Hokkaido continues to represent the untamed wilderness with many great national parks. For many visitors the scenery resembles northern Europe, with rice paddies and concrete warrens replacing rolling fields and faux-German cottages. However, the ubquitous hotspring resorts in much of the island serve as a reminder that you are still in Japan.
Hokkaido is by far Japan's largest prefecture, consisting of Japan's entire northern island and its surrounding islets. Hokkaido is cooler than the rest of Japan, and the merciful lack of Japan's muggy summers and rainy season makes it a very popular domestic destination between May and August. Some of Hokkaido's inland areas have a continental climate, with large daily and yearly temperature variation.
Most of Hokkaido was settled by the Japanese within the last 100 years, compared to the thousands of years of Japanese history and pre-history. Before that it was only inhabited by the hunter-gatherer Ainu culture. As a result, its architecture and cities are much more modern, and mostly based on western-like grid layouts.
Alone among the main Japanese islands Hokkaido is not divided into multiple prefectures. Instead, there are four circuits (道 dō), which are in turn split into subprefectures (支庁 shichō).
The Seikan Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel, is the only land link that Hokkaido has to Japan's main island of Honshu. Trains through the tunnel, ferries, and airliners are the only means of reaching Hokkaido. The only way to enter Hokkaido by car is to ship it across on one of the many car ferries.
Sapporo's Chitose Airport is Hokkaido's sole international gateway of significance, with flights to Hong Kong, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul and Busan. However, there are only limited international flights and most visitors will need to transit through hubs such as Tokyo and Osaka. The route between Tokyo and Sapporo is, in terms of capacity and planes flown daily, the busiest in the world. (Note that Narita Airport and Haneda Airport are quite far apart from each other, so make sure you factor in at least 3 hours travelling time between airports in Tokyo.)
Hokkaido is not (yet) linked to the Shinkansen high speed network, but night sleeper trains from Tokyo are a popular option.
When the Seishun 18 Ticket is effective, it can be used on Hakucho limited express trains between Kanita and Kikonai, making it possible to cross between Honshu and Hokkaido for as little as ¥2,000. However, because of the scarcity of local trains around Aomori and Hakodate, scheduling such a trip can be a bit of a hassle.
Ferries are mostly popular among people bringing their own cars to Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is vast in size, so allow plenty of time to get around and don't try to do too much if your time is limited. Many Japanese maps (including the generally excellent Japan Road Atlas) show Hokkaido with a larger scale than the rest of the country, which may make distances appear deceptively small.
Due to its vast size and numerous outlying islands, Hokkaido has a fairly well-developed commuter airline network. The main regional carriers are JAL subsidiary Hokkaido Air Commuter and ANA subsidiary Air Nippon (now operating in its parent's livery). Many turboprop flights operate out of the tiny Okadama Airport in central Sapporo.
The train network in Hokkaido is (by Japanese standards) limited, although it's more than adequate for travel between major cities. However, access to many of the more interesting sites, such as Hokkaido's many national parks, will require either relying on infrequent and expensive buses, renting your own car, or trying your luck at hitchhiking.
Some convenient express trains include the Hokuto and Super Hokuto between Sapporo and Hakodate (3.5 hours, unreserved seat, ¥8,310 each way); the Super Kamui between Sapporo and Asahikawa (1.5 hours, unreserved seat, ¥4,290 each way); the Tokachi between Sapporo and Obihiro (2.6 hours, unreserved seat, ¥6,700 each way); the Super Ōzora between Sapporo and Kushiro (4.1 hours, unreserved seat, ¥8,850 each way); and the Super Soya, Sarobetsu, and Rishiri between Sapporo and Wakkanai (5 to 5.5 hours, unreserved seat, ¥9,930 each way).
JR Hokkaido offers a special JR Hokkaido Pass , which allows the bearer to ride all JR trains in Hokkaido, as well as some JR buses. It is available only to foreigners visiting Japan with a "Temporary Visitor" status in their passports. You can choose between the Ordinary Car pass as well as a first class seat type called a Green Car Pass. There is a 3, 5, and 7 consecutive day pass which for Ordinary seats costs ¥15,430, ¥20,060, and ¥22,630 respectively, as well as a non-consecutive Flexible 4 Day pass that allows you to choose any four days within a 10 day period, which costs ¥20,060 (as of April, 2014). Unlike the regular full JR Pass, the JR Hokkaido Pass may be purchased once in Japan.
For those not on a "Temporary Visitor" status, there is also a 3 and 5 day JR Hokkaido Foreign Student Pass as well as JR Hokkaido Working Holiday Pass, both costing ¥19,540 for the 3 day pass and ¥23,140 for the 5 day pass, valid on all JR trains but not buses. JR Hokkaido also offers a Hokkaido Round Tour Pass （a.k.a Hokkaido Furii Pasu） for 7 consecutive day unlimited rides on Ordinary Car unreserved seats on limited express and express trains, plus the Kaikyo Line (between Kikonai and Nakaoguni) as well as some JR Hokkaido buses.
A cheaper if slower and less comfortable option than the train is using buses, which also cover all the areas not accessible by train. Sleeper services radiate from Sapporo to most corners of the island. Note that local bus schedules can be very sparse, so check them carefully to avoid being stranded.
By far the most convenient way of getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido is by renting a car. This is especially so when visiting some of the national parks or onsen resorts. However, visitors not used to driving in snow should be careful in the winter, and note that speed limits are reduced significantly (only about 80km/h) in winter when the expressways are covered in snow. As such, give yourself more time to cover the same distance in the winter than you would in the summer.
Since several of Hokkaido's best sights are not served well if at all by public transportation, one excellent way to get around by car cheaply is by the Hokkaido Expressway Pass, which allows unlimited use of Hokkaido's expressways for one up front price, with your choice for a period from 2 to 14 days. Costs range between ￥3600 for 2 days to ￥11,300 for 14 days. They are available at major car rental companies and only can be bought by foreigners with a "temporary visitor" status or Japanese citizens with permanent residence overseas. Once purchased, you are given an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) card which is automatically scanned at every ETC toll gate. Note that there are no expressways going to Hokkaido's eastern and northern areas such as Kushiro, Shiretoko, and Wakkanai. This special tourist promotion expires April 13, 2015.
Hokkaido is a cycling paradise from April to September. There are many bike paths and most main roads have very wide sidewalks. Also there are many beautiful back roads to get you where you want to go. Information in English is very limited, the best way is to buy a good map and plan by yourself.
Hitchhiking is a viable option in Hokkaido, and due to the limitations of the public transport network it's not unheard of to see Japanese with their thumb out (a very rare sight in the rest of the country). The major caveats are that even private car traffic can be minimal on some roads, and for half the year the weather is colder than the rest of the country.
See also: Hitchhiking in Japan
See & Do
For many visitors Hokkaido's numerous National Parks are number one on the agenda, offering near-unlimited hiking opportunities.
Hokkaido's other major attractions are flower gardens, high-quality agriculture and seafood, hot springs, and powder skiing.
Much of Hokkaido's population lives by the sea, and consequently seafood figures heavily in Hokkaido fare. Check out the hairy crabs (毛蟹 kegani), king crabs (タラバ taraba) and the delicious sushi. Akkeshi's oysters, Saroma's scallops, and the northwest coast's sea urchin (うに uni) are considered to be among Japan's very best seafood.
More unexpectedly, Hokkaido produces most of Japan's dairy products and particularly in the east you will run into many creative uses for them. Ever had cream cheese in your curry, or butter in your noodle soup (bata-kon ramen)? How about asparagus, corn, or squid ink ice cream? In Hokkaido, you will.
Hokkaido is home to some of Japan's finest sakes, the most famous of the bunch being Asahikawa's Otokoyama (男山). Beer is also big in Hokkaido, the most famous brand being Sapporo Beer (naturally from Sapporo), but the many microbrews found in nearly every town are also worth sampling.
Hokkaido is one of Japan's best places for camping, but beware of the nighttime chill - even in the summer months you'll need a good sleeping bag. In particular, the southwest coast can be surprisingly cold, due to the ocean currents.
Many of Hokkaido's cheaper accommodations slap on an extra fee for winter heating (冬期暖房 tōki danbō), as Japanese houses even in the north are notoriously poorly insulated and chew up vast quantities of fuel when the temperatures fall. This shouldn't be more than ¥500 or so.
If you are coming for the mountains, be sure to stay in one of the many mountain huts (山小屋 yamagoya) in Hokkaido. Most are free, and they're both a cheap sleep and a good cultural experience. You'll be sure to make Japanese friends as well.
Hokkaido has the worst fatality rate for traffic accidents in Japan. Hokkaido is one of Japan's most spread-out areas, well-known for its wide-open roads. Locals drive at least 20 km/h over the posted limits in many areas. It's not unusual to see cars traveling at over 100 km/h on regular highways (the posted limit is 60 km/h). Head-on collisions at these speeds, especially with minicars, are catastrophic.
Hokkaido has many country farm roads which are narrow, poorly marked, and arrow-straight. These often run parallel to highways and tend to be much less crowded. It's not unusual for locals to exceed 100 km/h on these roads. Missing a stop sign can be fatal, and signs may be hard to spot. Be careful of farm vehicles backing out of sheds with no warning, and especially careful of bicycles in the summer, as there are no shoulders.
Winter driving in Hokkaido is not for the faint of heart. Very little sand or salt is used on the roads, and the heavy snow in many areas means that the roadways turn into packed snow, then solid ice. This also means that the road markings will be totally invisible. Look for overhanging center line (中央線 chūosen) signs above the roads at intersections. Highways have arrow signs pointing downward at the shoulders of the road, which will also be invisible. Winter tires are mandatory. Chains are recommended for mountain driving. Because speeds are lower, there are less fatalities, but there are more accidents in the winter. If you have never driven in the winter, do not attempt to learn here.
The Hokkaido fox carries the echinococcus parasite, which can be fatal in humans. Because this parasite can be spread through water, do not drink any unboiled river or lake water in Hokkaido. Approaching or feeding foxes is also not recommended. (Feeding wildlife is also illegal.)