Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
Traveling by rail in Japan isn't difficult once you understand some of the basics of using the system. It isn't even necessary to know Japanese, though a little wouldn't hurt. Japan's railway networks serve all of the country's major cities, plus a great many smaller towns and destinations. While not inexpensive--it can cost roughly as much as air travel between certain cities--you'll get your money's worth in terms of comfort and punctuality.
Plan where you want to go before you arrive, and find out which railroads most conveniently serve the places you want to go by consulting guidebooks or web sites devoted to Japan. You need to do this because not all railroads in Japan are part of the same system.
The largest system of passenger railroads in Japan is Japan Railways Group (known throughout the country as JR), composed of six separate companies that function as one as far as travelers are concerned. JR operates all of the "bullet trains" (called shinkansen in Japan), the world-famous high-speed trains that connect most of the country's large cities.
Find out which trains are part of the JR system. Japan is also home to more than 20 private railway systems that generally run shorter distances than the JR system. Tickets on the JR system are not valid on the private lines, and vice versa.
Japan Rail Pass
Buy a regular or first-class Japan Rail Pass, which allows you to go anywhere on the JR system (but no other trains) for a fixed length of time for a set price. These passes must be bought outside Japan. Get a voucher from a travel agency in another country and exchange it in Japan for your pass. Prices vary according to the kind of pass, and change every year, but it almost always represents a savings compared with buying individual tickets for just a few days.
Once in Japan with a pass, be prepared to show the ticket to an actual ticket agent before boarding your train. You can't get through the automated turnstiles with a pass.
Figure out how to use other rail lines once in Japan, since it's unlikely that JR will go absolutely everywhere you want to go. Signage at Japanese railway stations (JR and non-JR both) is usually in Japanese and English. Announcements are in Japanese, except on certain lines heavily used by foreigners.
Look for vending machines that sell tickets for these trains. There are ticket windows at many stations, but most people use the vending machines which take Japanese coins or banknotes. The machines typically include English as well as Japanese instructions.
Understand the name of your destinations before you go. Maps and station signs will have the names are spelled out using Japanese characters as well as their equivalent in roman letters.