2015-16 Japan Nationals preview (ladies): A changing of the guard?

Oh right, there's more than just the Russian Figure Skating Championships happening this week. In the Christmas Nationals extravaganza, we have the 2015-16 All Japan Figure Skating Championships, which starts a day after Russian Nationals. As always, the singles events at Japan Nationals are the marquee ones. The ladies event is going to be stacked full of great skating, with a highly-anticipated matchup between the legend, Mao Asada, and the next-in-line, Satoko Miyahara.

Rocker Predictions: 2015-16 Japan Nationals

At the beginning of the season, Mao Asada's comeback looked like it was going to be a really smooth one. Her Japan Open performance, while not flawless, was promising and confident, especially impressive because her triple axel looked like it never left. But as the mistakes piled on through the season, Asada's become more conservative in both her skating in general and her performance level. It's not the carefree Asada we saw early in her career or in the months leading up to Sochi, it's the constantly-thinking Asada that we saw during her days with Tatiana Tarasova, when the jumps were not going right. It does look like she may be returning to a "safer" short program layout (lutz out, loop in as the solo, and triple flip-double loop as combo), so hopefully that gets her off to a better start.

No doubt, the expectations from the Japanese fans and, perhaps more distractingly, the Japanese media are making it even tougher for Asada as she goes for Japanese title #7 this week in Sapporo. And for sure, she doesn't come in as the favorite. Rather, it's Asada's more consistent teammate, World silver medalist Satoko Miyahara, who is on a hot streak. Miyahara is coming off a silver at Grand Prix Final two weeks ago, and all signs are pointing to her defending her title and perhaps marking a changing of the guard this week. Asada has just not found her stride quite yet this season.

The top three seems to be destined as the showdown between Asada, Miyahara, and Rika Hongo, who was the silver medalist last year. And though Hongo didn't make it to the Grand Prix Final after an iffy Rostelecom Cup, she's made loads of improvements this season that, to be honest, make her more deserving of a medal this season. And much like last year, Hongo will be a bit of a wildcard, but expect her to be on the podium, and I see her relative consistency to Asada's as her ticket to a higher finish.

But outside of the big three, this competition is still crazy talented. And though most of the others don't yet have the components of Asada-Miyahara-Hongo, they do have the technical chops to be legitimate podium threats. Reigning bronze medalist Wakaba Higuchi had a surprisingly underwhelming Junior Grand Prix with a back injury earlier this season, only to return very strongly to win Japanese Juniors a few weeks ago - two triple lutz-triple toes in her free skate to boot. If the top three aren't careful, Higuchi could be the spoiler.

Same goes for Yuna Shiraiwa, a skater who came out of nowhere this season to become one of the ones to watch in Japan. For a skater who was all of 27th at Japan Juniors last season to debut and win TWO Junior Grand Prix events this season is just phenomenal. Like Higuchi, she's a master of triple-triples, and one of the few in the world who can consistently land backend-triple loop combos. Joining her in the podium hunt will be Marin Honda, who took bronze at the Junior Grand Prix Final two weeks ago. She's not quite as explosive in her jumps as the other two, but she's a more complete skater.

Lest we forget two of the Japanese ladies who were on the Grand Prix this season. Kanako Murakami has struggled since 2013 - trying to fix that lutz edge, trying to correct the underrotations, trying to not pop jumps that used to be second-nature to her. She took a surprise fourth at Skate Canada earlier in the season amid much lower expectations, so a high placement here isn't out of the realm of possibility. It's just low in the scale of probability.

There's also Yuka Nagai, fourth at Japan Nationals last year. Her freshman season in international seniors has been inconsistent at best, but she did take bronze at Skate Canada ahead of Murakami. But against these junior-turned-seniors, of which she was one last season, she will need to be much more on top of her game.

LADIES (Predictions)
GOLD Satoko Miyahara
SILVER Rika Hongo
BRONZE Mao Asada
4. Wakaba Higuchi
5. Yuna Shiraiwa
6. Marin Honda
7. Yuka Nagai
8. Kanako Murakami
9. Rin Nitaya
10. Kaori Sakamoto