If you go to Japan and arrange your own itinerary, as I did, I recommend you travel around Japan by train.
The Shinkansen bullet trains are a great experience in themselves, and so fast you can be transported from one big city, Tokyo to another big city, Kyoto, in a few hours, in comfort.
I recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass. This enables you to travel without having to buy tickets at the station, where there is often a very long queue. The cost of the Rail Pass is over is a little over £400 for a 14 day pass, and has to be paid for in the UK or any other overseas country. Then the token you are sent is used to get the actual Rail Pass once in Japan. You can do this at Tokyo station, or Narita airport.
All this information you can find out on various websites, including the one for “Japan Rail”:http://www.jrpass.com/map/142.430191/29.592081/5/5ojp4gfq1JzX3oiwiQny6hnyi9Z90Qm9BP082hAO6D==
and the “Japan Tourist Office”:http://www.seejapan.co.uk/jnto_consumer/jnto_contact_us in London.
It is great fun to find out how efficient the Japanese are when it comes to travel by train. You must stand in a particular spot to board the trains, these spots are marked on the platforms, with the number of the car (or carriage, as we would say) painted on the platform, so if you have a reserved seat you know exactly where to stand. Trains leave on the exact time, so don’t be late!
The JR Rail Pass covers trains all over Japan, and can be bought for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days. To make it worth while, I tried to plan a trip with several long distance train journeys. You can also use the pass on the JR lines which run through Tokyo, the equivalent of our underground, tram, DLR and London overground system.
The trains are cleaned at the start of a long journey, at the station of departure, and we watched a team of uniformed ladies speed through the carriages, changing the cloths on the back of seats, cleaning floors and tables, and generally sprucing up. They probably even used air fresheners, but I did not notice this. You cannot enter until all is arranged to their satisfaction and given the OK by the supervisor.
During the journey, there is a food and drink cart which comes through the train, with – in our case – a charming lady to serve. We had our own food, though, which you can buy at the station where you commence. Called bento boxes, these collections of small food items are displayed, made of plastic, at various outlets. You choose which one looks good, and then are given the real thing, nicely packed.
The entrance to the platforms is through gates where you pass your ticket over a card reader, but in the case of the JR Rail Pass, you just show it to the uniformed employee who is usually at one side of the row of entrance gates or ‘stalls’, for once of a better word. These people, we called them ‘chaps in caps’ (though sometimes they were women) are the best ones to talk to about which platform (or line) to go to, and any other query of a railway nature. They all seemed to talk English, which is not the case with most other people, we found!
But it was worth it.