 60% of the slopes are ungroomed and there is a huge amount of accessible off piste and tree runs for epic powder.
- Access to Madarao’s neighbouring resort Tangram Ski Circus is available on a dual mountain ‘Powder Pass’ lift ticket to explore even more terrain – highly recommended!
- Madarao has been host to Japan’s first Freestyle Skiing Competition and events during the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.
- The mountain sits literally on the border of Nagano and Niigata Prefectures – you can ski down the border line through the middle of the resort.
- Madarao is near Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen, both are visible from the summit on clear days and easily accessible for day trips.
- Not only is Madarao perfect for a true powderhound – it is also a great mountain for families to enjoy together.
You can access Madarao from Tokyo with a 100 minute bullet train ride to Iiyama and 20 minute bus ride up the mountain for a total trip time of about 2 hours.
What else does Madarao have to offer?
Madarao isn’t only about fresh tracks in bottomless powder – it is actually a great destination for the whole family. There are two snow play areas for kids, good beginner runs at the base of the mountain, English speaking private ski lessons available and a small terrain park.
Madarao does not have a big tourist drinking culture so it definitely isn’t a party town. The vibe in Madarao village is relaxed, with a range of quality restaurants serving up delicious Japanese style and international cuisines.
The town of Iiyama is only a short bus ride back down the hill to visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples for a bit more culture. This region is fertile farming land when it isn’t buried under metres of snow! You may like to try some local sake or rice wine which has a good reputation throughout Japan.
Other day trip activities include a visit to the famous Japanese snow monkeys, or excursions to other closeby mountains like Nozawa Onsen and Myoko Kogen.
Tell me about Kuma Lodge:
Kuma Lodge is a ski-in, ski-out lodge located right next to the beginner slopes at Madarao with stunning panoramic views of the mountain.
Kuma is the #1 rated boutique accommodation in the area on Tripadvisor. We have nine well equipped rooms that can accommodate 21 guests per night with a number of entertaining and social areas. Amenities in the lodge include a ping pong table, darts, flat screen TV with Netflix and a comfortable leather sofa to relax after a big day of powder slaying.
The lodge is Australian owned, and staffed by Japanese locals – Taka-San and Kumi who speak great English. The Kuma team offer concierge style service for your stay in Madarao. We can organise meals at some of the amazing local restaurants, tourist activities like day trips to other mountains, onsen visits or a trip to see the snow monkeys. Our staff can also assist with any snow related needs, helping with lift passes, ski school lessons and organising backcountry tours. Taka is a gun snowboarder and will always help out to make sure you get the best Madapow experience possible!
Make sure you check out the Kuma Lodge video below.