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.
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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 .
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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.