Lifts & Terrain
Kurodake Ski and Snowboard Terrain
Like similar ropeways in Japan such as Hakkoda, Asahidake and Tanigawadake that are mostly for the summer trade, Kurodake is primarily not really a ski resort but more akin to a backcountry ski area that just happens to be partially serviced by a cable car. However unlike Asahidake
, which have lots of mellow areas, Kurodake
is super steep in places, which makes it rather unique for Japan. It’s a great debate as to whether Kurodake or Tenjindaira Tanigawadake
is the steepest ski area in Japan.
The Kurodake ski statistics are really a waste of time as they don’t tell the true tale of the gnarliness of Kurodake. Any stats would only refer to the marked course/s and not to the huge off-piste and backcountry areas.
The Kurodake ski terrain can essentially be divided into three parts.
1) Ropeway Terrain - Steep
The 3km Kurodake ropeway (aka cable car) rises from the town of Sounkyo. The ropeway typically opens an hour before the chair lift, so you may choose to have a “warm-up” run here. Of you might spend your whole day here if conditions are great and you don’t want to hike.
The ropeway terrain is heavily treed, has some gnarly traverses and chutes, and is for experts-only. There’s an unofficial “course” under the ropeway that has a couple of little wooden arrows that you’ll probably quickly lose track of. Beyond the course the area is an off-piste haven, although route finding can be very difficult considering that the area has unmarked hazards, lots of tight technical trees, and is littered with cliff bands, the type that you avoid no matter how much Kodak courage you have. You might want to have skins or snowshoes on hand in case your route finding goes awry!
Avalanche gear is highly recommended, because other than closing the area when the avo risk is really high, the patrollers do not control the area and it sluffs a lot. This is the wild wild east. Treat this area like the backcountry.
Due to the bluffs, the skiing tends to be funneled into a couple of areas (including the slightly cleared area under the ropeway), so freshies can disappear in the very obvious areas. However if you know where you’re going or have a great guide, there are routes where freshies will last a long time.
2) Terrain Serviced by the Chair Lift – Not Steep
Above the ropeway is the pair lift, which provides access to a gentle powder bowl and 1-2 groomed courses that are reasonably mellow (maximum gradient of 25 degrees) and appropriate for intermediates.
In the off-piste areas the trees are not very tight, and freshies can last all day. Off to skiers’ right there are lots of mellow lines that funnel down to the base of a cat track, and from there you can walk up 5 minutes to get to the base of the chair lift.
This is a nice spot for powder hounds on their L plates to learn to ski powder because it’s mellow, untracked and there’s no pressure, but the chair area is not normally the reason that skiers and boarders make the pilgrimage to Kurodake.
3) Earn Your Turns Above the Chair – Moderate Pitch
If you’re happy to earn your turns, you can skin or snowshoe up from the top of the pair lift and enjoy the backcountry. The 474 m hike up to the peak of Kurodake aka Black Mountain (even though it’s white in winter!) takes about 60-90 minutes and includes a sometimes harrowing traverse towards the top. If visibility is somewhat limited, you might choose to stop at a shoulder at 1,840m. The peak is rather striking when you can actually see it!
The backcountry terrain that runs down the ridge towards the chairlift isn’t actually that big (so it can become semi-tracked in a couple of days), and it’s bordered by sheer dramatic vertical on the left (so don’t traverse too far left!).
This backcountry area mostly consists of sub-alpine terrain of moderate pitch with lots of open areas and a smattering of trees. Only the top 100 metres is devoid of trees.
The Kurodake ropeway goes every 20 minutes. Don’t settle in during the ride, as it’s reasonably quick. Lift queues are a non-issue unless a horde of tourists turns up (and they’ll probably let you through anyway). The tourists may even turn up on snowy days when you wonder what the hell they’ll actually be able to see when they get to the top of the ropeway. There are only so many snowballs you can throw at each other! At the end of the day you can download the ropeway if you don’t want to tackle the steep trees.
It’s about a 200 metre walk between the top of the ropeway and the base of the chair lift (who planned that?!).
The double chair lift is moderately paced, not that you’ll worry about the speed of the chair because you’re unlikely to do lots of laps in this area.
Kurodake Ski Season
The Kurodake ski area is open from early November to early May, although the ropeway is closed for supposed “maintenance” in parts of January and February. The dates change every year, so check on the Rinyu website (in Japanese so you’ll need to use google translate) regarding exact dates. One theory is that the ropeway closes because it’s not financially worthwhile to operate during the height of winter when it’s too cold and ugly.
Sometimes Rinyu run the ropeway but not the chair lift…. for no good reason (except to save money?).
Early season can be a nice time to ski the upper parts, when other Hokkaido ski resorts still have inadequate base. The ropeway serviced terrain typically doesn’t have adequate cover until January at the earliest.
Kurodake is probably best visited in March when the weather is a little more conducive to backcountry skiing and the ropeway is able to operate.
You can buy 1 time or 5 time tickets for the ropeway, or a 1 day ticket for the lift and ropeway. You’ll need to pay for lift passes with cash.
Kurodake Snow and Weather
Kurodake gets dumped on with lots of snow and resets are very frequent. The average snowfall per season is unknown because no one measures the daily snowfall (and in the height of winter the ski area isn’t even open)!
The Kurodake snow quality can vary somewhat, which you’d expect considering the high elevation. The top of the chair lift is at least 300 metres higher than Furano
, so the snow quality is often far superior to that of other central Hokkaido ski resorts ie sublime! The NNE aspect also greatly enhances snow quality, but like the high elevation Asahidake, Kurodake can get hammered with the wind, which leaves behind crust in its wake. Even the ropeway terrain, which is heavily treed, can suffer from crusty snow.
Big snow falls and lots of fine days don’t generally go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that the weather at Kurodake is often foul during winter! It’s also often ridiculously cold during winter.