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Menno Boermans

Best For: Powder worshippers with plenty of frequent flyer miles and a taste for hot springs and sushi Thanks to the near-constant storm cycles pumping out of neighboring Siberia, the mountains on the Japanese island of Hokkaido are globally renowned for having some of the most consistent, lightest powder on Earth. Niseko is the preeminent spot here, an amalgam of four independently owned, interconnected resorts that girdle 4,291-foot Mount Niseko Annupuri (skiable with one lift ticket). Averaging a jaw-dropping 590 inches of snow a year, there’s fresh powder more days than not on Niseko Annupuri and its abundant, lightly skied off-piste terrain (the Japanese have been inexplicably slow to embrace powder’s addictiveness). The town of Niseko, population 4,685, is an easy drive from the four separate base areas and features a laid-back, surfing-town vibe and dozens of onsen, or hot springs, for settling into after-ski comas. Night skiing is huge here, and enormous stadium-style lights brighten 2,560 vertical feet of skiing. Deep-powder runs through illuminated nighttime forest are a Niseko specialty. Given the windstorms that periodically lash the mountain, the mountain’s perfectly spaced birch forests are often the best, most sheltered places to ski and snowboard. Ask a Local: Canadian Clayton Kernaghan visited Niseko years ago and never left. He now operates Black Diamond Lodge and Tours, which offers mountainside lodging and guided powder skiing in the area. Here are his recommendations. Best Digs: Powder Lodge is the cheapest place to stay in town. It’s very basic. The Vale Niseko has one of the best locations in town, ski-in and ski-out. Best Eats: When on a budget, find meals at Seicomart, the convenience store. It might sound crazy, but the food in convenience stores here is really, really good. It’s fresh food and it’s cheap. A-Bu-Cha is a really good, traditional Japanese restaurant. Try the miso salmon. Best After-Ski Party Spot: Gyu+Bar, aka the "Fridge Door" bar, spins vinyl and serves single malts. The entrance is literally a refrigerator door. Best Rest-Day Activity: Take the 2.5-hour train ride to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido. Niseko’s Classic Run: Ride the chairlift to the top of Hanazono and go through gate four or five and drop through Rob Roy, then through Jackson, and then end up at the bottom of the mountain. It’s a powder run.

Absolute Powder Those in the know choose the isle of Hokkaido for a ski experience found nowhere else. Japan's northernmost island—surrounded by misty seas and chilled by nearby Siberia—is blessed in winter with almost daily snowfalls, accumulating on some mountains to an extraordinary 63 feet. The yuki (snow) comes down very dry and light, creating a powder Valhalla for skiers and snowboarders. Niseko, on the southwest corner of Hokkaido, may be the most popular of the resorts, but Kiroro, a two-hour drive from Sapporo's Chitose Airport, is the real find. Here, youngsters play and learn in the Annie Kids Ski Academy, while ambitious free-riding skiers make endless fresh tracks on Nagamine and Asari peaks. More adventurous skiers hike to the summit of nearby Yoichidake volcano on a two-hour guided backcountry tour that leads to mystical views and even more pristine off-piste terrain. Back down in the valley, it's time for après-ski, with a visit to Shinrin no Yu Onsen-Kiroro Resort's natural hot baths—followed by exquisite sushi or yakitori dishes in one of the resort restaurants, along with a tipple of locally distilled Yoichi whiskey. Then allow the day's experiences to center you in the here and now as the snowflakes outside fall with the calm of zen. —Menno Boermans Travel Tips When to Go: Late November through early April or May (varies by resort) for skiing and other winter activities How to Get Around: For Niseko ski areas, take an express shuttle bus from New Chitose Airport to a designated stop at your resort (advance reservations required). Or take a train from the Japan Rail airport station to Niseko (or to Otaru for Kiroro resorts). For unlimited Japan Rail travel within the district, buy a Hokkaido Rail Pass at any major Hokkaido train station. Where to Stay: Several mountain resort hotels are scheduled to reopen under new brands for the 2016 ski season. Close to the lifts at the Kiroro Resort, the former Mountain Hotel is now the Sheraton Hokkaido Kiroro Resort. And the former Piano Hotel, located a shuttle bus ride from the lifts, is now the Kiroro, part of the upscale Starwoods Tribute Portfolio collection. The 282-room luxury hotel is located at the base of the mountain and near an outdoor onsen (hot springs pool). What to Eat or Drink: Hokkaido's signature snack is Rokkatei's Marusei butter sand, a sandwich cookie stuffed with a raisin-dotted butter cream. The treats aren't widely available outside of Hokkaido, and a new ice cream version (Marusei ice sand) is sold only at the Rokkatei Sapporo Honten near the Sapporo train station. What to Buy: Hand-carved wooden bears, bamboo mukkuri (mouth harps), and other traditional crafts of the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people and the first to inhabit Hokkaido, are typically sold in a few shops near the Shiraoi Ainu Museum (at Shiraoi station, about one hour and 15 minutes south of Sapporo on the Hokuto Line). Designed as a replica Ainu village, the complex includes a museum building, five thatched houses (some fringed with hanging salmon), and a pen housing snowy white Hokkaido, or Ainu, hunting dogs. What to Read Before You Go: A photo of a sheep in Hokkaido sets in motion the surreal journey at the center of Haruki Murakami's best-selling A Wild Sheep Chase (Vintage, 2002), in which the hero is led to the snowy mountains of northern Japan. Helpful Links: Visit Hokkaido and Powder Snow Hokkaido Fun Fact: To help guide winter drivers in whiteout conditions, Hokkaido's highways are equipped with candy cane-striped arrows suspended from posts. The posts are set up at intervals along the side of the highway, and the arrows point down to mark the edge of the road. The reflective red stripes serve as beacons for motorists in a blinding snowstorm but regularly baffle first-time visitors.


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