Interested in taking the family to Japan for a ski trip? The secret is out, Madarao is a ski destination that is quickly gaining momentum as a family-friendly mecca, less than a two-hour bullet train journey from the heart of Tokyo...
You can access all it has to offer, staying at the Australian-owned boutique ski accommodation, (and number 1 trip advisor rated), Kuma Lodge.
Beautiful Madarao Mountain Resort and nearby Tangram in the Nagano region, has long been a favourite for Japanese families in search of beautiful vistas, top-notch ski conditions, and affordable, authentic experiences. Now westerners have their interest piqued – investing and booking holidays in the slightly sleepy and very beautiful mountain village.
My family enjoyed the pleasure of skiing at Madarao while staying at Kuma Lodge earlier this year. We represent a range of ski abilities – from my husband who has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with skiing (he is half Norwegian and has skied just about everywhere), three children aged 8, 6 and 3 at the time, who are beginners and yours truly, who would possibly be classified as beginner but likes to think of myself as intermediate. Madarao offered something for everyone. It was also our first family trip to Japan so after arriving in Tokyo, the children were in awe of the incredible energy, beauty and excitement all around them (more on our short but sweet Tokyo stay later) and couldn’t believe their luck when we boarded a bullet train directly to the snow!
Inside Kuma Lodge. To book go to www.kumalodge.co
So why the escalating interest in Madarao? One of the main reasons is that the Shinkansen – Japan’s incredibly efficient and comfortable high-speed bullet train – now delivers you to the ski fields in less than two hours from Tokyo’s central station. It’s as you’d imagine – clean, safe, reliable and serves delicious Bento boxes on board.
The ski conditions at Madarao and Tangram are world-class. Madarao’s nickname is ‘MadaPow’ (save that for your hashtags!) because of the abundance of powder snow. There are slopes catering for all abilities and fantastic backcountry skiing, and you can also ski from Madarao (or drive through stunning scenery) over to the neighbouring resort, Tangram Ski Circus (accessible on a dual mountain pass) which caters for young families with two excellent snow play parks. While we didn’t make it over to Tangram, Kuma tells us, “The safely fenced off areas include magic carpet rides for the kids to get up the hill quickly and safely, real igloos, snowman-making equipment, snow bikes, toboggan courses and our favourite the “banana boat” – pulled along a snow covered golf course on the back of a ski-doo.” Madarao also has fun tobogganing for children (and ahem, adults) which was our favourite way to end the day on the slopes.
Our visit was in March, admittedly towards the end of the season, and we welcomed the short chairlift queues, which we’re told was fairly typical throughout the season, and the reasonably priced ski lift passes, leaving more budget to spend on the Japanese culinary delights (which are also very reasonable as far as ski resorts go!). Importantly, the ski schools are English speaking and the care and attention are excellent.
On the ‘apres action’ at Madarao, Australian owner, Scott Aggett puts it best, “It is a fine balance. You need enough restaurants & bars to refuel skiers after a long day on the mountain, however, at the same time, we wanted a village that retained its Japanese authenticity and charm. With the focus more on food than a culture of drinking, Madarao & Tangram suits families, groups of younger friends and even older skiers that are wanting a quieter pace than many of the larger resort towns. Most of Madarao’s dining is within a short (flat) walk of Kuma Lodge and in the centre of the village, and many restaurants even offer to pick up and drop off from Kuma Lodge.”
There is an undeniably Japanese experience to be enjoyed at Madarao – from steaming Katsu Curries served at ski lunch break to sake sundowns and an ‘onsen’ (Japan’s incredible natural hot spring hot tub to melt away the ski day), to heated toilet seats to restaurants layered with collections of Japanese dolls and 80’s music, while serving the most delicious food. You genuinely feel you’re experiencing the Japanese culture, not just a ski village teeming with temporary seasonal staff with hosts and guests hailing from your own country.
Perhaps most importantly, and as the saying goes ‘the best travel experiences are always related to the people’. So let’s talk about the people of Madarao – the locals, those working the season and the other guests seeking adventure of an authentic kind.
We found the locals incredibly warm and welcoming, eager to help and coo over your children and pardon/find humour in our Western ways. We were so well looked after by the wonderful Taka San at Kuma Lodge – he fielded endless questions before arrival, booked ski school and lift passes, sorted out our ski hire, made our dinner reservations, smiled understandably when our children had meltdowns, and the list goes on. He also offered invaluable local advice and insights (and diplomatically guided me on Japanese manners, for example, try to avoid last-minute dinner cancellations) that only a Japanese guide could in this part of the world.
Another example of the welcoming community on the Madarao mountain: on the first day on the slopes, I took my phone out of my ski jacket to take a video of my son’s excellent skiing. Minutes later we were about to board the chair lift when I realised my phone was missing. Not the best start to the holiday, particularly given I would be documenting our adventures for The Grace Tales via said phone. In a mild panic, I skied down to where I thought I had been when taking the shot, but alas, no phone to be found in the blanket of Madarao powder. I went into the main restaurant area and asked some lovely local ladies where ‘information’ was – they gestured towards an indoor phone box (tardis-style). Once inside there was a phone but absolutely no English translation to the many Japanese instructions plastered across the walls. I wandered out to the snow again and saw a friendly and official-looking gentleman on a snow quad bike. I stopped him and explained through my version of sign language that I dropped my phone in the snow. He gestured to ‘jump aboard’ to which I gladly did. There is always a silver lining, and for me one of the highlights of our stay, was the guided tour on the back of the ski-doo, waving to my very bemused (and slightly embarrassed) family as I sped on by! Nope, it was still not there. Back down to the restaurant and my lovely tour guide led me inside and once again towards the tardis. This time he helped me and passed the phone to me when, success!, an English speaking information person at the end of the line. She said “you have 3 children, yes? Nice picture, all on a boat, on your phone. Today is your lucky day. We have your phone here, come to the top of chairlift one, we wait for you, and by the way…. congratulations!!!’. Oh yes! She was right, I did feel like I had just won something! And I did feel like celebrating!
The Japanese people, seriously the highlight of our stay and perhaps one of the main attractions to Madarao. You have to make an effort to try to communicate and you pick up on local culture in ways that make the experience so much richer.
Kuma Lodge itself is nestled on the mountain with stunning views, right in the heart of Madarao, and pole position to the main ski lift. While it’s not officially ski-in/ski-out, it may as well be, and is perfectly placed for the family to be a be able to come and go all day. It’s a short 80m walk to the main chair lift centre, and local legend, Aki’s Bar and Ski School, run by the affable, former Japanese Olympic skier and English speaking Aki. Not only does Aki serve the best pizza outside Italy, but has Allpress coffee flowing, and organises lessons and backcountry skiing suited to every ability. He also let us store our skis there so it made the (very short) walk back to Kuma Lodge even easier.
Kuma Lodge, like its name suggests, is shared lodge accommodation – and in this vein, it’s a no-fuss, no-frills family accommodation option, but thankfully feels a huge step above the group ‘lodge’ experiences of my Thredbo, Australia stays in my younger days! Kuma boasts beautiful views over the stunning mountain ranges, valley and ski slopes, comfortable clean modern rooms, with hot showers in the generous bathrooms and an amazing breakfast (think organic local eggs cooked any style with avocados on sourdough, and a plethora of options to suit every guest).
The camaraderie that comes with staying with fellow skiers is so welcome, especially at the end of the long days on the slopes (with many tall tales being regaled), and it is so fun for the children to have others to play with, particularly in the event of bad weather. There is a games room with toys, games, movies, ping pong, darts etc to keep the young ones occupied, fast wifi throughout for those of us that can’t switch off and a cosy adults lounge area for relaxing and taking in the beautiful views. We had the great fortune of friends from Singapore staying at the same time, and Kuma is perfectly set up to accommodate large group bookings.
For an affordable, authentic family ski experience, Kuma Lodge in magical Madarao can’t be beaten – allowing you to experience a traditional Japanese ski village not (yet!) overrun by westerners, authentic Japanese meals (and options like Aki’s Pizza for the less sophisticated younger palettes), kids snow play activities at either Madarao or nearby Tangram, short lift queues and cheap passes, and at the end of the day, the options to retire to pizza family fun or sample the more traditional Japanese restaurants dotted across the mountain village. Don’t forget to try an Onsen hot spring bath, preferably outdoors, and pay a visit it to the famous snow monkeys at Jiraguyani Park which is a short drive away and an ideal half-day tour.
So there you have it, nothing beats a family ski holiday – the fresh mountain air coupled with watching your children ski better than you within days – and Kuma Lodge situated in the beautiful Madarao mountains has you very comfortably covered. We might just see you there!
To book or for more information, go to Kuma Lodge