It’s a chilly winter day in Tokyo, but Clayton Kernaghan is comfortable in a T-shirt, laughing about how warm is the city. After all, he’s the founder of award-winning Black Diamond Lodge and Tours, operating world-famous heli-skiing, CAT skiing and backcountry tours in Hokkaido.
Originally from Canada, Kernaghan always knew he would work in the winter sports industry after riding his first snowboard at 14. Wanting to start a guiding company for Japanese snowboarders coming into Canada, he moved to Sapporo, almost two decades ago to learn the language and culture. He never left.
While making extra cash teaching English, Kernaghan explored Hokkaido’s mountains and ski resorts before purchasing a lodge in Niseko. “I wanted to offer foreigners what I always wanted in a lodge and tour company,” Kernaghan explains about Black Diamond’s beginnings. “It’s a true ski lodge for like-minded people who are serious about skiing and snowboarding.”
Having grown up during the snowboard boom, Kernaghan knew most riders discovered their next powder destination via magazines and movies. He invited media to explore Hokkaido’s backcountry slopes, but non-stop calls started coming after Poor Boyz productions came and filmed “Reasons,” featuring professional skiers Chris Benchetler and the late J.P. Auclaire.
The name “Black Diamond” represents North America and extreme to expert skiing. While attracting a whole spectrum of riders from ski bums on a budget to the wealthiest people in the world, the lodge remains affordable and serves as a great resource for travelers looking for the best snow conditions.
“I don’t like to ski just one mountain. I’m always looking for the new place: bigger, better and farther away.” Kernaghan says. “We really push ourselves to find new areas to take customers.” While Niseko has plenty to offer, Black Diamond turns it up a few notches by encouraging visitors to explore beyond the area and even brings guests to Rusutsu and Moiwa for free once a week.
“We empower small towns by introducing customers to untapped terrain and local hot spring lodges—there are some amazing spots along the coast of Japan,” he said.
The latest example is Chisenupuri which Black Diamond acquired this season. Niseko may be the Vail and Whistler of Asia, but Chisenupuri on the back side of Moiwa offers a contrastingly authentic Japanese experience.
“Before Chisenupuri closed three years ago, it used to be my secret go-to place to take guests,” Kernaghan recalls. “It’s 275 vertical meters long, four runs and no development around it.
“At one point, you can even ski across a bridge with bubbling hot springs on both sides.” Starting this winter, riders can head here on Black Diamond’s CAT ski day trips specifically for beginners and intermediates.
As Hokkaido tourism flourishes, Kernaghan works to unite the fiercely local community with the backcountry industry with Hokkaido Backcountry Club (HBC). Currently Black Diamond’s special ops and mechanized wing, HBC was born four years ago when Kernaghan and Makoro Koizumi launched heli skiing tours.
It won world’s best heli-ski operator this year in Kitzbühel, but Kernaghan hopes HBC achieves more than that by one day being a meeting point for all backcountry users and the local government to facilitate better communication.
There’s so much Hokkaido has to offer, and Black Diamond has paved the way to exploring it from guided tours to rental car services for winter road trips. And Kernaghan has no plans to move. “When you’re in this industry, you’re selling happiness. At the end of the day, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing right now.”
“I don’t like to ski just one mountain. I’m always looking for the new place: bigger, better and farther away.”