As a wrapup for our trip to Japan, it went great. Considering I only had about a couple of weeks to prepare almost the entire trip (as you can imagine, knowing where to be, for how long, how to get there, and have everything lined up like we did, isn't done by just hoping off the plane and wondering "where should we go tomorrow". As a matter of fact, some hotels, I had to book early and in some places I got there too late, or got the last spot.
I was thankful to have learned some Japanese, and while I did not remember a lot of it, I was able to relearn a lot in just a few weeks with pimsleur tapes in just a few weeks, and have enough Japanese to survive in places where I couldn't expect locals to speak much or any English.
I'll finish the tour with a few random pictures on these topics.
Japan has hilarious signs, even if you can't read Japanese:
the very sorry sign is very sorry and sad
don't mishandle the deer in Nara :)
Japan still rules for vending machines, available almost everywhere (although that's a lot of trash and there were very few or no places to recycle containers :( ).
common sight, lots of choice
And of course, you can't talk about Japan without talking about trains:
The train system worked really well, especially if you have google maps with transit directions. It was a lifesaver in giving us complex routings between trains from multiple companies. We did complex trips and connections thanks to that. I cannot imagine how they would have happened without google transit navigation
While JR train service worked quite well and was indeed reliable and on time, the JR pass is just not worth it if you're planning on doing long trip including bullet trains, unless you have all the time in the world. Being forced to arbitrarily wait for a later train due to the "you can't take any Nozomis" restriction is just bullshit. In many cases, it will also not save you money. I was ok with that, since I bought it for convenience, but once I figured out that it made travelling harder and aggravating due to the Nozomi restriction (I wouldn't hate JR as much for this if you could just pay an upgrade fee, but they make you pay full fare, or $220-ish per ticket for Tokyo-Kyoto).
Note that there are competing train systems to JR and they are usually faster, so if you don't have a JR pass, you can easily pay for them instead without feeling bad (for instance Tobu for Kyoto-Nara and Tokyo-Nikko).
The bullet trains look and sound mean, but they are artificially limited to 280kph (290 in places maybe?), so they are slower than the TGV in France or its siblings in Germany and Italy. That was disappointing a bit. Then again, an extra 20-30kph doesn't matter as much when you have trains that leave every 10mn (like the Nozomis).
A fully digital vending machine (all pictures were changeable drawings on a screen)
The train displays were colorful and clear
Gotta love the nose :)
of course they had slower trains too
good luck with that if you don't have transit navigation on your phone, it's only one map out of 3 different systems.
this one makes it easy for tourists not to get lost :)
Other random things I noted and tips:
The Japanese were still super helpful and nice with foreigners.
For the most interesting parts of Japan, stray off the beaten path a little, we found some cool things when we started getting to hard to find temples that weren't really on the map. Of course, at that point, speaking some Japanese is definitely recommended :)
getting a licensed guide in Nara was a definitely worth the money. Free guides, well it depends what you're looking for, obviously they're not licensed professionals, they're volunteers. I personally enjoyed the two we saw in Tokyo, it was nice to be able to interact with locals a little bit and chat during the day, even if it meant that we'd do a bit less that day (quite frankly, considering how much we did most days, that was ok for a change). But we'd never have seen so much in Kyoto in 2 days with the electric bikes had we had a guide with us, so if you have time to prepare, and you're an efficient distance covering tourist, keep that in mind :) (yes, I know that less can be more :D).
If money is not object, they have really good sushi. Who would have known? :)
Yes, ryokans are a must do. We only had time for two since you shouldn't go to a Ryokan if you're planning on doing late sightseeing or need to leave early in the morning (ahem, we kind of did the later, but never mind).
For places like Kyoto and Harashiyama, you just must rent electric bikes. Bikes make getting around so much easier than taking the bus, and because it's hilly, and you'll be biking quite a bit for a full day like one of ours, electric bikes will totally make a difference.
Ok, apparently when we were there, it was schoolkid week, but there are definitely places where you'll be gently assaulted by school kids who will ask you scripted questions in English for their homework, and maybe take a few or many pictures with you. We played along :)
While Japan isn't quite the country for "you've never seen this anywhere and you'll never see it at home" electronics anymore, it still has some cool things, and Akihabara is still a must see.
Japanese people are really worried about cleanliness, floors especially but not only, but for some reason you couldn't find soap in virtually any public bathroom. That just didn't make sense.
While I'm usually fine respecting most local customs, having to remove my shoes multiple times a day, sometimes more than once in a single temple visit, was a big pain in the ass for me due to the time it takes me to take my shoes in and out and lace them properly (I have wide feet with special inserts). That was not fun... OF course Asian people cheat and have fake shoes they can slip in and out of (almost slippers) without even bending over half the time...
other train companies could learn from this, it shows you exactly where to stand for your wagon
As Jennifer remarked there are lots of little jobs that people take seriously. Note that they usually get a uniform and even white gloves. One example amongst many.
I stopped counting how many of those we went through, they were my nemesis :)
And that's it for Japan. Again, we had a great time, we got to see way too much in too little time, and hopefully we'll get to go back.
to be honest, I felt a bit bad for the guy, but I guess it keeps more people employed