WHILE Niseko offers a dream-like landscape of lift-accessed, fluffy powder runs for the masses, beyond the bright lights there are mountains of consequence to be found in Hokkaido. Standing above them all is Kurodake – Black Mountain. Long-time Niseko and Hokkaido local Dale Riva is one of many die-hard mountain men who has been seduced by the lure of The Mountain. Dale takes Powderlife readers on a journey from the hotels of Hirafu to the canyons of Kurodake…
Thursday, 4pm. The bank reconciles with the books. Road trip starts. Packed the night before. Avy gear? Check. Boots? Check. Captain Morgan rum? Check. Stanley Cup? Check. Pick the boys up. Time to go. We’ve got a long road ahead, but with a few iPods, a tight Kurodake krew and dry roads, we’ll be there before we know it. Destination: Kurodake. Four hours from Niseko if the navigator is on top of it, the weather co-operates, and you make sure you don’t put diesel into your gasoline engine at the self-service gas station. If this happens, add on another four hours and ¥12,575 to your journey (spoken from experience).
It’s tough to leave Niseko, especially between January and February when it snows almost every night. The bars are going off, your work inbox is full and you don’t want it to overflow, and nightly calls from friends planning the next day’s excursion to Rusutsu or The Gash keep coming in. But, as you head out from Kutchan, the lights of Hirafu, the beats of the bar, the phone calls, the accents of the tourists, and the pressures of work slowly start fading away. A few sips from The Captain and they really start fading quickly.
Looking at the 3m-high snow banks as you pass Kiroro makes you wonder why you are traveling so far to get pow when it’s right there all around you. Maybe it isn’t only the pow we are looking for, maybe something else is beckoning us? Descending into Otaru from high above, we jump onto the expressway. The toll does cost an arm and two legs, but to me, is something that I gladly lose limbs for, especially with three other willing contributors on board. The only time I didn’t take the expressway almost resulted in divorce. Trust me, it’s worth the coin!
Suddenly, we are racing past Sapporo, the lights of pachinko parlours, fast food shops, and housing complexes all a blur. The temptation of both Susu and Kino (ie Sapporo party central) are calling our names. Calls to hit the Daimaru Buffet for a quick ‘houdai’ (all you can eat) are heard from the back of the van. If that happened, there was no way we’d make it any further that day. The passengers were pacified by the bottle of Captain and soon the temptation and bright lights were a distant memory. There would be time later. We move on.
As we follow Hokkaido’s longest river, the Ishikari, to its source, we pass by all the of cities with the suffix meaning river – ‘kawa’ or ‘gawa’ – tacked on to them: Sunagawa (sand river), Takikawa (waterfall river), Fukagawa (deep river), Asahikawa (beer river :)), and finally Kamikawa (above river). The time rolls by. We pass open plains, farming towns, numerous tunnels, and then some smaller mountains. The mini-Stanley Cup comes out, the Captain is finished, the tunes get louder, the van party is now in full effect. Our destination is within reach. The air becomes colder, the snow starts falling, the wind picks up, the smaller mountains give way to a deep gorge. Heading up into the darkness, we are being guided by moonlight and the almost gravitational pull of… that mountain.
Finally, the hot spring hotels come into view, just like any other hot spring town in Japan. But, as you turn the corner, there is something different – an ice festival is on, people are milling around, a small town with an actual main, walking street is there. This is the hot spring town of Sounkyo. And, right across from the lodge that we are soon to dig out and heat up, is the cable car station. And there above it all looms Black Mountain. 10km north of us is the source of the river. We have arrived. But tomorrow morning our journey continues.
The next morning left us with sore heads, the Captain has definitely done his damage. We shook off the cobwebs, while Seicomart breakfasts and canned coffees got us going. Blue skies and low winds had us feeling even better. We were geared up and ready to go. At Kurodake, the ropeway whisks you up to 1300m, then the chairlift takes you up to 1520m. The rest you have to earn. On this day, we wanted to get to the top in order to complete the journey. Going up the chairlift, the summit was in view, but the clouds were moving a bit faster than we would’ve liked. The winds started to pick up, but we had done it before. Maybe they would ease?
It is a good, steep, 90-minute hike to the 1984m peak. The last 40 minutes forces you to traverse a harrowing ridge line where more than one person has perished in the past. About an hour in, the winds really started cranking. White out conditions were impending. The skins were no longer sticking to the icy crust. Conditions were rapidly deteriorating. I slipped and caught myself. We all looked at each other. The answer was in our eyes – the mountain had won today. However, this is a mountain where defeat is not a loss. The lingering hangover combined with the conditions caused us to take a few extra minutes to transfer to riding mode, but we did it. So, we headed down, enjoying the deep pow we had earned, the sweet turns through the trees, the natural half pipe hits, and steep chute at the bottom below the ropeway, ending at the run-out to a temple signifying out safe arrival at the bottom. We run into friends who are lapping the ropeway runs, or taking lifestyle shots within the town. Home (Black Mountain Lodge) was across the street. The onsen, and an after beer at Beer Grill Canyon were waiting for us. The mountain would be there for tomorrow, and the next day.
Fast forward to Sunday, 1pm. Time to go home. Cabin fever. Convenience store foods. Tired limbs. Sticky party van. Mellow tunes. The cafes, friends and even work in Niseko feel somewhat comforting. We descend from the source back to our destination. As we come back over the pass from Otaru, the snow picks up. The lights of Hirafu appear in the distance. We slip silently back into town, road-weary but pleasantly satisfied. A deep sleep awaits. Sunday, 7pm. Mission complete.
– Expect to get a few odd looks – you are in the wild, wild east!
– Check out the ice festival (from the end of January until the end of March).
– Get the ‘Onsen/Dinner Ticket’ for ¥980 from Beer Grill Canyon, on the main walking street. Order the rainbow trout at Beer Grill Canyon for dinner.
– Step back in time, play a game of cards and drink a beer out of the Stanley Cup at Bar 1984 in Black Mountain Lodge.
– Gear up and turn back from climbing to the summit if weather is bad.
– Realise there are cliffs, tight tree sections, no ski patrol and no rules – this is the last frontier!
– Go in the summer, and especially autumn when the colours are unreal.
– Check out the town of Sounkyo and ponder how they have made the town look so good – building restrictions on colours and materials have made it a cute town – even the 7-Eleven and Seicomart are painted a shade of brown.
– From 09/10 stay at Black Mountain Lodge. It will be up and running with solid heating, après-bar/lounge, pool, and cheap accommodation.
– Expect people to speak English even though signs are in English everywhere.
– Climb the mountain solo. Or if you’ve never been, without a guide.
– Go on a Wednesday – Beer Grill Canyon is closed.
– Go in January if you want to ski/ride. It’s closed due to harsh weather and too much snow!
– Stay at Black Mountain Lodge if you need your pillow fluffed or a catered gourmet dinner. There are plenty of reasonably-priced hot spring hotels if that’s what you’re after.
– Miss the waterfalls 2km north of town, any time of year.
Kurodake main website: http://www.rinyu.co.jp/kurodake/index.html
Sounkyo info: http://www.sounkyo.net/english/
Sounkyo Visitor Centre: http://sounkyovc.town.kamikawa.hokkaido.jp/
Black Mountain Lodge website: http://www.kurodakelodge.com/site/
* Dale Riva has lived in Hokkaido for 11 years, and Niseko for three of those. In between 20 years snowboarding, he is accounts manager for Niseko-based West Canada Homes and The Niseko Company.