If you’re planning on travelling to Japan then here’s my guide to what you should know about wheelchair access in Japan.
I first visited Japan in December 2014 with my friend Cara starting in Tokyo, travelling down to Hiroshima and back up to Tokyo visiting Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Myoko. I returned in January 2016 with my Mum on a similar itinerary to show her what I loved about Japan and few new experiences for me too including a few extra days in Nagano.
Winter in Japan
I like to travel to Japan in winter to experience the soft and powdery snow.
Winter travel does mean rain and possibly even snowfall but don’t let it stop you. Umbrellas are readily available and cheaply too from convenience stores. I also pack a rain jacket and put a garbage bag over my feet and up to protect my jeans and shoes.
Shops, some attractions and transport are toasty and warm. Plan your day to include some time indoors to defrost and warm up.
Communicating is challenging without knowing Japanese. I only know a few works that I have learned when travelling in Japan. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and the lovely people of Japan will use the English they know to help.
It’s polite to bow in thanks. It’s appreciated by the Japanese even if you can only bob your head a little.
Barrier Free should be used in Japan when referring to wheelchair access including when booking accommodation or asking about attractions.
Slope should be used when requesting a ramp at a subway or shinkansen station.
Flying to Japan
There are direct flights from Sydney to Tokyo arriving in under 10 hours with Japan Airlines JAL. Flying direct reduces the risk of my wheelchair getting lost.
After priority check-in and a quick pat down, I transfer onto the skinny aisle chair and then onto a seat on the plane and shimmy across to the window seat. During quiet flights we have been given a set of three seats with the third seat being left vacant and given a two seat row during busier flights.
After landing, and being the last to get off, airport staff help take us through the check points, get our luggage off the carousel and take us to catch the subway to our accommodation.
The checklist when booking accommodation is to be close to a local subway station, attractions and have shops nearby including convenience stores. It’s best to have lift access, large room size, a western style room with beds and a chair available to use in the bathroom to shower.
It is common for hotel bathrooms to have baths. Shower chairs can be requested at most major hotels. Shower chairs vary from the not so ideal low stools with no backrest to the ideal comfortable chair with armrests. Beware of the flooding that can happen. I have found sinks to be of a height to allow me to push my wheelchair in underneath.
Public Bathrooms in Japan look very complicated and confusing. Some toilets automatically open and close, and are heated. It’s common for disability bathrooms to be spacious and very clean.
The most accessible way to get around is using the subway for inner city travel and shinkansen (bullet train) to travel between cities. It’s a complicated system but made easier for wheelchair users and their travel companions with guards escorting to and from the platforms and helping on and off with a slope.
Wheelchair taxis are available in Japan but have to be booked in advanced and are very expensive. Cara and I took a wheelchair taxi just a few streets from our hotel to the station, and although it was a comfortable ride, it was very expensive. Cara also lifted me into another taxi, squished in my wheelchair and our luggage and it was a lot cheaper.
Buses frustratingly in Japan display the wheelchair symbol but many will only have stairs. Cara and I caught a wheelchair friendly bus in Nagoya. A chair was lifted and a strap went around my lap (it was too big to be of any use).
Pushing a wheelchair in Japan
Transport is combined with pushing and walking. If I did not have Cara or Mum to give me a helping hand then I wouldn’t have seen much of Japan. We have come across some steep hills that have even felt scary on the way down. Many of the paths are wide and smooth but some are gravel and rocky.
It’s common for train stations to have shops attached. It’s great to be able to buy some snacks or kill some time when waiting for a train. There are heated waiting rooms as well.
Not all stations are wheelchair friendly so always check first. Barrier free stations can be accessed by lifts and ramps.
At one station in Tokyo Cara and I were taken to an escalator. I looked at Cara feeling puzzled and thought the guard was crazy. The guard stopped the escalator, reversed its direction, created a platform from a few stairs, I wheeled on, and it went up with spokes stopped me wheelchair backwards. It felt like magic!
Food & Drink
Japan has many delicious foods to try. English menus are available at some places too. My favourite foods are okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) in Hiroshima, green tea ice-cream in Kyoto, and karaage (deep-fried chicken). Try some of the various flavours of kit-kat including green tea, and apple.
It’s always best to check if restaurants have a lift or no steps to get inside. It’s common to see western-style dining with chairs and tables. Ask for an English menu too.
Convenience stores are common and offer a variety of cheaper options for meals and snacks including fruit, sushi and bottled water.
Practice your chopstick skills. If you’re lucky a knife and fork may even be available upon request.
It’s a great experience if you can eat Japanese style by sitting on the floor. I ate Japanese style in Myoko with friends. I was lifted onto the seats and moved myself around to my seat. It was a great experience to cook our own food and try a range of different Japanese foods.
I love to pack a lot into each day leaving early each morning and not returning to the hotel until late evening. Japan Accessible Tourism Centre is a great guide on what’s wheelchair friendly.
You want to experience the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Tokyo Skytree has fantastic views of Tokyo from high above and is a must see to get to know where things are in Tokyo and how busy it is (unless you’re like my friend Cara and afraid of heights). There is priority entrance for wheelchair users with no need to wait in the queue (bonus!). Take a lift up to the first observation deck and then another to the highest observation deck. Work your way back down enjoying the views and make sure you stop and look through some of the glass flooring. There is a shopping centre attached with lift access. Check out the shops in Harajuku avoiding those with stairs and be careful of some rough paths and hills.
Book a hotel in Tokyo Bay and visit Tokyo Disney Sea. Getting around the resort is wheelchair accessible with a Disney Resort Cruiser (shuttle bus) travelling regularly from Bayside hotels to the monorail (return). The monorail system takes you to the resort and then a short stroll to inside. Once inside Tokyo Disney Sea there’s nice path, some hills and scenic trains and ferries to get around. There are accessible shows to watch and rides to enjoy without getting out of your wheelchair. A Guest Assistance Card is available for guests with disabilities allowing the guests to reserve a time for rides and character greetings. One of my favourites riders was the merry-go-round where a ramp enabled me to roll right onto the ride, a seat belt and block prevented my wheelchair from moving as we went around and around. It’s ideal to buy a two day ticket because it’s huge with lots to see and do (you can’t fit everything in).
Take a shinkansen ride and in about five hours arrive in Hiroshima. Explore the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. There is a lift access to inside and information is written in English too.
Travel onto Osaka. Explore Osaka Castle with lifts allowing access to each floor. The view from the top is beautiful.
Make a day trip to Nara. The main road is wheelchair accessible, a bit hilly and with some rocky ground. Deers roam free so dodge the deers and their poo. Your travel companion will have to walk up some stairs at the Todaji Temple to buy tickets and then walk around the side to be buzzed in to go up ramps and into Todaji Temple to see the Big Buddha. Wonder back aside as there is plenty more to see. The Nara National Museum is fully wheelchair accessible with ramps and lifts.
Travel to Kyoto. Visit the green tea district of Uji to try green tea and delicious green tea ice cream. Uji Byodoin and Byodoin Museum is a beautiful place to visit and one of my favourites in Kyoto. The paths are gravel which is tricky especially when raining or snowing. There is lift and ramp access inside.
Travel to Nagano where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. Wonder the streets and follow a ramp into the beautiful Zenkoji Temple.
Head to Myoko to experience the soft powdery snow.
The last stop before flying back home is back in Tokyo. Do a bit more shopping to spend the remaining yen. Save some yen for souvenirs at the airport including from The Pokemon store.
Have a backup plan
Plan ahead and research before heading to Japan.
Have a rough itinerary worked out and accommodation booked. Be prepared to problem solve as you go along because no matter how much you plan ahead problems do arise.
I am light and don’t mind being lifted. Sometimes this is the only way. I have always felt safe.