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NOTE: Lost my charger for a bit, so got behind. But as I catch up, here's some bonus meanderings about navigating everything here!
Since I've been doing a lot of whistle stops I wanted to talk about getting around Japan a bit and how that works. It's actually pretty similar to Europe in that I have a 21-day rail pass which works on almost all JR (Japan Rail) lines. And it turns out most of the lines are JR lines. Twice I've deviated, once I was in a hurry and paid extra for a direct private train who's schedule lined up with mine, and once I had a surcharge for a line which used private tracks for a portion.
So far getting good value though. In general, I just look up the connections on a website, show up at the stations and grab a ticket. So far none of the trains have been nearly as crowded as they were in Europe (knock on wood), so no trouble getting a seat. On the main line (Tokyo - Osaka) there were huge trains every 5 minutes during rush hour, so it seems like trains are really only close to "full" during the high tides, otherwise very comfortable
In most of the stations,( including subways) there's a ridiculous bird noise that comes from some of the signs (maybe for the blind?), but the sound of fake birds is constantly present. IN addition, it seems like each train or station has a jingle it plays before the doors closing sound. Everything from traditional Japanese music to some type of ragtime. Again, no idea why, maybe just to spice your commute up a bit.
From the stations, I generally stop at the information desk in the station which always has a map and usually someone who speaks English and tells you what to see/do. In one case (Nikko) I got a sheet with the full bus schedule, and a note that just said go see stuff at stops 24, 32, and 9. The info kiosks have been a life saver and are incredibly useful especially at the half-day stopover cities.
Buses seem to be pretty frequent from the stations out to the sites, every 5-10 minutes in most cases. The cost varies, sometimes it seems cheap (200 Yen, $1.80), but sometimes it's up to 600 ($5.50) for a simple fifteen minute cross town ride. Really varies by city.
Subways are sort of the happy medium. Usually every 10 minutes and pretty cheap at $2-4 depending on distance. They are basically like BART and usually fairly large trains, so again, capacity hasn't been an issue yet. I suppose I've been throwing a fair amount of money at public transit, but that's sort of the way it goes when you travel.
The navigation has always been super easy. Almost all signs have english subtitles (or romanji for the names) so I've had almost zero issues with navigation. In addition, the subway stops are numbered (i.e. A-01 - A-20) making it really easy to figure out if you are going the right way.
The one tricky thing is maps. I know what you are thinking, Charlie, maps are easy, and they are. But for some reason, every map you get or see on the street or in a station has a different orientation. One the one hand, it's easy on the street to figure out which way you are facing, but since north is never up, it's really hard to make a mental map in your mind of a city. That means I end up navigating sort of by waypoints instead of cardinal directions, and I often have no idea which way to go. A little slower, but I see the benefit and it probably means more street maps which is useful.
All in all it's WAY easier than I thought it might be to navigate around. The automated works-almost-everywhere card means I just throw money on it and don't have to worry about tickets, and the rail pass is similar (A lot of 2 hour train rides that would otherwise be $40 - $80). In addition, the frequent service of basically everything coupled with the low competition for seats means that I can be pretty flexible and don't have to plan that far ahead.
Definitely one of the easiest countries to navigate so far.