Distances in Japan are huge, despite the excellent Shinkansen rail network. In case you are planning to visit Hokkaido from the Tokyo bay area and do not want to afford a ride on the northbound Shinkansen to Akita or Aomori, there is an inexpensive solution for a five day Hokkaido trip.
I am talking about the time limited 北海道＆東日本パス, which is valid from Novermber 30, 2007 until January 20, 2008. It is a special 5-day pass for Hokkaido and northern Japan and sells for only 10,000 円. With this pass you can take all slower JR trains between Itō, Shizuoka, and Wakkanai on Hokkaido.
If you want to use this ticket for long distance travel, the main problem is that the trains are pretty slow, and you have to change trains a lot. I went to Tokyo main station and asked the information desk to print out a travel plan for going to Sapporo within a single day. The answer was that it is not possible with this train pass. Since I insisted to find a solution, the guy behind the desk started to search, then he started to sweat, and after some time he finally called his superviser. For their own surprise, they were able to find a solution. 15 minutes later I walked out with a long list of trains and transfer times, with the shortest time being only 2 minutes to run from one train to the other.
So the next day my journey started in the commuter train at 7 am in Ueno station. After changing trains ten(!) times, I got to Morioka at around 5 pm. Lots of snow everywhere, and time for a dinner break.
Entered the ‘Hamanasu’ night train at 22:15 bound for Hokkaido. Althought this is a fast train, the pass is also valid!
Finally got to Sapporo at 7 am the next morning! Hopped on the next train to Asahikawa, and once there on the “Ochotsk” train to Abashiri. Got there at around noon, perfect!
One more thing to mention: The JR pass will also give you a huge discount in most youth hostels on Hokkaido.
So by finding a smart train connection and a bit of luck you can travel Hokkaido from Tokyo and back within 5 days.
On the way back from Sapporo, you can board the ‘Hamanasu’ night train at 21:30 to Aomori, arriving at 6 am. It is still a long ride, and if you are unlucky (like me this time) you won’t be in Tokyo before 1 am. It is possible though to make the whole trip back in a day, so just go for it!
Here is a scan of the Hokkaido Pass flyer: