WATCHING snow go over your head with each turn, clearing it from your goggles and choking on the bits that got caught in the back of your throat, are the kinds of unique experiences that stamp Niseko into the memories of many who visit. Look around Black Diamond Lodge at about 5:00 pm, after guests have returned from a day’s skiing or snowboarding, and you’ll discover tired bodies, ear-to-ear smiles and witness elated conversations about how the snow would blanket them with each explosive movement. In amongst the smiles and exhausted guests, you may well find owner Clayton Kernaghan checking to see if everyone was happy with their day, making sure everyone has their gear, washing dishes and, if he’s got time, getting ready for a night ride.
“Washing dishes was my first job ever and my last job,” laughs Clayton whilst explaining his typical winter day, which starts at 6:30 am and can involve anything from cooking breakfast for the guests to snow clearing several times a day. Clayton admits that there’s no rest time when you own your own business. Kindly, in between waiting for guests to return and dinner service to start, he has taken 30 minutes out of his busy schedule to ponder his life in Japan, the Niseko area and what he wants for the future.
First visiting Japan 14 years ago, to help out a Kiwi guy who was exporting cars, Clayton realised a connection with Japan and thought of a potential business – to take Japanese snowboarders to Canada, his homeland. “Then I didn’t have any connections, no money or any Japanese ability. I figured
I would come here, and get some connections learn some Japanese and save some money and move
He stayed true to the first part of his plan. Whilst living in Sapporo and teaching English at schools then later at university, Clayton used to visit Teine, a resort outside of Sapporo, in between classes. “Teine is where my heart is. That’s my favourite for sure… the terrain’s good, it’s close to Sapporo, you can get four hours of riding in then go to work.” Satisfied with the snowboarding, but unfulfilled by his English teaching job, Clayton was ready to move on until a friend introduced him to a lodge that was for sale near his favourite part of Niseko, the Higashiyama Gondola, which unfortunately closed just after he and his wife Ayami bought the lodge.
After living in Hokkaido, Clayton’s original idea to take snowboarders to Canada quickly changed. Now, he wants people to come here. When asked what BDL symbolizes to Clayton, he answers, “BDL is a ski lodge by skiers and snowboarders for serious skiers and snowboarders. We’ve got a lot of space around so people feel like it’s a ski lodge. We don’t want you to buy a week’s pass for Niseko because then you won’t feel inclined to go to Rusutsu, Kiroro, Moiwa or Chisennupuri, for example.”
This yearn to allow others to get the best experiences out of their stay and to see what he already knows about the area is the driving force behind the BDL. It’s also the reason why 7–8 film crews frequent BDL during the winters. The Poorboyz Productions 2008 movie Reasons, featuring skiers JP Auclair and Chris Benchetler, opens with an exterior shot of the BDL during a typical snowy Niseko day. Since the release of this movie, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Belgian, Finnish, Australian and Canadian film crews have stayed at the BDL because Clayton knows where they want to go and what they want to hit. “I might not spin it as much as they do, but I know what they want. And I love doing that with them.”
Clayton’s know-how and hospitality has no doubt attracted a lot of foreign interest in Niseko. His influence in the area’s promotion on the world stage perhaps goes unnoticed, but deep down, showing the world what Hokkaido has to offer is his underlying goal. “I want to help Niseko and Japan and Hokkaido realise it’s full potential. I hope I can make a change here. I want to be able to be the guy who bridges the best of Japanese culture and the best of western culture and mix them together.”
In between attending to guests, running his car rental business, exporting the occasional car overseas and being a dad to his baby boy Utah, Clayton’s life is seemingly hectic. But during the winter, he manages, somehow, to find time for himself. “Last night, I went out on a ‘nighter’ and I got an hour and half in and that was peaceful; waist-deep powder after a really really hectic day. That’s where I find peace in life. Getting out at night by myself.”
His motivations to clear the snow again, wash the dishes or tend to an emergency are not only the smiles on satisfied customers faces and the genuine thanks he receives as guests leave, but also the arrival of his son Utah last summer. “Waking up with a happy baby boy is awesome. It gives you a reason to work harder – and something to work towards. Everything that I’ve been getting bored with I can introduce to somebody new. And showing someone something new and putting a smile on their face is awesome.”
Everyday in winter, guests of BDL discover new things, whether it is the experience of a fresh run, their first backcountry trip, a huge pillow to jump off or a nighttime powder run. Clayton’s advice for those on their quest to discovering Niseko’s incredible snow is that of a man who knows the area well: “Hit the backcountry. If you’re knowledgeable do it by yourself. If you’re not, hire a guide. Ski the back bowls, check out some of the lesser-known resorts. Visit one of the bigger cities – go to Sapporo or Osaka. Also, the food and onsens – it’s not just the powder.”
Words by Lizzy Hoo
Translation by Yuri Pangier