Getting There & Getting Around
The fastest way to reach Hokkaido is to fly. Flights from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Sapporo's New Chitose Airport take about 1 1/2 hours. JAL's regular one-way airfare from Tokyo costs ¥33,600 to Sapporo, ¥31,500 to Hakodate on the western side of the island and ¥39,000 to Kushiro on the eastern side. JAL also flies from Osaka to Sapporo for ¥41,300. All airfares go up by about ¥2,000 in peak season, but there are discounts for advance purchase. Another option is renegade airline Air Do (tel. 0120-057-333 toll-free), which offers one-way tickets from Tokyo to Sapporo for ¥26,000 or less. Better yet, buy domestic tickets from JAL or ANA in conjunction with international flights to Japan, which must be purchased outside Japan and range from ¥10,000 to ¥13,650 per flight.
For centuries, the only way to travel overland between Honshu and Hokkaido was via a 4-hour ferry ride, but the opening of the Seikan Tunnel in 1988 allowed the entire trip between the islands to be made by train in little more than 2 hours -- more than a fourth of which is in the 55km (34-mile) tunnel. Today, travel to Hokkaido by land is generally via the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Ueno or Tokyo Station in Tokyo to Hachinohe in Tohoku, followed by the limited express Hakucho train from Hachinohe all the way to Hakodate on Hokkaido. The entire trip from Tokyo to Hakodate via train takes about 6 hours and costs ¥18,750 for a reserved seat one-way. The trip from Tokyo to Sapporo takes about 9 hours (not including transfers) and costs ¥22,780 for reserved seating. Your JR Rail Pass is good for all trains. Note: By 2011, the Tohoku Shinkansen will extend farther north all the way to Shin-Aomori (in addition, faster bullet trains will shave about 50 min. off the trip to Hakodate), with future plans calling for a new Hokkaido Shinkansen to extend all the way to Sapporo by 2013.
Public transportation around Hokkaido is by train and bus. In addition to regular bus lines, sightseeing buses link the national parks and major attractions. Although they're more expensive than trains and regular buses, and although commentaries are in Japanese only, they offer unparalleled views of the countryside and usually stop at scenic wonders, albeit sometimes only long enough for the obligatory photo. Keep in mind that bus schedules fluctuate with the seasons and can be infrequent; some lines don't run during snowy winter months. Try to get bus and train schedules before setting out on each leg of your journey. In small towns, everyone knows the local bus schedules, even clerks at front desks. Otherwise, you might find yourself waiting to make a transfer.
JR Hokkaido Passes
If you plan to travel a lot in Hokkaido and don't have a Japan Rail Pass, consider purchasing one of several special passes issued by Japan Railways that allows unlimited travel on JR trains and buses in Hokkaido. The Hokkaido Rail Pass, for example, works just like the Japan Rail Pass (valid for travel throughout Hokkaido, but you must be a foreign tourist visiting Japan). The ordinary pass, which can be purchased abroad (at JTB and other authorized travel agencies) or at train stations in Hakodate, Sapporo, Kushiro, and a few other cities in Hokkaido, costs ¥15,000 for 3 days and ¥19,500 for either 5 consecutive days or a 4-day Flexible pass you can use any 4 days within a 10-day period. Alternatively, the JR Hokkaido Round Tour Pass (Hokkaido Furii Pasu) can be used by anyone (including Japanese and foreigners living in Japan) and can be purchased at any JR rail station. Allowing unlimited travel in Hokkaido, the 7-day pass costs ¥25,500, but note that it's not valid on certain dates at the beginning of May, in mid-August, and over New Year's. For more information visit www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global.
Renting a Car
Because distances are long and traffic is rather light, Hokkaido is one of the few places in Japan where driving your own car is actually recommended. Because it's expensive, however, it's economical only if there are several of you. Rates for a 1-day rental of a compact car in July or August with unlimited mileage and insurance begin at ¥9,975 per day, with each additional day costing ¥7,350; rates run about ¥3,000 cheaper the rest of the year. Car-rental agencies are found throughout Hokkaido, often near train stations as well as at Chitose Airport outside Sapporo and at Kushiro Airport in Kushiro. In Sapporo, Toyota Rent-A-Car (tel. 011/281-0100; www.toyotorentacar.net) is located east of Sapporo Station. JR Eki Rent-A-Car Hokkaido (tel. 011/241-0931), near the east exit of Sapporo Station (their offices are always near a JR station), offers 20% discounts for train fares booked in conjunction with car rentals. For routes and road conditions, go to www.northern-road.jp/navi/eng.
A Good Strategy for Seeing Hokkaido
If you're traveling from Tokyo, your first destination in Hokkaido should be Hakodate, an interesting and convenient 1-night stopover. From there you can board a local train bound for Sapporo, stopping off at Shikotsu-Toya National Park along the way. From Sapporo, two worthwhile destinations are Sounkyo Onsen in Daisetsuzan National Park and Akan National Park. To follow this plan, you'll need at least a week. You can also do this tour in reverse by flying into eastern Hokkaido (such as Kushiro) and taking the train back to Tokyo.
Additional information on Hokkaido is available online at www.visit-hokkaido.jp.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.