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Sakamoto, Shiraiwa start season in Hong Kong

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Fasten your seat belt.

Stow your baggage underneath the seat in front of you.

Put your seat and tray table in the upright position.

It’s time for takeoff of the Olympic season.

That’s right, it may be the middle of the summer, but the road to Pyeonchang begins this week.

The campaign kicks off in Hong Kong with the Asian Open Trophy, a regional event that has been the curtain-raiser for the season for the past several years. It was first staged in 2007 in Taipei, and has been held every year since with the exception of 2009.

Japan swept the gold medals last year in Manila, with Keiji Tanaka and Yura Matsuda winning the seniors, and Marin Honda and Koshiro Shimada taking the junior titles.

This year the event will be especially noteworthy, as Japan is sending a strong team that will include Japan junior champion Kaori Sakamoto, rising talent Yuna Shiraiwa and junior stars Rika Kihira and Mako Yamashita.

Sakamoto and Shiraiwa, who will be making her senior debut, should both make the podium, with South Korea’s Dabin Choi being one of the few recognizable names competing in the senior women’s field.

Sakamoto has selected the music from “Danse Macabre” for her short program this season and “Amelie” for her free skate, while Shiraiwa will skate to “La fille aux Cheveux de Lin” for the short and “Pictures at an Exhibition” for the free.

Kihira, the 15-year-old from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, enjoyed a highly successful first season on the junior circuit, winning the Slovenia Junior Grand Prix, where she landed a triple axel in her free skate, and taking second in the Czech Republic JGP. She finished fourth at the JGP Final.

Yamashita, a 14-year-old from Nagoya, also had a fine debut season as a junior, coming in third at both the Yokohama JGP and the Tallinn JGP.

On the senior men’s side, Japan has entered Tanaka and Ryuju Hino, who will be among the contenders for the third spot on Japan’s Olympic team behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno.

South Korea’s Cha Jun-hwan was originally scheduled to compete, but has withdrawn.

Sena Miyake and Yuto Kishina will represent Japan in the junior men’s division.

With Japan only having two spots for the women at the Pyeongchang Olympics, competition will be fierce among Satoko Miyahara, Rika Hongo, Mai Mihara, Wakaba Higuchi, Honda, Sakamoto and Shiraiwa.

The feeling of many is that Miyahara and Honda are the favorites for the Olympic tickets, but Ice Time thinks a lot could transpire between now and the December night when the Japan team is announced.

Keep in mind that Miyahara is coming off a serious hip injury, one that caused her to miss the second half of last season and the world championships. There is no guarantee that she will make it through the season unscathed.

Also, while it seems quite apparent that Honda is being groomed by the Japan Skating Federation and her sponsors as an Olympian, the other skaters will have a say in the matter before it is decided.

Sakamoto has to be considered a viable contender for one of the Olympic spots. She is a powerful jumper who has strong determination. Ice Time saw her beat Honda head-to-head twice last season. Once at the Yokohama JGP, where Sakamoto won and Honda settled for second, and again at the Japan Junior Championships in Sapporo, where Sakamoto triumphed again and Honda came in third.

What I don’t want to see happen is what occurred back in 2006, when Yukari Nakano was passed over for the Japan team for the Turin Olympics despite having a better season than Miki Ando and finishing ahead of her at the nationals. That made many people uncomfortable.

On the horizon: The Junior Grand Prix season will kick off in Brisbane, Australia, on Aug. 23. The Hinomaru will be represented by Akari Matsuoka and Riko Takino on the women’s side, and Kishina and Taichiro Yamakuma in the men’s field.

Fans hoping to see a quadruple jump landed by debutante Moa Iwano or Kihira will have to wait at least another week, as the JSF has yet to release the rest of the junior assignments for the season.

Book report: While July is always a slow month for skating fans, Ice Time made the best of it by catching up on some reading. I read “The Long Program” by 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming, “Zero Tollerance” by the late Toller Cranston, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist, and finally “Wings on My Feet” by the legendary Sonja Henie.

I found all three books fascinating and full of interesting information. Henie, the Norwegian godess who was a three-time Olympic gold medalist (1928, 1932, 1936) and won an incredible 10 straight world crowns (1927-36) before going on to become a Hollywood film star, mentioned Etsuko Inada in her book.

Being unfamiliar with that name, from research I learned some pretty amazing facts. Inada was just 12 years old when she became the first woman to represent Japan in the Olympics at the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Going up against the likes of Henie, Britain’s Cecilia Colledge and American champion Maribel Vinson, Inada finished a very respectable 10th out of the 26 skaters who began the competition.

Press reports from the games stated that “Inada stole the show with her skating” and it appears she was very popular among her fellow competitors. The rink for the games was outdoors and was enveloped by thousands of fans.

Henie’s book says there were “200,000 people” in attendance for the women’s free skate. Fortunately skating fans today can still find a small bit of video on YouTube of Inada competing in Germany.

Inada went on to come in 10th at the world championships in Paris a month after the 1936 Olympics. She was a seven-time Japan champion, but unfortunately had her career significantly impacted by World War II.

Between 1941-50, Japan held only two national championships, and Inada did not participate in either. She did come back one final time, during 1950-51 season at the age of 26, and won the national title again after a 10-year absence. Inada retired after placing 21st in the world championships in 1951.

The Osaka native went on to coach skating for many years at the Meiji Jingu rink in Tokyo.

Sadly just a few short years before the boom in Japanese skating began, Inada died in Chiba Prefecture in 2003 at the age of 79. How the pioneer would have loved to have seen the likes of Mao Asada, Hanyu and so many others enjoy such great success on the world stage.

Strange move: The JSF announced several weeks ago that this season’s Japan nationals would be held at the Musashino Forest Sports Centre in Tokyo. The site is scheduled to host badminton and fencing during the modern pentathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

What’s hard to figure out is why this facility was chosen over many others with much larger capacities. The new Musashino building has approximately 7,000 seats. With this being an Olympic season, interest will be as high as ever and the demand for tickets at a premium.

You could likely fill Tokyo Dome with all of the people who would love the chance to see defending Olympic and world champion Hanyu skate in person.

Back in 2013 the JSF wisely chose Saitama Super Arena as the site for the nationals ahead of the Sochi Games. The result was a sellout crowd of 18,000 fans four days in a row. Every seat in the house was full all the way to the roof and the atmosphere was absolutely electric.

Now by virtue of the facility selected to host this season’s nationals, many supporters will be shutout of the opportunity to see the big event before the Pyeongchang Olympics.

I don’t get it.