Any Japanese see HOKKAIDO as an idyllic, unspoiled frontier - the perfect place to escape from industrialized Japan and get back in touch with nature. Although this vision is rose-tinted, there is something remote and wild about the country's northernmost main island. In spite of the fact that in many places you'll find the same ugly factories and buildings as on Honshu, and that, far from being a hick town, Sapporo , the island's capital, is the fastest-growing city in Japan, Hokkaido can feel worlds apart from the rest of the country. Over seventy percent of the island is still covered by forest, and its enormous national parks, snow-covered slopes, rugged coastline and active volcanoes attract millions of nature lovers every summer. Fortunately, Hokkaido can cope with such crowds; this is Japan's second largest island, yet a mere five percent of the country's population lives here.
With five national parks to explore, your main problem will be time. If you're here for a week, aim to see Daisetsu-zan National Park in central Hokkaido, which features the island's highest mountain and many hiking trails and onsen resorts. In southern Hokkaido, the Shikotsu-Toya National Park has two beautiful lakes, and a volcano that broke out of the ground as recently as 1943. Highlights in the north include the lovely islands of Rebun-to and Rishiri-to and the dramatic Shiretoko peninsula , where you can bathe under thermally heated waterfalls and climb still-steaming volcanoes. In winter, Hokkaido is Japan's prime skiing destination; the long and uncrowded slopes at Niseko in the south and Furano towards the centre of the island are among the best skiing spots in the country. Festivals are another highlight of this season - if you're here in February, don't miss Sapporo's fabulous snow and ice sculpture festival, the Yuki Matsuri .
Camping or hiking around the island may bring you into contact with some of Hokkaido's unique wildlife , which includes the tancho (a red-crowned crane), sable, Blakiston's fish-owl and the Hokkaido brown bear ( ezo higuma ). There are believed to be around two thousand brown bears in the woods and locals are careful to warn you about the potential dangers of an encounter with one - the bears can grow to a height of 2m and weigh up to 300kg.
Only colonized by the Japanese in the last 150 years, Hokkaido is entirely devoid of ancient temples, shrines and historical monuments. What it does have is an intriguing cultural history, defined by its dwindling Ainu population . This aboriginal group of uncertain origin nearly disappeared completely after Japan opened up to the West in 1868 and large-scale immigration to Hokkaido started. Today the best way to explore their ancient traditions is to visit an Ainu museum or spend time in some rather touristy recreated villages.
The fastest route to Hokkaido is by plane to New Chitose airport, 40km south of Sapporo, where you can pick up connecting flights to most other places on the island. You'll get good value out of a JR pass by taking the Shinkansen to Morioka and transferring to a limited express train to Sapporo, via Aomori and Hakodate, a total journey time of 11hr 30min from Tokyo. There are also nightly direct sleeper trains from Tokyo to Sapporo, via Hakodate, and several a week from Osaka, but you'll have to pay a hefty supplement for these if you're using a rail pass. The most relaxing way of arriving in Hokkaido is by ferry , and there are several overnight services from Honshu to various ports around the island .
As far as accommodation goes, Hokkaido has a wide range of places to stay, including the good-value Toho network of minshuku and many lively youth hostels which are renowned for their delicious home-cooking and nightly singalong sessions. In the winter, most places add on a heating charge , typically ¥300 per person, while between June and early September, and particularly during Obon in mid-August, it's vital to make advance bookings. In the unlikely event that you get stuck, you'll find that many towns and villages have a basic biker house , providing no-frills dorms, in the same locations as youth hostels, and you don't have to be a biker to stay at one. You'll also find many free public campsites throughout Hokkaido.
Getting around most of Hokkaido is easy enough on trains and buses, but to reach some of the more remote corners of the island you'll need your own transport. This is a good place to consider renting a car or motorbike - cycling is also very popular. Hokkaido is also one area of Japan where you may find yourself hitching - especially if you want to explore the Shiretoko peninsula and Akan National Park in northeastern Hokkaido, where public transport is patchy. Locals are only too keen to give rides to foreigners so they can practise their English; if you take the necessary precautions , safety shouldn't be a problem.
If you're planning on a slow journey around the island, it may be worth investing in one of several special rail tickets . The best value by far is the five one-day ticket package Sei-shun Juhachi-kippu , which is valid on slow trains only from March 1 to April 10, from July 20 to September 10 and from December 10 to January 20 (¥11,500). This package can be great value, since it's possible to travel from one end of Hokkaido to the other in a day, and the tickets can also be used on overnight services, as long as you don't go in the sleeping cars. There is also the Hokkaido Free Kippu, which allows unlimited travel within Hokkaido for seven days (¥23,750), and the Gururi Free Kippu, which is expensive at ¥33,500 for five days or ¥49,500 for ten days, but covers the Shinkansen Bullet Train or sleeping-car fare to Hokkaido and back from Tokyo as well as travel within Hokkaido over five or ten consecutive days. The staff of the JR East Infoline (tel 03-3423-0111) can explain the options in detail.