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 subsidiaryHokkaido 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 Rishiribetween 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 & 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.