Ice Time is playing catch up as the Junior Grand Prix season is well underway with five of the seven events completed. The good news is that the results have been very encouraging for the Japan junior women so far.

With the weight of great expectations after her third-place finish as last season’s Japan senior nationals and world juniors, 14-year-old Wakaba Higuchi was expected to dominate this campaign as due to age regulations she is not yet eligible to compete on the senior GP circuit.

It has not worked out that way, however. Higuchi made her season debut at the JGP in Linz, Austria, two weeks ago and finished a disappointing fifth. A shocking eighth after the short program, the Tokyo native moved up with a fourth-place showing in the free skate.

Watching Higuchi’s short program, it was clear that something wasn’t right. She just didn’t have the spunk and verve of last season.

Ice Time has learned there was a reason for this. A skating source confirmed that Higuchi has been suffering from back pain and this was part of the reason for her poor start.

There was one very strange moment in her short program in Austria. After opening with a step sequence, Higuchi executed a layback spin and then as she was preparing to transition into her combination spins, she appeared to forget what her next elements were and skated aimlessly for a few seconds.

I am encouraged to report that Higuchi is now feeling better and back at practice. She is said to be working on a triple axel, which would be a great addition to her arsenal.

The revelation of the junior season has been Mai Mihara. The 16-year-old from Kobe has locked up a spot in the season-ending Junior Grand Prix with two second-place finishes.

Mihara began her JGP season by taking the silver medal in Bratislava behind Russia’s Polina Tsurskaya in August. Rin Nitaya, an 18-year-old from Nagoya, took fourth place in the competition.

Mihara, who is coached by Sonoko Nakano and Mitsuko Graham, then came in second at the JGP in Linz, finishing ahead of her much-heralded compatriot Higuchi.

Watching Mihara skate I was impressed by the crispness of her jumps and the overall polish and poise she exhibited. She also received high marks for her spins. Mihara competed to “Rondo Capriccioso” for her short program and “Giselle” for her free skate.

Starting her season by winning the warmup Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy in Bangkok back in August, Mihara hasn’t looked back. In that event she won in the senior category, besting teammates Riona Kato and Kaori Sakamoto, who finished second and third, respectively, to make it a sweep for Japan.

In addition to Mihara’s success, Japan posted a 1-2 finish at the JGP in Colorado Springs last month where Yuna Shiraiwa topped the podium with compatriot Marin Honda taking second.

Shiraiwa, a 13-year-old from Kyoto, was absolutely fearless, attacking her programs in both the short and free skates and doing it elegantly. What is even more amazing is that Shiraiwa was skating in her very first JGP.

You would think the first time out there would be huge butterflies for the youngster, but not this gal. She finished a respectable fifth in the short program, then vaulted to gold with a great free skate.

I can only imagine what the flight home to Japan must have been like for Shiraiwa after her victory.

There are two events left during the JGP season — this week in Logrono, Spain, and next week in Zagreb. Higuchi is scheduled to compete in the latter, where she will need to win to have any chance to make the Junior GP Final in Barcelona, Spain, in December.

Even if Higuchi does win, she would still have to qualify via tiebreaking criteria with several other skaters above her in the standings. Higuchi was third at last season’s JGP Final.

At this point, Japan has a good chance to have two skaters in JGP.

Mihara is a lock, while Shiraiwa, who is skating in Spain this weekend, has a shot with another podium finish. Honda, who will skate with Higuchi in Zagreb, could also qualify if she was to win that event.

Sakamoto, who took second in Riga and fourth last week in Torun, Poland, also is in the running for a JGP Final spot depending on the results of the others.

On the junior men’s ledger, Sota Yamamoto is the only Japanese skater in contention for a JGP Final berth after winning in Poland and taking third in Colorado Springs.

Yamamoto, a 15-year-old Nagoya native, earned the bronze at last season’s world juniors and pocketed the silver at the JGP Final.

Mao starts anew: Three-time world champion Mao Asada will make her return to competition on Saturday at the invitational Japan Open at Saitama Super Arena after taking last season off. The annual team event pits skaters from Japan, North America and Europe against each other.

The results do not count in the Grand Prix standings.

Mao is scheduled to skate in the Cup of China in Beijing and the NHK Trophy in Nagano during the GP season.

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