Isolated but accessible. Lively yet peaceful. Japan’s northernmost and 2nd largest island offers superb skiing & snowboarding in world class winter resorts such as those in Niseko or Furano (both with budget backpackers as well as good lodge & hotel accommodation), vast national parks, cool temperate summers, historic towns and villages, wonderful food and beer, and interesting festivals such as the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, modern art, wild bears and wildish nightlife.
The largest city and gateway is Sapporo city, bustling and always busy, but a lot more laid back and relaxed than many of the cities in the south. Only 5% of the population of Japan live up here, and relaxation is the major attraction for most of the tourists. As a former Olympic city (1972) the city offers much to see and do, from taking in the history, Sapporo beer, and museums, as well as the nightlife of Susukino. Sapporo is also a useful hub for travelling around the island, and also has excellent ski fields closeby including Sapporo Teine, and Sapporo Kokusai.
One thing Hokkaido doesn’t have much of is ancient buildings. There is history of course including a great Ainu heritage, as well as well preserved Meiji period buildings and other sites in Sapporo, as well as the historic seaports of Hakodate and Otaru. There are impressive Shinto shrines such as Hokkaido Jingu, but what isn’t available are shrines and temples of equivalent cultural heritage to say, those of Nara or Kyoto. This is because until the large scale colonization undertaken after the Meiji restoration of 1868, Hokkaido was to a large extent the domain of its indigenous Ainu peoples and not formally part of Japan, save for a small but steadily expanding Wajinchi on the southern shore colonized from the 15th century centered on Japan’s northernmost castle town of Matsumae.
Once you leave Sapporo, Hokkaido is fairly rural and apart from extensive hiking areas such as Onuma Quasi-National Park also contains genuine wilderness in areas such as the Shiretoko peninsula and Daisetsuzan National Park, both of which are protected habitats for animals including brown bears. The Shiretoko wilderness area in particular provides fantastic trekking and in the summer you can hike to an onsen waterfall at Kamuiwakkayu-no-taki – the peninsula has recently been included as one of Japan’s World Heritage listed sites.
A bit of an outdoor activities paradise, Hokkaido has excellent trekking and hiking, as well as good opportunities for white water rafting, climbing and fishing. If you aren’t good at skiing or snowboarding, there are many other winter sports possibilities available ranging from snowshoeing to snow mobiles, or using the frozen lakes for ice fishing and ice boats. Hokkaido has several active volcanoes and a geyser, so for recuperating or for a more relaxed stay you can enjoy many wonderful hot springs to soak in including many outdoor onsen.