While in Japan, we had the opportunity to ride several forms of public transportation, all without being able to read Japanese. Many of the signs were written in both Japanese and English, and most of the time individual stops were broadcast over loudspeaker as well, and so we listened to the stops to keep track of where we were, and know when to get off. We spent a lot of time on trains ( wrote a lovely post here with step-by-step advice on taking the trains), but at various points of our trip we rode on subways, buses, and cable cars as well.
I was amazed at how efficient the public transportation was, particularly in Tokyo. Trains came exactly on time, and for most destinations, trains came every couple minutes. So there was no need to plan ahead and arrive at the station at a particular time, you simply showed up and waited maybe a couple minutes. The only downside to this wonderful transportation system was the crowds. Mostly we didn’t have much trouble, but we did try to take the JR (Yamanote) loop line about 20 minutes after the end of rush hour one day:
It’s no wonder all the guide books caution tourists to avoid the trains at rush hour! (I was tempted to go to a busy station at peak rush hour to try to get some photos of gloved attendants pushing people onto trains…but I decided against it since I’d just be in everyone’s way.) Of all the train rides we took, I think my favorite was the trip out to Mt. Koya. The tightly packed buildings and crowds melted away gradually to lush green countryside.