The Lonely Planet says it: Japan is one of the easiest, most convenient and safest countries in the world to travel. (They also note: except for the language.) They are right. Forget driving, there is a tightly-knit railway network across the country consisting of one national system, Japan Rail or JR, and a few private lines. With a JR Pass you can freely use virtually every rail line in the land, from high-tech bullet trains (shinkansen) to tiny local trains that stop at every town, hamlet and huddle of houses.
As for convenience: enter the Japanese people! Every major station has a ticket office where seat reservations are issued for the main lines. Upon request (“I would like to travel from here, Nagasaki, to Hagi later this afternoon”) the attendant will immediately present you with the best connections and print out the reservation tickets for you in the process. Want to go later? Earlier? No problem, we’ll do the whole thing over.
Luckily with city names and times (point at watch, stick up fingers) mastery of Japanese is not required because even at the ‘international points’ English is no lingua franca that works. Maybe with ‘international’ they mean that some employees understand Chinese or Korean? Same goes for the Tourist Offices in the smaller towns though. We have found that ‘Tourist Office’ is likely to be the full English vocabulary there. Awesome.
In the smaller stations, particularly in the country, there is no international point or reservation desk. But there is invariably a helpful young man at the ticket window (usually with a nervous look on his face but that could be just for us) with a couple of large timetable books and a computer. Works too.
The trains are comfortable. The trains are clean. The trains are quiet. And the trains are always exactly on time. I believe the margin is said to be 20 seconds and I believe it. We have seen one instance of a delay (5 minutes!) and witnessed how this put all personnel on edge. The driver made up for the delay upon arrival which means that there is room in the schedule. Amazing. (Dutch railways! Listen up!) We would determine our position by the minutes of the clock: “are we there yet?” – “nope, another 3.25 minutes to go”.
Oh and the trains stop at exactly the point where they need to, aligning the numbers on the platform with those on the train doors within inches. People (business people, ferocious looking youngsters, vacationers, everyone) will form a neat line on the platform minutes before the train rolls in and patiently wait for people to come off before stepping on board. For someone from Holland, I can tell you it is a sight for sore eyes. (Dutch commuters! Listen up!)