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
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.
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.