In late February 2018, my family and I travelled to Madarao, a small but emerging resort in the Nagano Prefecture, where we took our kids skiing for the first time. The kids aged 6 and 8 took to skiing like ducks to water, loved the culture and generally just loved the entire experience; from the trains to the food, to the endless amount of snow.
Our holiday to Madarao in the Nagano Prefecture was seriously awesome – perfect even – and if you were to ask me should take their kids to Japan, my answer is a resounding YES. Here are my reasons why, with just a few tips and tricks thrown in…
1. Skiing is an adventure more than a holiday!
A skiing holiday, wherever you chose to go, is more like a family adventure. There’s no shuttle bus waiting to whisk you away to a luxury villa, and you can’t just pack a pair of shorts, thongs and a Bintang singlet and be happy you have everything you need.
Our play-sheet looked more like this: pack most of the contents of the wardrobe (and the house) into 4 small suit cases, drag the kids to the airport, catch a plane to Singapore, catch a connecting flight to Tokyo, land, get through customs, catch the Narita Express to Tokyo Station; find the Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket office, book our seats, catch the Shinkansen, travel to Iiyama Station (100 mins from Tokyo), find the local bus, jump on and travel the remaining 30 mins to Madarao Resort.
Sounds daunting, but it wasn’t. We broke our travel itinerary into two days, choosing to stay overnight in Tokyo. The Japanese airports, rail stations and bus-stops are easy to navigate and the Japanese people so helpful. All the signs have English translations and provided you do just a little bit of research before you go, the whole experience is pretty seamless.
2. Japan is close, there’s no jetlag and travel is easy
We travelled with Singapore Airlines from Perth to Changi to Tokyo, the whole trip taking about 13 and a half hours (including stop over) – about 7 hrs shorter than a Perth to Vancouver flight. The kids had never done an overnight flight before and we were a bit nervous. After a terrible experience flying Jetstar a few months earlier, we packed lots of food and entertainment (tablets), even though Singapore Airlines is a full-service carrier. Sure, they were excited and stayed up late, but fell asleep soon after we left Changi about 11 pm. The overnight flight was uneventful and the kids slept through until the morning (which was a huge bonus).
We arrived in Tokyo about 6:30 am, where we quickly passed through customs. We then regrouped, put warm clothes on, grabbed a coffee and walked to the lower floor to pick up our pre-ordered JR-east rail passes. Rail passes offer fantastic value for money: kids under 12 travel half price and kids under 6 travel free. Be aware however only paying passengers are guaranteed a seat. Children under six sit on your lap.
Rail Passes are available on line up to a week before you fly out. You can also buy them at the station when you arrive, but purchasing online is cheaper (maybe 10%). We caught the Narita Express (N’Ex) to Tokyo before catching a connecting train to Shinagawa, about 10 mins up the line from Tokyo where we’d booked our overnight accommodation.
The JR pass provides five days of unlimited access to several different trains; the N’Ex, the metro and the Shinkansen (Japan’s famous bullet train). The passes come in a clear sleeve with a lanyard, perfect for carrying the passes around your neck (nothing screams ‘tourist’ more). They are also really easy to use. Just be sure to pass through the ‘manned’ gates, not the automatic ticketed gates, and you’ll have no problems.
3. You can break up your stay in Tokyo
This was our first snow holiday outside of Hokkaido, and one thing we were thankful for was once you land in Tokyo, you’re there [there is no further need to get a connecting flight through to New Chitose, Sapporo]. Although we could have landed in Tokyo, caught the connecting Shinkansen through to Iiyama and been in Madarao just a couple of hours later, we chose to stay the night in Tokyo, and travel at our own pace the next day. It also allowed us the opportunity to explore a little bit, taking in the Ginza area which has a really cool five story toy store, the Hakuhinkan Toy Park.
Our hotel for the night was the Keikyu Ex Inn, about a 5 min walk from the Shinagawa train station. Although we looked at Air BnB, for about the same price a hotel with 24 hr reception and a concierge seemed like a better option. It ended up being perfect with plenty of nearby eateries, a convenience store and washing facilities. One word of caution. If booking via the Wotif site, make sure you know what you’re getting. As we found out, ‘twin’ on the website was incorrectly translated as ‘single’, so 2 twin beds and a twin sofa bed (plenty of room for 2 adults and 2 kids right?) was actually 2 single beds and a couch. Several hours later, after much polite negotiation, the hotel eventually provided another mattress.
4. Getting to Madarao is easy
Catching the Shinkansen the following morning was one of the highlights of the trip especially for our six year old who just LOVES trains (what 6 year old boy doesn’t?). Again, we travelled by metro rail from our hotel in Shinagawa to Tokyo, for our connecting bullet train to Iiyama, a delightful small town just a few minutes beyond Nagano.
When we got to Tokyo central station, it was rush-hour and the place was absolutely heaving. But in true Japanese style, the crowds were ordered, courteous and polite, and we slipped through the station quickly arriving at the Shinkansen ticketing desk a mere 5 minutes after exciting the metro train. It was that easy.
We got our tickets, walked the short distance and caught the escalator up to our platform. Queuing is very orderly with separate queues for individual carriages. The doors opened a few minutes before departure, leaving about 2 mins to find your seat and stow your luggage. There is room in the overhead lockers for two large suitcases and even ski bags if you can find a long enough section. We later learnt that some of the carriages have luggage compartments or like other skiiers, you can just leave your ski / snowboard bags in the compartments between carriages (not sure it’s kosher, but no one seemed too bothered).
The ride on the train was surprisingly smooth. The only sense we were traveling at over 250 km/h was when we passed through a tunnel or a station. Otherwise, the whole experience was just perfect. The journey took in the outskirts of Tokyo and the breath taking rural areas of central Japan, before arriving in Nagano, the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The Hakuba mountain range – a very popular area for Australians – was clearly visible to the left of the train as we arrived at Nagano station – where incidentally, and perhaps not-surprisingly, most of the westerners got off. A short 20 minutes or so later, we arrived at beautiful snow-covered Iiyama.
All of the stations on the Shinkansen line are clean and very modern and Iiyama was no exception. Standing on the platform we realised that quite a few Aussies had also stepped off the train at Iiyama. However, it was quickly apparent that most were headed for nearby Nozawa Onsen, and when we mentioned we were headed for Madarao, we were generally greeted with puzzled looks. It struck me that Madarao must still be relatively unknown, which surprised me given the amount of press the resort has received in recent times.
While gathering the rest of our baggage and getting our bearings on the platform, we were lucky enough to see an express Shinkansen blast through the station at over 250 km/h. The kids were excited, as were mum and dad. It was awesome. We moved downstairs, passed through the ticket office and immediately began looking for our bus. I was a little on edge as I knew the bus was due to depart in 10 mins, and being unfamiliar with the area, I wasn’t keen to dilly-dally. The kids on the offer hand just wanted to play in the snow drifts. At this point I learnt a lesson: there is no point getting stressed or angry at the kids for the sake of an adult-imposed deadline. Take a deep breath and just let them enjoy the experience; after all, they are on a holiday too.
While the kids were playing I continued scouted around for the bus top. While the stop for Nozawa Onsen was immediately obvious (given the queue of Aussies), I eventually had to ask for directions to the Madarao bus stop, which as it turned out was just outside the front door (just a few steps to the right, bus stop No. 1). The bus arrived just a few minutes later and we happily boarded the bus for the final part of our journey to Madarao, a short 30 mins drive away.
5. Madarao itself is beautiful
Madarao or Madarao Kogen is a smallish resort in the northern Nagano Prefecture. The resort is easily accessible thanks to the recent extension of the Shinkansen line through to Iiyama station, the whole journey from Tokyo to Iiyama taking just 110 mins. The resort is famous for it champagne powder-snow, earning it the nickname MadaPOW, and its unassuming Japanese style. Until very recently, Madarao was very much undiscovered, and widely heralded as one of Japan’s secret resorts – largely untouched by westerners. At just under 1,400 m, Madarao Mountain is not big by Hakuba standards, but as a northern facing mountain it still receive around 10 m of very light, very dry snow, every year.
The resort is an excellent all round resort with terrain for every kind of rider from first timers to advanced skiers or boarders (with the exception of extreme terrain). Madarao has a vertical of 440 m and dedicates 30% of its courses to beginners, 40% to intermediates and 30% to advanced skiers and boarders, providing plenty of options for all levels. The longest course is 2.5 km and the steepest slope is 36 degrees. Madarao is open from 8:30am until 5pm, with night skiing until 9pm, weekends and public holidays. On New Year’s Eve, you can also ski till midnight. Lift passes are also cheap at 4,500 yen for the Madarao area, or 5,000 yen for Madarao and the adjoining Tangram ski area.
Unlike some of the more famous Hokkaido resorts, Madarao is not a party destination, and nor does it pretend to be. People come to Madarao for the quality snow and the low key atmosphere, and although there are plenty of bars and restaurants, there are certainly no night clubs in the resort. Having said that there is plenty to do in Madarao, from exploring the local architecture, the nearby town of Iiyama, or even visiting the regions famous snow monkeys, located just a short bus trip away. As part-time skiier, my wife commented that she just enjoyed the quiet atmosphere, walking the cat trails and indulging in a bit of nature photography.
6. The accommodation feels like home
Our Madarao accommodation was provided by the ‘Active Life’ group of hotels: ‘Active Life Madarao‘ (ALM) and ‘Hakken – by Active Life‘ (Hakken). We stayed the first two nights at ALM, a very spacious hotel complete with a Japanese-style Tapas bar, a great range of micro-brewery beers, a kids play area (with a PS4 and massive TV), washing facilities, ski and snowboard hire, an onsen, an a-la-carte restaurant and a huge downstairs drying room. The kids absolutely loved running around on the stair cases, through the corridors and going down to the kids play area (on their own) where they hassled the staff to turn on the PS4 and generally do as they ask. The staff didn’t mind. In fact all of the staff were fantastic. Our hosts Anne and Beau bent over backwards to make sure we felt right at home. Stacey, the bar-girl, also deserves a special mention for making our 6 year olds’ birthday one to remember, by putting a candle in his breakfast hash-brown. A small thing, but very much appreciated.
The family room was large enough to really stretch out and the beds were very comfortable. My wife and I even enjoyed a fresh barista made coffee (with thanks to Beau) and a few moments of peace in our room while the kids played downstairs (thank god for the PS4). The coffee at ALM is actually some of the best on the mountain, and definitely worth the short walk down from the main ski area. And at just over 5 mins walk to the beginner ski area, ALM was conveniently located, especially with tired kids in tow (who generally take 20 mins just to get moving, let alone walk long distances in the snow). Breakfast at ALM each day consisted of a full cooked breakfast, complete with eggs, hash-browns, sausages, toast and salad – certainly hearty, and perfect preparation for a big day on the slopes.
Remaining nights were spent not too far-away in the Hakken lodge. Although smaller in size, the rooms were comfortable and best yet, they had a sliding room divider separating the kids and parents sleeping areas, allowing mum and dad to watch TV while the kids slept. Our hosts, PK and Kayleigh, both Kiwis, were just awesome and couldn’t do enough to make sure we were, settled in, watered and fed. PK’s selection of whiskeys in the Hakken bar, was really quite something, as were Kayleigh’s delicious vegetarian treats, including soft tacos, chili-edamame, and her pièce-de-résistance, the Buddah bowl, which even for me – a staunch meat eater – was nothing short of extraordinary (my wife has been trying to replicate the recipe ever since we got back).
Breakfast was served downstairs and consisted of a delightful continental spread, which included toast, muffins, preserves, fresh muesli, baked bean, boiled eggs, fresh fruit, and all the juice an tea you could drink. Hakken has recently undergone renovation leaving the whole place feeling fresh and clean. The Hakken drying room is also one of the best I’ve seen. Clean, spacious and hot – leaving everything toasty and warm in the morning.
Hakken is located a very short walk to the kids skiing area, about 3-4 mins away, which was perfect at the end of the day especially with two exhausted children. After such a mission, it was great to return to the accommodation knowing you could have a beer and settle into a steaming hot bath. The baths are private and you simply book your session and wander down when you’re ready. Like most Japanese baths, they are suitably hot (read scalding, and you might need to run the cold tap for a while before you get in), but once you’re in….Heaven!
7. Kids learn fast and the English speaking instructors rock
Skiing comes quickly to kids, but everything else they do is at glacial speeds, especially when experiencing snow for the first time. Everything is new and MUST be explored even if running late for your lesson. For that reason, we booked the kids into the afternoon session, leaving the morning for a leisurely breakfast, and a little bit of snow play, without the pressure of the morning lesson deadline. We found this kept our stress at a manageable level and kept the kids happy and un-resentful of the formal lesson structure.
Our kids started skiing at 10 am on the first day (with me as their instructor), took a formal lesson at 1 pm and were skiing confidently a few hours later. The kids’ lessons were provided by Action Snow Sports – International Ski School. Action Snow Sports was started in 2008 by Peter Hillman, and is the biggest English-speaking ski school on the mountain. Peter and his team of professional instructors offer group and private lessons and a range of specialist 3 to 5-day improvement clinics. Clinics focus on developing technique and confidence on and off-piste, including in Madarao’s famous powder snow. Next year, Peter intends to set up a kids club, with half and full day programs catering to mini-skiiers, and possibly little snowboarders too.
Our instructor was 55-year-old Tim from Sydney, who took up skiing later in life after retiring from his original work. It’s fair to say that Tim had the patience of a saint, a virtue probably honed while looking out for his own grandchildren. The kids thought he was pretty cool and we had absolutely no issues getting them to their lessons each day. The kids attended lessons on 4 of the 6 days, allowing them to learn the basics and develop confidence, leaving plenty of time for family skiing.
I can’t articulate how rewarding it was to watch the kids progress from beginner to near intermediate level in such a short space of time. It was a testament to Tim’s teaching skills, the resilience of the kids, and I’m sure, their low centre of gravity (which makes skiing easy for them).
8. Kids gear is readily available
We hired our ski gear from the Central Madarao Kogen Hotel, conveniently located next to the beginner’s area and the children’s toboggan and adventure play area (which is just perfect for toddlers, and other kids too young to ski). The children’s play area has a toboggan run (with a magic carpet), a network of snow igloos and lots of shovels, buckets and other toys which are perfect for building snowmen. The hire outlet maintains a selection of kids gear from skis, boards, boots and helmets and the Japanese staff are super friendly (even making the kids origami ninja stars). The kids were obviously happy with the gear as they didn’t complain once while they were skiing. They did however, like most kids complain when they had to walk the short distance to from the ski lift to the hotel; even though it was really close, like 5 minutes in the case of Hakken.
One thing that really saved us (especially me i.e. pack horse daddy) was having access to the ski lockers downstairs from the hire outlet. For as little as a few dollars (Aussie) a day you can lock and leave you gear (skis, boots, poles) in the hire centre overnight which for us was a better alternative to carting it back to the hotel. Upon return from skiing, we got the kids to change into their comfortable snow boots, chucked their ski boots in a bag and left all of skis and poles in the lockers. But a heads up; being outside, the lockers get cold at night, so best you don’t store boots and helmets – take those items back to the warm drying room in your accommodation, otherwise you risk very cold ears and feet in the morning.
9. The culture is an education
We were blown away by the courtesy and generosity of the Japanese people. Despite being a city of over nine million people, the Tokyo city folk were accommodating and almost always stopped to help, particularly those that could speak English (even if just a small amount). The children were also attention magnets, especially our little blond boy who COULD-DO-NOTHING-WRONG, despite being tired and grumpy on several occasions.
The amazing Japanese culture struck home particularly on our visit to Mimi and Reon’s, a small tea and cake restaurant in Madarao. The restaurant is not a restaurant as much as a living room. Mimi and Reon’s restaurant came recommended as a good place to buy birthday cake for Master 6. The recommendation was bang on and we dined on delicious apple cake washed down with traditional Japanese tea and hot chocolate for the kids. Mimi and Reon’s owner, Takaharu Tanaka, a retired University professor delighted the kids with endless games of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, while also taking the time to teach them the Japanese language version. A truly wonderful experience for us and the boys, who still talk about Dr Takaharu to this day.
10. The food is divine (and you can even get french fries for fussy eaters)
If you like Japanese food, then you are going to LOVE Japan. While it can be expensive in some parts of Tokyo, you can generally find good quality, cheap traditional Japanese food if you look just a little bit beyond the main drag. From sushi, to ramen bowls to the katsu chicken curries, the food is just amazing. If you’re game, you can also select from the many other fresh dishes on the menus, including pickled fish, and savory custards (some not for the feint hearted). Luckily our kids both enjoy sushi so we were set right from the beginning. You can actually get really fresh and really high-quality food from the local 7-Eleven style stores for an absolute steal ($5-7 Australian for 6 to 8 pieces).
If your kids are not into sushi, the Japanese also make a fantastic fried chicken called Karaage (pronounced ‘Karar-gay’). It’s very much like KFC, but better, especially with Japanese mayonnaise, which is next-level awesome. Another Japanese treat is ‘okonomiyaki’, a kind of savory pancake. While at Madarao, we dined at a very traditional Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki restaurant, located next door to Hakken. Starting with an egg and flour base, the house chefs piled on seafood, meat, noodles and vegetables, before adding another layer of egg. Once piled high, the whole thing was flipped and compressed. The final product was garnished with BBQ sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and dried seaweed, before being served in a heated pan. It was absolutely delicious, and we all agreed (even the kids) that okonomiyaki was our new favourite food.
On skiing days, we ate several times at Heidi’s in the central Madarao basin, a kind-of Japanese style food court, with a bit of Korean and western food thrown in. Like many Japanese eateries, you could get beer on tap, and enjoy a section of curries, katsu-dons, and noodles. There was unfortunately no sushi on offer meaning kids resorted to french fries with Karaage chicken. The complex also included a very good crêpery and a soft-serve ice-cream and coffee bar, the latter run by Australians.
On one of the days we stopped in at Aki’s pub to try his famous pizza and coffee. Aki is a local Madarao legend who spends his Japanese summers at Mt Buller in Australia. There are signs everywhere in Madarao pointing to Aki’s pub, and so they should, because the pizza and coffee were truly exceptional. We ordered two flat white coffees and two pizzas: a margarita and ham / mushroom. The wood fired pizzas and coffees were some of the best I’ve tasted in Japan, and we all left feeling satisfied.
And for a final treat, get down to the Drop Off Bar / Restaurant and try some of their Karaage chicken. It’s DIVINE, and at just 500 yen per serve it’ll have you coming back for seconds and thirds (we can speak from personal experience). The intimate Drop Off Bar, owned by Peter Hillman (from Action Snow Sports) is a great little venue offering a range of local and international beers, Japanese whiskeys, Cocktails and a delicious menu including Okonomiyaki, Thai Curries, Yakitori, Edamame and Gyoza.
11. It nearly always snows…and snows a lot
Are we kidding; it absolutely chucks down in Japan! Having grown up skiing in Australia, we spent an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the snow, hoping and praying the weather would turn in time for our holiday. You don’t need to worry about that in Madarao, or anywhere in Japan for that matter – especially if you go in the depths of winter (i.e. January and February). Madarao receives a whopping 8-10 m of snow fall annually, most of which falls between December and Late February. In 2018, January and February were big months, with near daily falls of 30-40 cm creating ideal powder conditions. Not surprisingly, the resort is a powder-hound’s paradise and tree skiing is very much encouraged in a series of dedicated off-piste areas, where the trees are thinned (or gladed) to create open powder bowls with widely spaced trees.
We arrived at Madarao in the last week of February and experienced almost exclusively blue bird conditions with the exception of one day, when we received around 20 cm of fresh snow. The weather was perfect for beginners and the fresh snow the icing on the cake, allowing the kids to make snow angels and catch snowflakes on their tongues (a rite of passage for all kids). Despite missing the best of the powder skiing conditions, spring was the perfect time to introduce the kids to skiing as (a) it was slightly warmer meaning the kids didn’t get cold hands and/or feet and (b) the slightly slushy conditions and terrific visibility made for very forgiving conditions.
12. Travel is the only kind of spending that makes you richer
I thought I’d finish with this, because I love this saying and I truly believe it. Skiing is not a cheap hobby, let’s face it – and as a typical middle income Australian family, we have to make sacrifices in order to ski. However it goes without saying that memories last longer than a new car, or a bunch of expensive electronic toys, i-pads and/or play-stations. Bottom line; if you’re having second thoughts because of the cost, bite the bullet and do it anyway. You only live once, and as I said before, memories generated on a family holiday do last a lifetime.
If you have any questions at all about our trip, please don’t hesitate to contact us via the SRA contact page.
SRA were guests of Madarao Resort, Active Life Madarao, Hakken by Active Life and Action Snowsports.