Those smart people at Japan Rail know the benefit of tourism to their country and as a result they came up with the Japan Rail Pass allowing tourists to travel freely around the country on its rail network for a significantly reduced price. You can buy the JR pass online or from JTB travel agents, I went to ION in Orchard Road, Singapore to get mine (in typical fashion I managed to go and make what was without a doubt the best purchase of my trip, only 8 hours before leaving for Tokyo!)
The Rail pass was $388 SGD for one week unlimited travel on Japan Rail lines – from local railway and subway lines to cross country Shinkansen and I used it intensively, definitely getting my moneys worth (to give you a rough idea of the cost of travelling without one, I spent nearly $70 in 4 days on the Tokyo subway alone before collecting the rail pass)
The Rail pass itself is only available in Japan, so you are given a voucher at the point of sale which you take to a JR booth (they are at many of the major stations, I collected mine from Shibuya) and they convert the voucher into a little booklet which they stamp with a start/end date as well as filling in your name and passport number.
You simply produce the booklet at the ticket desk when reserving tickets for the Shinkansen and show it to the conductor at the ticket barriers when using local/subway lines – easy peasey!
The staff at the ticket booths speak good English and it was a lot easier than I was expecting, as was Rail travel in general in Japan I found. Stations are not only shown in Japanese Characters but in English as well and the subway stations are also numbered which was very handy.
The announcements on the Shinkansen, as well as many of the subways I travelled on are also shown/relayed over the loudspeaker in English as well and station staff speak enough English to make sure you go to the correct platform, should you need to ask them anything making it all quite straightforward.
My first experience with the Shinkansen was when I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto, 5 days into my stay in Japan. I had decided to get an early train to Kyoto so I could enjoy as much of the day there as possible and made my way with some trepidation to Shinagawa from where I was to catch the famed Bullet train to Kyoto.
The maximum operating speed of the Shinkansen is a staggering 200 miles an hour (although not all trains travel at that speed) and after leaving Shinagawa at 9:10am, I reached Kyoto at 11:48am, travelling almost 250 miles in just over 2:5 hours.
I would recommend reserving a seat for these longer journeys as the chairs are a bit comfier than in the non reserved carriages (although in any carriage they are far superior to your standard trains/airplanes)
I have attached some pictures of the signage at Shinegawa station so you can see how easy it is to get around as well as some of my journey to Kyoto and the train I travelled on (I never had myself down as a train spotter!)