Takahashi Daisuke is back.
In one of the great figure skating stories of an otherwise challenging season, the men's singles bronze medallist at Vancouver 2010 is returning to the sport, but in ice dance, partnering with Muramoto Kana.
“I wanted to know more about ice dancing... and hoped to expand my skating experience,” Takahashi, now 34, told reporters last year. “That is my ultimate goal.”
The duo say their goal is to make it to Beijing 2022, and one of their first big stops is this coming weekend’s NHK Trophy, the final event on the ISU’s Grand Prix Series in a season of fits and starts, after competitions were cancelled in Canada and France due to COVID-19 health concerns.
The event will not feature double Olympic champion and four-time NHK winner Hanyu Yuzuru, who opted to sit out this season's series, nor will PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma be in attendance, as he has been training in Switzerland.
Like all Grand Prix events this season, the competitors are limited to the host nation or nearby countries to help minimize athlete and personnel travel.
Here are five things to watch for as the skating takes centre stage in Osaka.
Ladies: Sakamoto leads a must-see field
Even without 2015 champ Miyahara Satoko and 2018 winner Kihira Rika - both of whom, like Uno, train outside of Japan and will not travel - the women’s field is a must-watch, led by Sakamoto Kaori, who is seeking her first Grand Prix victory having two silvers and a bronze to her name.
Sakamoto, the 2019 Japanese national champion, will look to bounce back from a 2019-20 season in which she was sixth at nationals and missed out on a Grand Prix podium. She is re-using her fan favourite free skate, set to the soundtrack of 'The Matrix'.
Familiar names abound, including: Higuchi Wakaba, the 2017 world silver medallist; Honda Marin, the 2016 junior world champion; Mihara Mai, the 2017 Four Continents winner; and a host of up-and-coming younger skaters.
You Young, of the Republic of Korea, is the lone non-Japanese skater at the event.
The 16-year-old comes armed with a triple Axel and won gold at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games back in January.
Having previously been based in Colorado, the teen now splits her time between Seoul and Osaka.
Takahashi’s return – in ice dance
There is little precedent for Takahashi’s pivot from singles with its triple and quad jumps, to ice dance which requires a whole different set of skills on the ice not to mention performing with a partner.
Meryl Davis, who won Sochi ice dance gold with Charlie White told Olympic Channel, “Daisuke is one of those people that thrives on a challenge. For so many reasons, I’m excited for him to tackle this challenge because I think that he and Kana are going to be amazing.
"From a results perspective, I have no sense of what they anticipate... I think it’s going to be a real treat for the whole figure skating community to have (him back).”
There are only three teams set to compete in dance, but Muramoto/Takahashi will use the experience as their first barometer on international ice ahead of late December's Japanese nationals.
Men: Can Kagiyama pick up where he left off?
Like You, the men’s champion from Lausanne 2020 also features, as 17-year-old Kagiyama Yuma continues his rise up the figure skating ranks.
Coached by his father, Masakazu, who competed in figure skating at the 1992 and 1994 Games, the youngster had a memorable season including victory in the Japanese juniors and silver at the world juniors.
He also impressed on his appearances at senior level, taking bronze at the Japanese nationals and the Four Continents.
This will be his senior Grand Prix debut.
Fellow teen Sato Shun is also making his Grand Prix debut having beaten Kagiyama at the Junior Grand Prix Final following his second place at the national juniors.
PyeongChang 2018 Olympian Tanaka Keiji (26) and Tomono Kazuki (22) are among the more experienced skaters to lead the men’s field.
Tanaka has two Grand Prix bronze medals to his name, including at Skate Canada last season, while Tomono was fifth at the 2018 Worlds, and third at the 2018 Grand Prix of Russia.
Missing in action: Hanyu, Uno, Kihira and more
Hanyu announced in August that he would not participate in the Grand Prix Series, voicing concern for his health – he suffers from asthma – but also that of others, saying in a statement: “I believe we should not create opportunities to spread the infection. If my withdrawal can help protect against the spread... it may become one action which will contribute to stopping the spread of infection.”
They were initially signed up to skate at the French Grand Prix but its cancellation thwarted that plan with reassignment to an alternative event out of question in what has been a tough season for many in the sport.
The story is much the same for Miyahara, who trains in Toronto under coach Lee Barkell.