Home to Japan's aboriginal Ainu people, 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 replaced by rolling fields and faux-German cottages.
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. 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.
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, ¥8,590 each way); the Super White Arrow between Sapporo and Asahikawa (1.5 hours, ¥4,680 each way); the Tokachi between Sapporo and Obihiro (3 hours, ¥7,920 each way); the Super Oozora between Sapporo and Kushiro (4 hours, ¥9,120 each way); and the Super Soya, Sarobetsu, and Rishiri between Sapporo and Wakkanai (5.5 hours, ¥10,170 each way).
JR offers a special Hokkaido Pass , separate from the Japan Rail Pass, which allows the bearer to ride all JR trains in Hokkaido, as well as most JR 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.
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 too cold for comfort or safety.
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) and the delicious sushi. Akkeshi's oysters, Saroma's scallops, and the northwest coast's sea urchin (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 kph over the posted limits in many areas. It's not unusual to see cars traveling at over 100 kph on regular highways (the posted limit is 60 kph). Head-on collisions in Japanese cars 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 kph 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.)