Do you like skiing?
Do you like going fast?
Do you like having fun?
If you answered “not really” to all of these questions, then you’re going to love Kiroro.
Kiroro is something of a mystery in the world of skiing. It gets a lot of snow. Really a lot. It’s one of the first ski resorts the northwesterly storms hit as they come over the Sea of Japan, and those storms bring pow in large quantities.
But it’s also very flat. It has the flattest chairlift I’ve ever seen (and I grew up skiing in Australia). If you turn on bottom third of the main groomer under the gondola, you probably won’t make it back to the base station. At other skis fields, I sometimes worry that I’m going to crash into something or fall off something and hurt myself. At Kiroro, I couldn’t shake the fear that I’d get stuck in a flat spot and have to walk out.
Kiroro is so flat it has its own fan club. The Flat Pow Appreciation Society draws enthusiasts from around the world to share their love of floating around in deep pow and carefully conserving speed so they can get back to the lifts. This is only partly a joke – somehow Kiroro manages to get rave reviews from all kinds of people, including Powderhounds, who give it “5 out of 5”. I can’t figure out if this is a cruel trick, or whether there’s actually a community of people out there who just can’t get enough flat, flat pow.
Perhaps Kiroro is just one side of the terrain vs. snow argument, taken to an extreme. Some people prefer great terrain even if the snow is funky (and thus love Temple Basin), while others just want good snow, and have no qualms about a ski field that’s about as hilly as a golf course. But this dichotomy misses the point – you shouldn’t (and don’t) have to choose. There are places that have great terrain and great snow. This just isn’t one of them.
So is Kiroro really that bad? It would certainly be good for beginners. Their snowsports school has English speaking instructors, their facilities are modern and efficient, and their terrain can euphemistically be described as “mellow”. Also, for those who have skied or boarded before but are new to riding pow, Kiroro would be a good place to start. It’s very likely to have fresh snow, and you can practise staying in the fall line and keeping your turns open without having to worry about picking up too much speed.
Keen powder riders for whom Kiroro was the only option could probably still have a good time. There are a few fun pillows under the gondola line that you can access off the Centre Express lift. The basin between the two main peaks also offers some reasonable off-piste lines. The terrain accessed from the gondola side really is ridiculously flat, but the Nagamine No. 2 lift on the other peak accesses some better terrain, including one steep (but short) pitch that you can reach by following and eventually hiking up the ridge that comes back past the lift to the skiers’ left. These runs will funnel you into a gulley that winds back to the bottom of the gondola. Be careful in any of the drainages here, there can be deep and unmarked holes that drop into the creeks below. The patrollers who carry crevasse rescue gear aren’t just doing it to look tough. Traversing to the skiers’ right of Nagamine No. 2 takes you to a wee bit of tree skiing that goes back to the bottom of that lift and avoids the flat run out to the gondola base.
The place does get amazing snow, so you can always bounce around in the powder which is usually good for a laugh. The thing is, all of Hokkaido gets amazing snow, so you just don't have to make that compromise. Really, the best skiing is accessed from the car park. Get in your car, and go somewhere else.
As for the resort itself, it’s very polished and professional. They have daily snow reports in English, the lifts are quick and well maintained, there are hotels and restaurants at the bottom of the runs, etc. etc. It’s the kind of place where they ask you not to eat your own lunch in the cafes. It’s clearly a well-run operation that knows its market (the intermediate groomer crowd) and is looking to make some money – the kind of place that Vail Resorts will probably buy, if it hasn’t done so already.
One good thing to keep in mind is that this place is pretty close to Niseko. If the weather is bad and the upper mountain at Niseko is closed, lots of the package holiday groups will load their customers into busses and take them to Kiroro. If you’re heading to Kiroro because the weather looks bad, be aware that you might not be the only ones. I reckon Sapporo Kokusai is a much better option. It gets similar snow, is similarly sheltered, has better inbounds and sidecountry terrain, and gets very few off-piste riders.
Kiroro does have some accommodation, but it’s a massive Japanese resort hotel. These kinds of hotels are worth a look in a kooky way, and do offer a genuinely Japanese cultural experience, but they’re expensive and outside the resort there’s nothing to do.
You’re much better off staying in Otaru. There’s a shuttle bus from Otaru to Kiroro, and the town has some cool old buildings around the port, lots of great places to eat, plenty of nightspots and the hot spring town of Asari Onsen is just nearby. Not only does Otaru offer character, convenience and charm, it’s a good base to get to Kokusai and Teine, plus a handful of other very small ski fields. Most of the accommodation options in Otaru are western style hotels. There are some neat pensions near Asari Onsen, but then it’s a bit of a trek to get into town for dinner.
For those folks planning on heading to Otaru on an independent trip, be warned: Public transport from Otaru to the ski areas is a bit patchy. Although Kokusai is very close, it’s tough to get to by bus. You can get to Teine by catching the train from Otaru to Teine Station and then catching a taxi or shuttle bus up to the ski field, but it takes a while and the taxi fare isn’t cheap. You can get to Kiroro very easily, but you might find that gets stale pretty quickly. The best option is to hire a car, but by the time you pay for that you could just come skiing with us. Just sayin’.