Kurodake defies Hokkaido's reputation for mellow terrain. The ski area consists of a ropeway (or cable car) and a double chairlift that were originally installed for hiking in summer. In winter, however, these lifts access a range of terrain that drops steeply into the Sounkyo gorge below. With a bit of hiking the options for advanced skiers are endless, and with a base that hits around five metres in an average season Kurodake offers amazing, committing terrain and great snow.
Be warned, this is not a place to get lost. The cable car crosses extensive cliff bands and poor route-finding here would make for a very bad day. For those who know their way around and are willing to work for their lines, Kurodake offers world class skiing in the dry, stable powder that Hokkaido is famous for.
Let’s start with the facts: Kurodake is a mountain in the Daisetsuzan Range near the onsen resort town of Sounkyo Gorge. The mountain is a rocky peak with steep skiable slopes on one side and huge bristling cliffs on the other. A ridge runs from the peak back towards town, and there are two lifts that head up this ridge from about 630m up to 1520m. The lower lift is a gondola (or ropeway) that rises from the edge of town above the bluffs that make up the edge of Sounkyo Gorge, and the upper lift is a pretty flat chairlift that’s really only useful to get a bit of extra vert before hiking further up the mountain.
The place gets a lot of snow. No one really keeps track, but you’re looking at something like a 5 metre base in a normal season at the top of the chairlift. Generally speaking, if somewhere doesn’t even bother to track how much snow they get you can be pretty confident it’s a lot.
You’ve got two and a half options for skiing: You can lap the gondola, you can hike up and ski the open slopes below the peak, and you can ski the chairlift (that’s the half option).
Lapping the gondola offers steep, technical skiing in tight trees. The terrain and forest provide a bit of shelter from the wind and sun, so it tends to hold pretty good snow. The gondola rises over a set of bluffs and these tend to funnel the skiing into a few areas, so the place tracks out pretty quickly if there are many people about. Fortunately there aren’t usually very many people around, and lots of them hike the peak anyway so they don’t end up tracking out the gondola too badly. Speaking of bluffs – careful routefinding is important here. If you get it wrong you’re either going to have a long, slogging hike to a skiable line, or you’re going to have a fast, direct and terminal ride down some cliffs. It’s probably best to hire a guide to get started. This is not a ski field and the skiing is not easy. If the snow is heavy or crusty, you’ll be struggling to turn in time to avoid trees. If the snow is light and dry, it’s easily steep enough to sluff you out in places, and getting rinsed through the trees here would be a pretty sporty experience.
If the snow is good, the terrain below the peak is easier and more accessible for most riders. Yes, you have to hike to it, but the views from the peak are stunning and the run down has sustained pitches at a fun angle with well-spaced trees. You can make up some of the vert on the chairlift. This area is pretty exposed to wind, so it can get slabby pretty easily. Again, if you don’t have your backcountry skills dialled and you’re not willing to spend some time figuring the snowpack out, hire a guide.
Skiing under the chairlift only counts as half an option because it’s really flat. If you like flat pow go to Kiroro where conditions are more reliable and there’s more lift-accessed terrain. At Kurodake you do get the opportunity to ski flat pow with amazing views on the side of a big mountain, which is actually pretty cool. But if you come all the way here to ski the chairlift you should at least know what you’re in for.
All of this is weather dependant. The ropeway won’t run if the winds are too strong. They make their measurements here in metres per second, but typically winds of 10-15m/s are enough to make the staff pretty nervous, so you can expect the ropeway to stop if winds are above 35kph or so. Winds funnel up and down the valley in funny ways: There’s usually some shelter from southerly and westerly winds, but a decent northerly or northwesterly will shut the place down.
Kurodake also has amazing backcountry. From the summit there’s reasonably straightforward access to a huge backcountry area with a range of terrain options from fun to super rad. I've had one of my best ever days on skis out here. The details are in our blog post on Kurodake but the long and the short of it is that there's some very rad and very dangerous terrain hereabouts. You can get as steep, committed and technical as you want. In fact, the real problem is going to be making sure that things don't turn out to be much more spicy than you had in mind. We won't guide you through any of this stuff, and I'm just about certain that none of the guides we work with either. Basically, it looks really bad if anyone dies on one of their trips.
You don't have to get into any of that stuff to have a good time. For strong riders looking for steep tree lines, the gondola at Kurodake is pretty exceptional, especially if it has been warm and the lower ski fields (which covers all the major Hokkaido resorts) have no pow. Pete reckons it’s some of the best trees he’s ever skied, and I’m inclined to agree. The terrain is intricate, so every line feels different, and there’s options from fun-hard right through to hard-hard. This is pretty tough terrain. If you’re used to riding at the major resorts this will be a definite shock to the system. Bring a helmet. There’s no avalanche control or ski patrol under the gondola, so make sure you have the right gear, adequate skill, education and experience, and you’re ready to take care of yourselves.
Of course, the real question for anyone reading this is “Who is and who isn’t a strong rider?” I’ve been with some pretty experienced skiers at Kurodake who didn’t like it. If you’ve skied a full season somewhere with rad skiing (i.e. not Australia. Big White also doesn’t count) you probably have a decent idea of what a good rider is. Fortunately, there are heaps of other great places to ski in Hokkaido, so you can always get started somewhere else and make a pilgrimage here once you’ve got your mojo going.
One more warning: Kurodake closes for a few weeks each winter, usually in Jan and Feb. They say it’s for maintenance, but I skinned up under the chairlift during this period and there was exactly zero work being done. The rumours are that they just don’t get enough customers, which is pretty plausible if you count the number of people skiing. So if you do come and ski at Kurodake and it encourages them to stay open for more of January I’d really appreciate it. Check the dates on their website (it’s in Japanese). Sometimes they run the gondola without spinning the chairlift. This is fine if you just want to ski laps but at those times they won't sell day-passes, only single ride tickets (¥1,100), so the costs add up pretty quickly.
Most of the accommodation at Sounkyo is in gigantic hotels that cater to local tourists coming to visit the onsens and do some sightseeing. These are fun in a kooky Japanese way, but also a bit soulless. We stay in a smaller pension a short walk from the lifts run by a local character with a bit more charm than the larger hotels. It’s next to an onsen and clustered together with the few restaurants and shops in town.
Aside from skiing pow, avoiding death, and listening to the stirring muzak in the gondola station, Sounkyo in winter doesn't have a whole lot to do. There are a couple of restaurants, plenty of onsens (in all the major hotels and in the centre of town), and some waterfalls to see (they’re frozen - the sightseeing is more of a summer thing). There is a rather impressive ice festival, which is at its best in February (they have nightly fireworks) but the sculptures stay around for March as well. My hot tip? Get a good night’s sleep – you’re gonna need it.
You also have the option of staying in Asahikawa and driving to Kurodake. It’s about 90 minutes each depending on where you are in town and how much traffic you have to get through. Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second largest city with a pretty happening nightlife area and zillions of restaurants. We normally stay in a ryokan near the main train station – it’s walking distance to plenty of food and fun times, and is run by an incredibly warm and hospitable couple.