With two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu out of this week's Japan nationals in Osaka due to injury, the focus will be squarely on the battle between the elite women skaters to make the team for the world championships and the return of Daisuke Takahashi after a five-year absence.
The competition amongst the women will be intense as outside of Grand Prix Final champion Rika Kihira, nobody else looks like a lock. With a field that includes four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara, world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi, Pyeongchang Olympian Kaori Sakamoto, Mai Mihara and Yuna Shiraiwa, it is anybody's guess how it all plays out.
The general consensus at this point would be that a squad of Kihira, Miyahara and Sakamoto would be the most likely. However, Mihara just missed out on making the GP Final and her chances can't be discounted. She's a veteran who finished fifth at the worlds two seasons ago.
The winner of the nationals will automatically make the team for the worlds, so if somebody besides Kihira wins the title it could make matters very interesting.
The 16-year-old phenom has won all four events she has entered this season and barring injury should lead the Japan women at the worlds.
It is going to be tough for Miyahara to stretch her reign as national champ to five straight years. She was solid during the GP campaign, but finished last at the GP Final. It is difficult to envision a scenario where she beats Kihira to top the podium.
Higuchi has been recovering from an injury to her right foot that prevented her from competing in her second GP assignment at the Cup of Russia last month, so her chances seem more remote at this point.
Sakamoto has been in good form during the GP season and just missed making the podium at the GP Final (where she finished fourth). If Kihira has a wobble and doesn't win, Sakamoto seems to be the top candidate to take the crown.
Mihara holds the upset card as Ice Time sees it. With a high finish (like second place) she could seemingly knock Miyahara or Sakamoto out of the picture for the worlds team. Mihara took second place at the Internationaux de France last month and is primed for another big showing.
Shiraiwa would be considered the biggest long shot of the six skaters mentioned here. To make the podium she would need the results of her competitors to fall into place. It is not impossible, but not likely.
On the men's side, Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno should walk to his third straight national title. With Hanyu certain to join him on the team for the worlds, the only question left comes on who will be the third member of the team.
Kazuki Tomono, who placed fifth at the worlds last year, has the best shot at making the worlds team behind Uno. After a poor outing at Skate Canada (where he was ninth) in his first GP assignment, Tomono bounced back to come in third behind Hanyu at the Cup of Russia.
Keiji Tanaka, who was on the team for Pyeongchang last season, would seem to have the best chance to edge out Tomono for the worlds. But after finishing eighth in both of his GP assignments this season, it doesn't appear to be in the cards.
Because Takahashi is not part of the national team program at this point, he won't be eligible for selection to the team for the worlds. But that is just a side note, as the 2010 world champion made clear his goal for this season was to make the final group of six skaters at nationals.
Takahashi will receive massive attention this week and deservedly so. The Vancouver Olympic bronze medalist is a legend in the sport and widely admired by his fellow skaters past and present.
As was seen at the Kinki regionals and West Japan sectionals, just his mere presence can unnerve some of the other skaters. When an athlete of Takahashi's stature returns from a long absence, the impact is profound both on and off the ice.
The 32-year-old spoke with the media at the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima last month after participating in an exhibition there and admitted returning to the world stage is a tall order.
"The wall of the world level is high. That's what I felt when I was watching the competition," Takahashi stated. "At the same time, I started to feel what if I came back to the (world level) competition and I wanted to join the official practice with them. I wondered how it would feel if I compete again there, such a feeling came into my mind, so I can say, it was inspiring to watch the NHK Trophy."
Takahashi knows making the last group of six at nationals won't be easy and said he would have to improve.
"So far I have competed up to the Nishi-Nihon, but as I watched NHK Trophy I realized it is such a hard task to be in the final group at the nationals," Takahashi commented. "So in this month and a half I need to raise my level. That is what I found."
Takahashi indicated that he is hoping to include at least one quad in his free skate at the nationals.
"Two quads are too hard given my condition, but I want to give it a try, at least one quad in the program, even though I only have a short period for preparation," Takahashi remarked.
Takahashi participated in the "Legend on Ice" exhibition before the regular Exhibition Gala at the NHK Trophy and gave an impressive performance along with an encore to a mambo medley that absolutely thrilled the audience.
"I felt that my steps are getting as good as ever, even though I fell, and my edge work was articulate even though my steps were so fast," Takahashi noted.
Takahashi's return has enhanced the ongoing golden age of Japanese skating, and he will no doubt be greeted as a hero by the crowd at nationals. All skating fans should relish his presence there and not take it for granted because we don't know how long he is going to stick around.
Ice Time's predictions for the results at the Japan nationals:
1. Rika Kihira
2. Kaori Sakamoto
3. Mai Mihara
1. Shoma Uno
2. Kazuki Tomono
3. Daisuke Takahashi
Hamada provides insight
Russian skating writer Elena Vaitsekhovskaya of the RSport website spoke to Mie Hamada, the coach of Kihira, Miyahara and Shiraiwa, at the recent GP Final and provided some interesting comments from the renowned mentor.
"I build work with my girls not from rivalry with other figure skaters, but from developing their own abilities," Hamada was quoted as saying.
"The main thing for the coach, it seems to me, is to be very careful to work with athletes when they grow up," wrote Vaitsekhovskaya. "Do not force the load, do not try to chase the complexity, otherwise the risk of injury becomes too high."
"I also teach my students to listen and hear music," Hamada mentioned. "My sister is a pianist, so I understand how important it is for an athlete to understand what they are performing, why they do some kind of movement on the ice so and not otherwise."
Hamada also discussed her collaboration with choreographer Lori Nichol through the years during the interview.
"I love working with Lori Nichol, I like her approach to performances, but even more I like talking to her: we look at many things in figure skating the same way," Hamada commented. "Therefore, the work turns fruitful. This season, Lori put one of the programs for Satoko Miyahara (her short program to "Song for the Little Sparrow"), and I know that people celebrate this production even when Satoko does not rise to the podium."