My Wheel LifeThe stories of how I got this way, and the motivations that keep me rolling.
Japan + Wheelchair Accessibility
If you’re in a wheelchair and traveling to another country, the fear of travel anxiety has a different meaning than most. On top of the normal travel fears of becoming lost, not being able to communicate or eating different foods that may cause upset stomachs, we deal with issues like, “Will I be able to find transportation from the airport to the hotel?’ And even worse, “Will my hotel be able to accommodate me (even though it says ‘wheelchair accessible’ on the internetz)?”
Of course these concerns only come after the following gut-wrenching thoughts, “Did my wheelchair make it safely to my destination?” And “Oh, thank god I didn’t [Fill in the blank here: shit myself on the plane, form a blood clot, become dyserflexic from not emptying my bladder, fall out of my seat or scare/harm the child sitting next to me].”
It’s just what happens when you’re someone traveling with a disability, specifically a spinal cord injury. The good news is Japan, unlike a lot of Europe, is on your team. The country has gone to great lengths to provide accessibility to its handicapped tourists, and even more exciting, the people of Japan are willing to help and accommodate in any way possible to make your visit to their country more enjoyable. So if you’re a wheelchair user and planning your next global destination, add Japan to your list. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find there; I was.
Below are some accessibility tips and notes I made as we journeyed through Japan. From March 26, 2014 to April 7, 2014 my husband and I traveled by plane from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back, and then once in Japan by train to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and eventually back to Tokyo during a 12-day expedition.
TIPS for wheelchair users traveling to Japan:
1. Using Trains and Public Transportation — From the Narita airport to Tokyo and for our trips to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara we used trains. One time when my wheelchair was about to run out of battery, we caught a bus. Here are things you need to know to get around the cities efficiently:
A. There are two different train operators (sometimes even more) happening underneath the grounds of Japan. One is called the JR Line (which you should buy a pass before traveling. It’ll save you money if you plan on leaving Tokyo!) and the other is a typical city subway. It’s a little confusing at first to decipher which one is best for each use, and sometimes both is needed to get to a destination. But just knowing there are two different operating systems will save a lot of time and confusion.
B. In all train stations there are wheelchair specific stalls or gateways. This is generally where the attendants are stationed and when an attendant will ask if you need help.
C. The JR Line serves more long distance traveling like to and from the airport, and then also serves the bullet trains to other parts of Japan. If traveling on the JR Line during normal hours you do not have to make any kind of prior reservation, but you will have to wait in a (sometimes) long line to book a ticket and reserve a seat (even if you have a JR Line pass). There are two different types of accessible seating on the JR Line. There is a private wheelchair accessible room with a closing door, or a place with missing seats you can just ride up into in the regular cars (normally car 11 or 12). We used the wheelchair room on the 3-hour journey from Tokyo to Osaka, which was very cool because we could talk and enjoy our meals without interrupting others. Mostly we used the normal accessible seating (look for rows 12, 13, 14) because those were always readily available and we didn’t want to wait for the next train.
D. If using the city subways, no reservations are needed ever but you will need to purchase tickets each time you use the train. There are English words on the maps but we stuck to using colors and numbers because it was much easier to determine the proper fare that way. Once to the train, there are accessible cars that are marked and have more space for you and your wheelchair. If you choose to use the attendants, they will escort you to your destination and be waiting at your destination for departure. If you’re not good at using maps, use the attendants for this at the very least. It’s very helpful to have a guide during your first few train rides. The people of Tokyo are always on the go!
E. The train station can be one big confusing underground maze for tourists. But don’t panic. Luckily, most every stop has an elevator (I recall one stop did not have an elevator however I could use the underground tunnel to still make it to my destination, unlike new York subways where you’ll be stuck underground without any hope). Sometimes you might have to take three elevators to get to where you’re going, but there is always a way to get to where you’re going. My advice: bring patience and always look for the yellow brick ‘roads.’ Each train station features yellow pathways with circle bumps on them–these are guides for the blind. If lost or confused look down, find a yellow path and follow it. It will take you to an elevator or a map. Whether or not it’s the right elevator is entirely different question but all yellow paths lead to a way in and out of the subway. So use them. Channel your inner Dorothy and follow the yellow brick roads!
F. There are also wheelchair accessible city buses (they are marked by the universal disability symbol). We caught one in Nara (which is a smaller town even!) and it was super easy to board and de-board.
2. Ramps are called slopes. — It took us two days to figure out the Japanese translation for ramp is slope. Knowing this fact is very helpful when trying to enter a building or use public transportation. Most train attendants will not speak English but will know what slope means. They will ask either ‘yes slope’ or ‘no slope,’ inquiring if you would like assistant with a ramp or not. There is usually a 1 to 4-inch gap in between floor and train and so sometimes a ramp was not needed at all. Still, we used a ‘slope’ a majority of the time however because the Japanese are relentless about helping.
3. Hotel Room Suggestions — We stayed at three fairly fancy hotels because we like to do that when we travel (Conrad in Tokyo, St. Regis in Osaka and Park Hyatt in Tokyo). Also, I figured since these hotels host business travelers they would know more about accessibility and I was correct. The rooms were all large enough in size to maneuver though out and between doorways. While built to be accessible, the bathroom countertops were still too high and a little lower than my knees (but perfect for push chair users). There were roll in showers in the bathrooms, though a little narrow. But the rooms were great for basic wheelchair needs, and the staff are prepared to do whatever it takes to make your stay more comfortable. For example, we asked for an extra down comforter for our bed because the mattress seemed way firmer than I was used to and I was concerned about pressure issues while sleeping. A fluffy, soft comforter was added while we were out exploring for the day and it worked just lovely. So do not be afraid to speak up about your needs or concerns, someone will help find a solution. Just be willing to think creatively.
4. Disabled Cards — In regards to entering temples and museums in Japan, you may be asked to show a disabled card. This is only done so that you can receive either a discount or enter without any charge. Apparently those who are disabled in this particular country have accreditation saying so, and receive many benefits because of it. Prior to traveling to Japan, a travel agency had warned us about this and suggested we use our disability placard for parking (the one that hangs on the rearview mirror). It worked. I was able to enter some of the museums and temples at no cost, however we didn’t really push the issue because the fees were minimal and it was monies we were happy to donate to such beautiful gardens and sceneries.
5. Temple & Castle Accessibility — In a place that doesn’t welcome shoes, I had no expectations of being able to enter temples. I was thrilled to see accessibility to some of the bigger temples. Not all are accessible but once you hit up the many that are you get the idea. Be sure to see my favorites Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo, Osaka Castle in Osaka, the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto and Todai-ji Temple in Nara.
6. Elevator Etiquette — In Japan elevators are typically reserved for only those who need them, including those with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women and mothers with strollers. Generally wheelchair users are given first priority. After you’re in the elevator, however, don’t be surprised if the others waiting crowd in around you. The invisible personal space barrier is much smaller in Asia, and their culture is used to making the most of having the least. So try not to panic in moments of feeling claustrophobia. The elevators can be narrow and much smaller than what we Americans are used to using but the system is way more efficient. I also noticed most people wanted me to exit the elevator first, even when I insisted they go first. Surprisingly, not one foot was ran over in the process.
7. Chopsticks vs. Forks — As a C5-6 quadriplegic my hands do not have the dexterity needed to use chopsticks. Knowingly, we brought a fork with us (in a plastic bag in my purse) and used it in restaurants when needed. Although most places had forks in the kitchen when asked.
8. Anyone Rest Rooms — There are ‘Anyone Rest Rooms’ in most public places, which is a space that can accommodate most any situation. Like, really. Each bathroom had maybe four different toilets, with bars and aids, and some of the bathrooms even had twin-sized beds! Twice my husband pushed a button which he thought was the flush button, but actually ended up being the ‘call for help’ button. Even in the subway of the busiest city in the world, someone knocked on the bathroom door within one minute prepared to help. The Japanese take great pride in showing hospitality, specifically for the elderly and disabled.
9. Places not accessible — Like anywhere in the world, there are spaces that are too small or buildings that are not accessible, especially outside of the cities in small tea houses and restaurants. This was never really a problem for us because there was so much more that was accessible. For example over the course of twelve days, one restaurant communicated that my chair was too large for their small seating room. If there weren’t twenty other restaurants within reach I would have found this annoying. Instead, we just went next door. The only activity I could not do with my husband is visit the monkey reserve in Kyoto, and that’s because it took a twenty minute hike up a mountain to arrive at the reserve. Overall I was very impressed by Japan’s effort to provide accessibility. It’s one of the most wheelchair friendly countries I’ve traveled.
What am I missing? Any questions?