First time disabled in Japan

  • First time disabled in Japan

    Posted by Don on January 20, 2024 at 5:35 am

    I found Schroth-sense’s post on his 90-day experience based in Yokohama of great interest. Last year my wife and myself stayed a month in the same city, though having seen many of the tourist sights across the country before (apart from Hokodate) our agenda was different. i have long been fascinated by trains in Japan and wrote the following article for the Journal of the Japanese Railway Society, Bullet-in.

    Notes from a First Time Disabled Traveller in Japan

    Having been fortunate to enjoy many business and leisure trips to Japan over the past 38 years I was determined not to allow my new mobility challenge (tentatively diagnosed as Stiff Person Syndrome) stop enjoyment of the visit my wife and I took last May. This is a report of my experience with train travel and more.

    Before we left, I was encouraged by videos of station staff setting up a slope (ramp) for wheelchairs at either end of a train journey plus reports of how the country has become more accessible with changes made for the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics. I was also aware of traditional barriers that still remain such as the genkan at the entrance to homes and some restaurants, plus the Japanese love of floor level living, both totally beyond my physical capabilities.

    My guess is that in the US and Europe more people with a chronic movement disorder use mobility scooters than wheelchairs. There seems no choice for the Tokyo region at least as JR East in principle prohibits use of “handle-type electric wheelchairs”, as mobility scooters are called, on its trains. With other rail companies it may depend on the area, line, station, type of train or just the discretion of the individual employee. This is in spite of a 2018 government directive allowing scooters access to commuter trains and use on shinkansen and other limited express trains if certain criteria on maximum dimensions and turning ability are met.

    The first decision was whether to bring my own wheelchair with us on the plane or hire one locally. We chose the latter, because of the volume of baggage we (or more correctly my wife) had to handle, a fear of damage in transit and the security a local company gave in case of breakdown. A Tokyo-based supplier was traced and it offered to rent an electric wheelchair (powerchair) by month, plus extras for delivery/pick-up, set-up and training. If we only wanted the wheelchair for one or two weeks we would still have to pay for a month. I understand this is standard practice with medical equipment hire in Japan, aimed as it is on long-term domestic users under National Health Insurance, but it seems unfair on most disabled tourists from overseas. Delivery to our residence during Golden Week was no problem.

    We chose to be based in a modern monthly rental apartment in an area we knew well, Yokohama’s Minatomurai district. Best known for high-rise buildings it had a number of advantages for wheelchair users. The area was flat with well-maintained wide pavements/curb cuts with all road crossings traffic light controlled Several malls and department stores around our local stations of Yokohama, Minatomurai (Tokyu) and Sakuragicho (JR East) guaranteed easy, step-free access via elevators to countless shops and restaurants and several accessible public toilets. I did miss neighbourhood izakayas though. When the weather was fine we took the pedestrianised route running along the coast to Motomachi and Chinatovn past famous landmarks such as Yokohama’s Red Brick Buildings, Osambashi cruise ship pier and Yamashita Park.

    Train Travel

    First priority once mobile was a visit to JR Yokohama’s “Green Window” to book a return trip to Hakodate. This journey involved taking the Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto then a 15-minute hop on the Hakodate Liner to the city itself. There was just one dedicated wheelchair space per shinkansen (row 12 in car 5,) close to an accessible toilet and a wider than normal car door. Even with more than two weeks’ notice we had to be flexible on the departure time. The outer seat of three per row had been removed so I had a choice of staying in my wheelchair in this space or transferring to the adjacent seat. We therefore effectively enjoyed three seats for the price of two.

    The big problem came with the Liner. Several of its trains had old rolling stock unsuitable for the use of a ramp. Our clerk went repeatedly from the counter to the back office to phone staff at Hakodate on this. The process took in excess of an hour and even extended beyond the end of her shift, though as a true professional, she persisted until the reservation was complete.

    Her “Green Window” successor had a much easier task with booking JR East’s Saphir Odoriko to Izukyu-Shimoda There were many vacant seats on this spacious all Green Car train and plenty of room to park the powerchair next to mine. There was no access for me to the cafe car however. We had planned another sightseeing trip on Odakyu’s Limited Express Romancecar to Hakone-Yumoto but were told a wheelchair reservation could not be booked online. Rather than face an extra journey to the Shinjuku terminus ticket office we dropped the Romancecar from our schedule.

    Approaching Tokyo station on the day of travel to Hakodate I was fearful of the crowds and orderly chaos I would face.as a novice powerchair user But I need not have worried as soon as we arrived in the concourse under the Tohoku Shinkansen tracks we were approached by a uniformed security lady who asked our names. She took us up to the relevant platform and told us to be near a particular elevator 10 minutes prior to departure of our train. This gave time to purchase the all-important ekiben. After collecting us and, armed with her ramp, we were accompanied to where the door to car 5 would stop and safely ushered on to the train at the earliest opportunity.

    Whilst in Hakodate we decided to experience the scenic ride on a third sector line Donan Isaribi Tetsudo (South Hokkaido Railway) following the coast to the other terminus at Kikonai. The first part of the journey was on track managed by JR Hokkaido and tickets are purchased at the reception desk of the adjacent JR hotel. Taking the powerchair on the single diesel car was no problem the clerk assured us. However, when we arrived at the ticket gate JR station staff said that while we could board at Hakodate we could not exit at Kikonai, so we decided to remain on the train the 15 minutes before the return leg. The ramp used at Hakodate was the steepest I experienced in Japan, requiring one staff to push and another to pull when boarding. It was also deemed safer to leave the train with me facing backwards.

    On the return shinkansen to Tokyo a party of three manual wheelchair users and a single carer boarded our car at Sendai. They were transferred to regular seats with their wheelchairs folded in the space by the door. The carer was always at hand to keep the passage clear. They left the train at Ueno and with its short stop it was impressive how smoothly he managed the process. Naturally, another JR contractor with ramp met us at Tokyo and we were escorted to the Tokaido line platform for Yokohama via an underground route not normally open to passengers.

    Shopping in Kamakura when in Japan has become a ritual for my wife. Getting there by local train with no reserved seating was easy. Show up at the gate, state your destination and wait a few minutes to be escorted. However, the only accessible restaurant we found in the central part of the ancient former capital was in as small department store within the station building.

    Some have called for disabled people to enjoy discounted rail travel. I disagree, indeed I would happily pay a price premium for the extra, personalised, efficient and friendly service reliably received at some cost to the railway company in labour. Praise should be extended to the airlines, JAL in our case. For example, it provided one man with wheelchair from check-in at Haneda, via immigration and the lounge (JAL’s curry rice for breakfast is not to be missed) to the point of boarding the plane ahead of all other passengers, a total of almost 3 hours.

    Other Transport and Accommodation

    It is a sad fact that life cannot be lived entirely on trains. Like other visitors, wheelchair users sometimes have to use other forms of transport and find places to eat and spend the night. Thanks to my brother-in-law and his car we did not experience metros, buses or taxis on this trip, but stayed in two hotels in addition to the rental apartment. Extra was paid in all three for an accessible room, described as a “universal room”. These are few in number and cannot be booked via the hotel’s website or the likes of booking.com or hotels.com. The hotel must be phoned direct.

    Unfortunately,“universal” did not provide the “accessible” I was hoping for, though I accept that every disability is different. The term seemed just to describe a larger, non standard room with extra beds. There were grab rails in the bathroom – which was the usual wet room type – but no shower chair or slip free floor. There were no grab rails or chairs I could use in the bedroom so I remained much of the time in my wheelchair. I did enquire at the reception desk of the apartment block if there was a high-backed chair with armrests I could use, but this was met with the suggestion I try a second-hand furniture shop.

    My experience of accommodation on this trip was very limited and, as newly disabled, I cannot compare with the situation in other countries. Reading about some of these other countries it seems the lack of properly accessible rooms is the disabled traveller’s leading complaint.

    Bookable wheelchair-accessible or care taxis in the major cities and a few of the airport shuttle coaches are reportedly lift-equipped. Regular taxis marked with a wheelchair symbol can only carry a folded manual wheelchair in the boot.

    Of all holiday types wheelchair users often prefer ocean cruises. There are several that sail around Japan (also calling at Korea’s Busan) though I heard accessible excursions are not available at most ports of call.

    Closing Remarks

    Access to accessibility information in general seems a problem. Disabled people tend to research and plan any vacation very early. The only English-language website I found was accessible-Japan.com, mainly covering major sightseeing spots. Japan has won international praise for the accessibility of its museums and galleries, arts and entertainment venues, gardens, buildings offering birdseye views of Tokyo, and even some temples and shrines. Accessibility information on individual stations in Tokyo can be found at https://www.ecomo-rakuraku.jp/en.

    Spider Hart replied 4 months, 1 week ago 4 Members · 6 Replies
  • 6 Replies
  • schroth-sensei

    Member
    January 20, 2024 at 10:10 am

    I’m glad you found my post interesting, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

    As you’ve said, visiting Japan with a disability does still require some research to ensure you are able to even visit some places. Unlike the US, Japan’s codes for providing accessibility to public places are still fairly new in comparison, so many of the older buildings have been grandfathered-in to the old codes for now.
    However, a lot has changed in just the last couple decades alone. When I first went to Japan in 2008 I had almost no information to go on, Accessible Japan didn’t exist yet, I was lucky to find info on a few popular spots. So websites like these are a blessing, even to me, to have such available info. Also, luckily in 2008 I had a strong family member with me then, so a step or two wasn’t a big issue, but some stations weren’t accessible at all (good thing the train attendants knew where to reroute). Now I had no problems in the Tokyo area, you don’t really have to worry about the trains, metro, subway access (well, maybe a couple small elevators). So, it’s nice to see things progressing.
    -Justin

  • Josh Grisdale

    Moderator
    January 20, 2024 at 11:31 am

    Hello,

    That was a really great article! I run Accessible Japan by the way 🙂

    Would you be interested in writing something similar for our blog?

    • Spider Hart

      Member
      February 2, 2024 at 3:45 pm

      Hi Josh,

      Yes SPAM filter must have got in the way. Appreciate your reply.

      Great info about wheelie access for JR Bakurocho Station from ‘çommon passage’ access via ground level lift near Higashi-Nihonbashi Station. Found the visual on google earth (pic embedded), so very relaxed about the location of our hotel to rail system access point.

      With Thanks

      Spider Hart

      W. Aust

      02feb24

    • Spider Hart

      Member
      February 2, 2024 at 4:02 pm

      Hi Josh & Japan Grp Members,

      Just had another question with regard to ‘Green Class’ on the bullet’s (shinkansen).

      Are there any wheelchair bullet seats/spaces in Green Class?

      Is green class worth it as a wheelie? Cost & space wise, easier access on-off?

      Rdgs

      Spider Hart

      West Aust.

      02feb24

  • Spider Hart

    Member
    February 1, 2024 at 11:06 am

    Hi Josh,

    Could l please ask your assistance.

    I am trying to determine if there is any wheelchair access to Bakurocho rail station on JR Line.

    My wife & I are coming to Japan/Toyko in MAR-APR24, and staying for 4days at Toyoko Inn Tokyo Nihombashi Bakurocho. We will need access to the JR rail network for easy connections & this station is close to our hotel.

    I have found out so far, that Bakurocho station does not have an elevator from ground level to ticket gate floor level (B1F), but does have an elevator from ticket gate floor level to the below platform level. Elevetor in Bakurocho station – japan-guide.com forum

    There may be an underground walking/wheeling tunnel connecting Bakurocho station to Bakuro-yokoyama station-S09 (on Toei Shinjuku line). There is an elevator from ground level down to Higsahi-nihombashi station-A15, and wheel along that lower level-B1F to find the tunnel connection. -?? Bakuro-yokoyama | TOEI TRANSPORTATION (metro.tokyo.jp)

    My information is from these hyperlinks within this message (hope they work for you), pls refer.

    The Welcome Suica train map shows a drawn link between those 3 stations. -?? Major railway and Subway Route Map : Metropolitan Area (jreast.co.jp)

    The JR customer support info does not go down that deep for that particular station. JR-EAST:Guide Maps for Major Stations (Bakurocho Station) (jreast.co.jp) Also the ‘Easy Outing JR web site confirms no-access at Bakurocho station to upper ground. Station & Terminal Information | Easy Outing Net (ecomo-rakuraku.jp)

    So; l wondered if you knew or felt this information may be correct about a connecting walkway tunnel, from one station network to another -??

    With Respect

    Spider Hart

    Western Australia

    (L1/T12 Para-manual w/chair)

    21JAN24

    • Josh Grisdale

      Moderator
      February 1, 2024 at 11:23 am

      Hi sorry about that, I think all the links got this caught in the spam filter.

      I use the station frequently and all three stations (JR Bakurocho, Toei Bakuroyokoyama, and Toei Higashi Nihonbashi) are connected by a common hall (though, depending on the direction you are using the Asakusa line, you may need to go to ground level, cross the street and go back down another elevator, but the staff will guide you).

      However, JR Bakurocho doesn’t have its own elevator. If you use the A4 elevator by Toei Higashi Nihonbashi, you can then walk down the corridor past Toei Bakuroyokoyama to JR Bakurocho. It is in Japanese, but you can see it here:

      https://www.ecomo-rakuraku.jp/en/station_map/%E9%A6%AC%E5%96%B0%E7%94%BA/?

      Hope that helps!

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