A powder pocket, sitting smack dab on the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures, has recently become a hot spot for snow lovers dreaming of owning and running their own lodge and the locals have taken note, opening up more tree skiing and powder courses at Madarao Resort.
Madarao Mountain Resort is located just a half-hour drive high above Iiyama Station, which is just 100 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo. The 1,382-meter Mt Madarao has 13 lifts and more than 45 trails, with 60% of the courses being ungroomed for some of the region’s best powder skiing. Boasting some amazing tree runs, this little-known resort was rated by Powderhounds as the best value for skiing in Japan for its comparatively cheap accommodation and lift tickets.
Madarao has also been the pioneer of many events, like the World Cup Madarao, Japan’s first freestyle skiing competition, and the Newport Jazz Festival in the ‘80s, which hosted legends including B. B. King, the Dizzy Gillespie quartet, Spyro Gyra, Woody Herman and Dave Brubeck.
With the bullet train to Iiyama Station and inbound snow travelers on the rise, the resort town is adapting to become more foreigner friendly. Although small, the town is undergoing several major changes—a big one being increasing the number of foreign-owned lodges.
“Madarao is a really easy place to live. The locals are relaxed, it’s a beautiful place to wake up to every day and I never get tired of the view of Shiga Kogen or over the back towards Mt. Myoko,” says Mark Stahnke, owner of Madarao Mountain Lodge. He and his wife Abe have been running the lodge since 2016 and cater their restaurant on the first floor to foreigners. Mark worked ski patrol at Madarao and has lived in Japan for nearly 20 years.
“We’ve included plenty of vegetarian and even gluten-free options, and provide both Japanese and Western options,” says Stahnke.
The lodge’s rooms on the second floor are spacious. Bathrooms have been converted into private shower cubicles as opposed to the traditional public bath. “There’s an onsen nearby at Madarao Kogen Hotel but we felt that public baths weren’t something that foreigners want everyday.”
Small snow resort towns like Madarao still have limited English-speaking services. To make winter travel as painless as possible, Mark and Abe give advice on transportation times from major cities to Madarao, arrange taxi pick-ups, make bookings at restaurants whose owners don’t speak English and organize takyubin so skiers can send their winter gear direct from their city address to the lodge.
Just down the road is First Tracks Madarao, a lodge owned by Kiwi Michael Stowers.
“My family and I love Madarao because it’s compact and you can walk everywhere—you don’t need a car to get around, unlike most resorts in other parts of the world,” says Stowers. “The mountain has something for the whole family as well In Japan, off-piste skiing is usually illegal but here at Madarao, it’s actually encouraged.”
Madarao is open and surrounded by forest, making it feel less contained compared to other ski towns. The backcountry and tree skiing is safer and more accessible than Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen, making this location a good introduction to backcountry and off-piste skiing.
“Powder riding is very popular especially with foreigners. This season welcomes so many foreign-owned properties and we’re excited to be part of Madarao’s rejuvenation,” says Cassandra Lyons from Australia. Cassandra and her husband Chris are renovating Chill Madarao and reopening with a new look this season, expanding the rooms to cater to long-stay travelers and big families.
Locals like Akifumi Kitamura, co-founder of North Nagano Outdoor Sports, are equally excited about this new wave of foreigners entering the resort. “I’m a snowboard and ski instructor in the winter, and I make sure all my staff can speak English because we receive so many international visitors,” says Kitamura. “A lot of the young folks from here have moved away to the city, so it’s great to see foreigners settling into Madarao as locals.”
Most of the lodge owners are starting to reach their retirement ages, so long-time residents like Hiroshi Yamada are passing the baton down to new owners.
“I moved from Osaka to Madarao a long time ago because I wanted to raise my family surrounded by nature,” says Yamada. “I’ve dedicated my life to maintaining and taking care of my lodge, and I feel assured that the next owners have promised to do the same.” Formerly known as Belgrand Lodge, Yamadasan Lodge (named as a tribute to the previous owners) will be run by Australian Marcus Shimbel.
Madarao is also close to other major ski resorts in the region like Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen, Arai and Hakuba. It is also around an hour drive to the world-famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, where you can watch Japanese macaques bathe in natural onsen baths.
During the summer, Madarao’s ski grounds become an ideal campground especially with fresh breezes cooling the mountain and natural hot springs available nearby. Mountain bikers can enjoy 11 kilometers of downhill cycling through Madarao’s old mountain roads. If you’re not a cyclist, you can attempt the 80-kilometer Shin-etsu Trail which starts at Madarao.
For kids and families, the 13-course Zipline Adventure Madarao offers a bird’s eye view of the Japanese countryside There’s even a “Night Rider” package running from 8-9 p.m.
Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Iiyama Station Buses are available from Iiyama Station to Madarao for only ¥500 (one way). Discover more at Madarao Mountain Resort.