Kurodake is an obscure central Hokkaido gem of a “resort” that boasts a single ropeway (which closes for a few weeks winter maintenance so check before you go) and one short double chair a short walk above that. The chair accesses two short but fun intermediate standard groomed runs and a couple of nice powder lines. More importantly, it gets you higher to start skinning/hiking further up to access the spectacular backcountry above.
Owain Price & James Mutter checked it out.
Kurodake is so far removed from the Hokkaido ski mainstream that it’s little wonder most people have never heard of it, still less skied it. Which suits us just fine in our ongoing search for secret stashes, staying obscure keeps the competition down for the good stuff.
Our little group of 3 (local snowboarder Jackson Ma, and James Mutter, now a Canadian diplomat whose prior CV includes being Mr Furano Tourism, the Prince Hotels & Resorts Marketing guy, an interpreter to Japan’s Olympic ice skating team and liason man for the Hokkaido Powder Belt promotional group) were the only ones heading up to ski on the ropeway cable car this very cold late February morning.
The valley is almost totally in the shade then, even boasting an ice sculpture park. It’s impressive, but I was too frozen already from our descent to get excited about it at the end of the day.
Several big spa hotels line the road into Sounkyo town past the Kurodake base, which is one of Hokkaido’s most famous onsen areas. They are not geared to skiing at all, so you might as well just day trip out from Asahikawa, a relaxed city of 300,000 about 90 minutes away, because if it’s socked in Kurodake would be a complete waste of time, whereas from Asahikawa you can just nip out to nearby Kamui, which skis great on snowy grey days in the trees, or hit the parks at one of the in-town areas, or shop and/or check out local attractions like the artisan village there.
Kurodake is a pleasure and pain sort of experience. The good part is taking the ropeway up with a handful of sightseers and stepping out to glorious sunshine, magnificent alpine views, and fresh snow blanketing everything. A short hike/skate for 100m or so on a freshly groomed cat track through the pines takes you to the only other lift, a double chair that gives 220m cruisy vertical with a choice of tree runs or 2 groomed lines.
The place was almost deserted – we could see two antlike figures already half way up to the peak – so we did a warm up circuit off the chair. Then coming round again, still frozen, we got skins/snowshoes on and started upwards.
For me it was a summit or nothing push, having come this far to check it out, but my younger companions weren’t so keen. The local, Jackson, dropped off the pace and stopped a few hundred metres up.
I coaxed James higher, suggesting the cornice line would be a good spot for pictures. From there we were only a 10 – 15 minute burst from the peak, so we plodded on.
The main thing about skinning is to set your own gradient to suit you. Earlier I made the mistake of following the tracks of the first two to head up, who had set a blistering pace. The trail they had broken was too steep for me. Switching to a shallower zig-zag I got my rhythm and was soon pleasantly surprised by the altitude already gained.
Unless you get unlucky and the weather craps out, when you hit the summit you are rewarded with a great view. At Kurodake that includes genuinely wild alpine terrain – chutes, cliffs, powder faces and the backside of Asahidake volcano.
We lost our full sun right on summiting, misty cloud quickly taking the edge off the light for pictures, but at least visibility stayed good enough for the charge back down. If the weather did close in totally up here the cliff on skier’s left would be a worry. It’s not quite La Grave, but you could easily die charging off the edge there.
Even with good light we had to feel out a line to hit the best snow, wind crust affecting different aspects. My Black Diamond Zealots were built precisely for that sort of thing and smashed easily through the constant transitions, making for one of the best runs of our two week Hokkaido trip.
With more local knowledge, and fresh snow on the lower section, you could charge on down and cut out to the way to the bottom of the ropeway. We stayed high enough to traverse back over past the double chair to the top ropeway station, where lunch was noodles, noodles or noodles. Not to worry – I would have eaten wasabe waffles by this point. Or noodles with wasabe.
The only true local among us, Jackson, opted to ride the cable car down. The occasional local, James, looked keen to follow, but I talked him into having a lash at the ski down.
Mistake. The top section under the ropeway was steep and crusty but open enough, then it was into tightly spaced spindly trees and totally variable snow. On an exposed ridge a series of crusty rolling frozen lips with powder trapped behind were okay, but then a section of forest with thin crust with nothing underneath except thick grabby scrub was a nightmare. Hauling 192cm skis out of that every time you broke through was exhausting, and we were basically feeling our way – James had checked with the lift guy for directions (in perfect Japanese), but except for a couple of tiny timber arrows nailed on trees there is no signage at all, and there were no tracks to follow. Narrowly avoiding some cliff outs, and stepping back up out of a couple of blind gullies, we finally emerged onto a road above the base. Lots of pain for zero gain.
With fresh snow it would be better, you could actually bomb the liftline most of the way then, remembering to cut out before the cliffs. Otherwise to download at Kurodake is not to admit defeat, it’s just smart.
It must have been minus 20 celsius or lower on the bottom half of the mountain, so by the time we reached the road I was over cold. But if your idea of chillin’ is walking round frozen ice monster shapes in way sub zero shade don’t miss that.
In truth we were early in the season for Kurodake – the ropeway shuts down for annual maintenance from xmas through to mid-February, and the snow is constant, around 8m a season, so March and April are usually better months.
If you do like a hike and an adventur,e you’ll love it. If you have partner/s who ski cruisy they could do some laps on the double chair to see the view then go down and take an onsen and spa – or stay shopping in Asahikawa while you get serious out here.
Getting to Kurodake
Kurodake is 90 mins from Asahikawa airport, a bit more from the city city. Stay there or in the Sounkyo onsen village along the valley from the ropeway.
Kurodake mountain stats
• snowfall 8m • top lift 1,520m • base 670m • vert 630m
lifts 2 terrain (off double chair) • 50% adv/exp • 50% beg