And wow, did they deliver.
Hanyu, the two-time Olympic and world champion, won his fifth national title in spectacular style, while Kihira retained her own national crown, landing a quadruple Salchow jump in the free skate that had Beijing 2022 implications written all over it.
Here, we break down the storylines from Nagano and look ahead to what’s next.
In his first competition since Four Continents in February and after a months-long challenging period of training alone in Japan due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanyu debuted two new – and vastly different – programs, skating with confidence, calmness and landing his patented quadruple jumps.
In the end, Hanyu won by some 35 points over four-time and defending champion, PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno, but it was his skating that spoke for itself, Hanyu dazzling the limited fans inside the arena and those watching globally.
“Today I felt at ease,” he said about the free skate, after noting that he "wasn't happy with my performance, considering the points I got” following the short program. He said, “So I want to adjust myself and do my best tomorrow."
He did his best and beyond in the free, and will now look to fine-tune his skating for the World Championships, set for March in Stockholm.
“I have been training alone for a long time and still have some issues in my short program,” he said. “(But) I felt confident about the way I have been training and that it wasn't wrong. I hope to brush up my training and take on harder jumps without any injuries as it has been helping me to improve and grow."
The two-time Four Continents and 2018 Grand Prix Final winner Kihira was back to her shining best, as well, also having not skated since February of this year.
She hit her trademark triple Axel in the short program – which also included a choreographic cartwheel (yes, you read that right) – and then for the first time in her career landed a quadruple Salchow in the free skate, helping her to a 12-point victory.
While a win was important for Kihira, she proved with her actions and her words that she’s playing the long game: She wants a medal at the upcoming Winter Games.
"In order to be able to compete at the Beijing Winter Olympics, I strongly felt I had to land a quad in this competition,” Kihira said. “I've been training very hard for this goal during the off season. So I'm really happy it led to that moment."
It was gold for Hanyu in Nagano, but also a standout weekend for Uno – who hadn't skated competitively since February, as well – and for Kagiyama, the Youth Olympic Games champion in January of 2020 and breakout winner at NHK Trophy last month.
Uno was at his emotive best for his “Dancing on My Own” free skate, saving a quad toe midway through the program after falling on the same jump in the short.
“Thank you,” his coach, the Torino 2006 silver medallist Stephane Lambiel said to him in the ‘kiss and cry’ after the free skate. The message clearly being: Uno is working hard in Switzerland, and these nationals showcased his progress and clear commitment.
While it was a second consecutive senior nationals bronze medal for Kagiyama, still just 17, his increased maturity on the ice was apparent, particularly in his free skate, where he landed three quads and looked the part in an Avatar and Lord of the Rings medley.
“It’s not perfect for the last [competition] of the year, but I’m glad that it ended in a good way,” he wrote in Japanese on Twitter. “There was a feeling of third place that was different from last year. There are still many challenges, so I’ll do my best to get better next year.”
Uno made headlines midway through the 2019-20 season when he joined forces with Lambiel, and since then Kihira has joined them in training at his Switzerland hub as well.
The moves appear to be working well for both skaters, nationals being the most simple evidence.
Not every great Olympian makes for a great coach, but Lambiel’s audible encouragement from the ‘kiss and cry’ to his skaters was a clear indication of the kind of developmental approach he's taking. (Lambiel also works with up-and-coming male skater Shimada Koshiro, who placed eighth in Nagano, in addition to other elite skaters in Europe.)
Among other encouraging mini-speeches, Lambiel said to Uno after the short program: “You were peaceful, calm... happy. ... Your expression was really good. The conditions [due to COVID] are strange. [Your skating] was a wonderful experience for everybody. Thank you."
Like Uno and Kagiyama in the men’s event, former national champions Sakamoto and Miyahara can take positives from their own performances as Japan continues to be an international force in singles skating as we head towards Beijing 2022.
After a tough 2019-20 season, Sakamoto won at NHK Trophy last month and then finished second to Kihira at nationals, the weekend giving her the chance to feel inspired by her compatriot but also reflect on what comes next.
"I've just watched Rika jump [a quad Salchow]. So now I need to do the same in order to win. But if I do that and lose sight [of my priorities], I know I'd make the same mistake like last year,” Sakamoto said. “So I just have to focus on what I need to work on now. And on top of that, I would like to add new jumps too."
Miyahara, now herself in Toronto training with Lee Barkell, bounced up from sixth to third after the short program, her free skate full of the elegant transitions, spins and step sequences she’s come to be known for.
She’ll turn 23 in March, but she continues to work at improving herself, even after two World Championship medals and a fourth-place finish in PyeongChang.
The singles competitions are always the highlight of Japanese nationals, but this year the dance field had a familiar (former) singles name: Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist and former world champion Takahashi, who is competing in his first full season in dance with partner Muramoto Kana.
It’s an unprecedented switch at such an elite level and Takahashi, known for his work ethic and artistic integrity, is also showing great strides in dance, which is vastly different from freestyle skating.
While there were a few bobbles, as well as falls in both practice and the free dance, Muramoto and Takahashi show that they’re well on their way to trying to make the 2022 Olympic team, though that will be an uphill climb against now three-time national champs Misato Komatsubara and Koleto Tim.
"Compared to the NHK Trophy, I feel we've really made progress in being able to perform in public and expressing ourselves," Takahashi said in Japanese. "Personally I think I was able to understand how my partner was feeling during the program more than the previous competition. So that's a big gain for me."
Japan's lowly ranking in ice dance means only Misato and Koleto will go to Stockholm, but they face a growing challenge for the nation's spot at Beijing 2022.