ModeratorJuly 21, 2019 at 9:58 am
As requested by Grisdale-san, I’m posting about my experiences while vacationing in Japan as someone with a disability.
First, I’ll explain a bit about myself, I have Muscular Dystrophy. Due to this condition, I have weakened muscles that limit me to the use of a wheelchair for mobility and require the assistance of a caregiver for many things throughout the day. This makes traveling difficult, but with some help it isn’t impossible! At the time of my trips (1 week in 2008 & 2 weeks in 2010) I knew nothing of the Japanese language besides what I picked up from Anime (which was no help, as expected), this language barrier wasn’t an issue, as I planned my trip in detail so I knew where I was going and how to get there. While it may not be an option for everyone, I decided to take my collapsible manual wheelchair (as opposed to the motorized wheelchair I usually use at home) so that I would have less issues (i.e. fits in smaller places, less likely to be broken, easier to transport, etc.). My older able-bodied brother was my caregiver throughout my vacations, he was able to back-pack me on/of the planes as well as for any other transfers I needed. I’m lucky to have his help (though it wasn’t hard to convince him, as he loves Japan as well), he is the best brother you could ask for.
Okay, time for pre-planning:
I knew many months in advanced that I wanted to go to Japan, so I decided I would look for a pen pal online who could give me some insight into local “places to see” that may not be the usual tourist trap. I joined a website that acted as both a pen pal & dating site (sorry, I forget the name of the site) that boasted English & Japanese language support, anyone I sent a message to I explained I wasn’t looking for a date and that I was looking for sightseeing advice. I got a few suggestions, as well as made a friend. Note: Most people I messaged we pleasant, but as usual with any online dating site like this, be careful what information you give out.
Next, I searched the web for suggested and other sites, luckily there are many websites now with places to see, and even this site has great suggestions! After you find a place to see you must figure out how to get there, I have to say the #1 useful website for me has been simply Google and its maps. I input my starting and end destinations, and receive a map with English (Romaji), Japanese, and it even includes train ticket costs & time (you can even change the time/day to plan more accurately). I also found a train finder website called HyperDia, with similar functionality. Anyway, I used Google to create maps (print it, or screenshot & paste in paint then print), so I had a map for almost everywhere I went (usually 1 destination on a single page). I felt ready, and I was.
Time for the trip(s):
For first time flyers (at least coming from America), book your flight with the “wheelchair passenger” option if that applies to you, and I highly recommend getting to your airport at LEAST 2-hours prior to flight (3hrs may be better). Even though most of my treks through security were quick, most airports take people in wheelchairs through a separate check that usually bypasses the long line, there is always the possibility of issues slowing things down (i.e. they swabbed my wheelchair for chemical residue, did it wrong, and had to re-do the whole thing, luckily this was a one-time slow down event). You also want to be at the plane early so that you can make sure your seat is accessible (almost every time my original seat had to be changed because the aisle seat arm rest wasn’t raiseable), and because they load people in wheelchairs first (which is why it’s important to check off that “wheelchair passenger” box, I’ve literally had a stewardess tell me that they were “waiting for me,” not really but they knew of a passenger in a wheelchair who’d be loaded first, it was nice to hear though). Finding your way around American airports can be rough, so never hesitate to ask someone for help (sooner the better), however Narita Airport was a wonderful experience in contrast. Because I checked that I was a “wheelchair passenger” they, without me asking, literally send someone to aid me in helping to get my luggage, show me where we can purchase rechargeable train passes (highly recommended, or prior to leaving get a JR Rail Pass for unlimited JR-rail-system usage), and made sure we got on the correct train to the hotel. I can’t stress enough how well they run that airport!
Adventuring here and there:
My first trip was primarily Tokyo area, so we used nothing but rail/metro to get around. This was a much easier experience then I expected. At each station we usually have to go to an attendant beside the turnstiles, tell them where we are going (or they ask), and wait for another attendant to arrive, get a small ramp, then take and put me on the train using the ramp. At which time they radio ahead, where we are greeted by a similar attendant with ramp and follow the process in reverse to the exit. This happened every single time, it was awesome and made the trip many times easier! We only had one problem, it was a language issue trying to say one of our destination locations (Ueno, which I thought at the time was You-E-No), but this was fixed by getting out the Google map I made to that location and showing it to them, then we were on my way!
Getting around Tokyo itself wasn’t a big challenge, most sidewalks were accessible, only a rare couple of times I went up/down a step or two (sometimes just because it was quicker/less crowded), not a problem with my brother pushing. I was also able to access many sightseeing spots & shops without issue (though they do pack shops tightly, such as Akiba shops full to the brim with collectables, making it harder to navigate). However, when it comes to small restaurants, it can be very hit or miss, so don’t be set on a specific restaurant unless you know for sure it is accessible. My attitude was to eat “wherever” when we’re hungry (honestly, everything was good, but keep an open mind anyway), so we’d just look around and find some place we can get in that looks good. Shopping areas usually had nearby places to eat that were big enough/no steps, but don’t just overlook the little places because they are small. I’ve found little restaurants with staff that are more then accommodating to move tables and chairs, and THE best food I had was from a small restaurant ran by 2 people (for those curious, It was a bowl of Udon with a Tempura Prawn on top, so simple, soo flavorful, sooo good!).
My second trip touched in Tokyo again, but also Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Nara which are all more difficult to traverse. If you are just using rail to travel within Osaka or Kobe, you may have accessibility similar to Tokyo (the few I used there had the same level of helpfulness), however I decided to use a rental car to visit all these areas (except Tokyo) in a span of a week. I worked out far in advanced that my Japanese pen pal friend would be our driver, and I made sure the collapsible wheelchair would fit in the cars’ trunk while at the rental office. One mistake I did make was to not book a parking spot at the hotel I was staying at, it said that parking is available at the hotel, but I didn’t realize that I was supposed to book it prior (luckily they had a spot, but chewed us out a bit). The parking is a car carousel in the basement (hence the required booking, as it’s very limited), I’ve never seen one in person, so it was impressive to see. With my friend driving the car, it worked out well traveling between these cities (home base was Osaka), but expect to pay tolls OR expect to spend many extra hours driving (seriously, one non-toll trip to Kyoto took an extra 3 hours travel). If you plan to drive yourself, I would think twice unless you have experiences driving internationally and have an understandable GPS. The busy parts of the cities can be confusing, and because my driver wasn’t from this area, we were saved by the cars built-in GPS (which only our driver understood).
Kyoto was a wonderful place to visit, especially if you like traditional sights, art, and culture. Yet, it wasn’t as accessible for wheelchairs as other cities (I hope this has changed a bit in the last 9 year, yet I’d still expect some difficulty as it’s a very mountainous area). Kyoto rail/metro isn’t as prevalent as Tokyo, so this was a major factor in deciding to rent a car. Parking wasn’t too bad, some places we had to trek a bit to get to our destination, but it was worth it to see shops and sites along the way. Many of the sightseeing locations had various challenges, but only a couple places I visited had challenges that could be problematic. The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), while worth a visit, has a gravel pathway all the way around that can be an challenge (not unexpectedly my chair got stopped a couple times because the front tires are small, thin, and hard plastic, so take an easy stroll throughout). One of the temples (Sanjūsangen-dō), that portrays 1001 Traditional Statues, had a step or two when entering. It also has strict rules about not entering the temple with dirty shoes (gives out booties to cover your shoes), some attendants informed us and aided in cleaning off my chair tires so I may enter (it was a touch embarrassing, but I made sure to be respectful and thank them as much as I could for helping). Then there is a wonderful Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera (awesome views of Kyoto from the mountain side), there are two ways up, the direct asphalt path that is very steep, and a longer gentler path with some gavel. We took the steep route up, it quickly winded my pen pal friend who earlier volunteered to push my chair (my brother then took over, but it was still a chore), luckily it didn’t rain otherwise it could be dangerous when wet. Then we left by the gentle route, which aside from usual gravel challenges, was very scenic. Other potential Kyoto sightseeing spots I researched have similar challenges, and gravel paths seemed to be a norm (again, this may have changed in the last 9 years).
If these challenges seem acceptable to you, then you will most likely have a wonderful time in your visit. There is much more I could say, but I don’t want to drop a novel here. So, if anyone has specific questions about my experiences traveling to or in Japan, I will do my best to answer them. I absolutely recommend going to Japan, it was a dream of mine as a child, and it was better than I could have ever imagined!
So, plan, go, enjoy, have fun!
MemberJuly 22, 2019 at 11:22 am
Thank you so much for sharing! Sounds like you had a great time!
MemberAugust 8, 2019 at 10:21 am
Thanks for sharing!
ModeratorAugust 9, 2019 at 5:01 am
You’re welcome. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. 🙂
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