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Just how accessible is Japan? We caught up with Peter and Suzy, who took our Wheelchair Accessible Golden Route trip during cherry blossom season, for their experience of accessible hotels, transport, guides and sightseeing in Japan.
We are both retired in our 60s and have done a lot of overseas travel over the past 10 years to Europe and America but had always wanted to visit Japan. You know how it is… movies, TV, cherry blossom, Mount Fuji… With a cruise booked from Singapore to Japan, via Vietnam and China, it was time to give it a go.
Peter is a mostly independent quadriplegic who uses a folding manual wheelchair and we travelled with two medium suitcases, one carry-on bag and a backpack. I looked after the suitcases on trains and subways and put the backpack on Peter’s wheelchair. Peter pushed his own wheelchair without assistance in train stations, subways tunnels, flat streets, but needed help with slopes, steps or uneven surfaces.
Cherry blossom season
Our 10-day route around Japan took place during April’s cherry blossom season and our itinerary was relatively straightforward: arrive in Tokyo by ship; visit Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima by shinkansen (bullet train); then return to Tokyo for our flight home.
We booked with Inside Japan Tours as it gave us a one stop travel shop solution to visit Japan in a wheelchair, with accessible hotel room bookings, trains bookings, tours, tickets, a set of guide books for each city and an info-pack – “the bible” – to assist us.
As first-time visitors to Japan, we had concerns about language and wheelchair access issues, specifically:
- Accessible accommodation
- Accessible transport
- Accessibility of monuments, shrines, temples and other attractions
- Availability of accessible public toilets
The hotels were all in terrific central locations. Four of the five rooms had similar bathroom/toilet designs. These were designated ‘wheelchair accessible universal rooms’, but whilst they had well-drained wet areas, Peter did need assistance to reach and turn on the handheld shower over the bath and reach towels which tended to be up near the roof.
The toilets were accessible electronic marvels (some with music) and all had grab rails. They were a little on the low side for easy transfer but were ok.
Accessible transport in Japan: Bullet trains
Travelling on the shinkansen bullet trains and perversely getting on a Japanese subway train at peak hour were both absolute musts. There is only one wheelchair place per bullet train which needs to be booked in advance. IJT excelled. Every ticket was perfect.
Assistance was needed primarily to ensure we were on the correct platform, facing the right direction and at the correct spot for the type of train on this service. From the moment the train stopped, there was only two minutes (exactly) to board, get Peter on, positioned and brakes on, luggage piled in. Then we were off – just like a bullet.
On arrival in each city (exactly two minutes to get off!) we used either the subway or tram to get close to our hotels, before walking the rest of the way. Train services in Japan are excellent and station staff are extremely helpful, providing a ‘slope’ (ramp) on request at the station ticket office.
The platform gaps were not problematic, but they did vary a bit if you were rushing – 120 seconds and counting. Without fail, station staff waited for us at our destination stations, ‘slope’ in hand. This is where our IJT ‘bible’ proved invaluable; English was often not well understood so having the destination spelt in Japanese simplified everything.
The most difficult station to navigate was Kyoto. From shinkansen to subway it was quite a push uphill, but a station attendant helped. Several times we made time to do dummy runs in retracing our steps when it was time to leave. These were invaluable, as it helped us to identify metro lifts not working and extra time required. Typically, we added a full half hour to the recommended time.
Tours and sightseeing
In Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka we had wheelchair accessible tours organised and the guides were amenable to modification where required, e.g. in Kyoto we went to the fabulous train museum in place of one of the shrines.
They also all knew where to find local specialities. We liked to experiment and eat local foods in each city: top picks were sushi, Kobe beef, pickled ginger, miso soup, regional noodles, green tea ice cream, dozens of mushroom varieties and stuffed pig’s guts… YUM!
Tokyo and Kyoto
Our Tokyo / Mount Fuji tour guide Kyoko and driver Kazu were both very good, understood the needs of a wheelchair user and provided interesting and enjoyable tours and great local cuisine including a local village noodle pot lunch. Our Kyoto / Nara tours provided by Kumi in a fully wheelchair accessible van were also excellent with his local knowledge and great English skills.
The fully wheelchair accessible vans all arrived on time at the stated locations and were the best we have encountered anywhere in the world – they should export them!. It’s 35 seconds from ground to fully locked down and van door closed: a record-breaking design that leaves the van slightly faster at 25 seconds from engine off to wheeling the street.
Accessible hotels in Tokyo:
- Tokyo – Richmond Hotel Premier Asakusa International, great location in the old Asakusa shrine precinct, high-quality breakfast
- Tokyo – JR Kyushu Hotel Blossom Shinjuku, another excellent location (the other side of Tokyo) and good hotel restaurant
In Osaka, we had a great day touring on foot/metro from our hotel in Dotonbori town with our guide Kommy who had excellent English and a great knowledge of the Osaka history, items of interest and the subway system. Lunch in the Tenjimbashisuji (the 2.6 km long shopping arcade) was the local speciality okonomiyaki – a lot of fun. Touring Osaka Castle and the Sky Building in a wheelchair has its challenges – but all was expertly organised.
Accessible hotel in Osaka:
- Osaka – Osaka Namba Holiday Inn room had a full roll-in accessible shower with all bells and whistles – multiple jets from several directions – a bit like a robo car wash!
We toured Hiroshima (an absolute must) by ourselves, spending an afternoon paying our respects at the Peace Park & Museum, an easy walk from our hotel. The following day we travelled by taxi to the port and then ferry to Miyajima Island to visit Itsukushima Shrine and the torii gate on a beautiful sunny day. Returning by ferry and tram was all very easy using our metro card.
Accessible hotel in Hiroshima:
- Hiroshima – Mitsui Garden Hotel Hiroshima, great location close to Peace Park and a fabulous breakfast. The room was tight though and made more difficult due to poor bed selection (small double and fold down couch). Would have been better with two singles in this tight space.
Problems with wheelchair accessibility in Japan
Not many actually. Appreciating that we stayed in major cities, the wheelchair accessible toilet facilities at most public buildings/sites/transport hubs/hotels/shops were easily located and clean. At times though, we wished there was an English translation manual to operate these electronic marvels to their full extent!
The major cities of Japan e.g. those on the Golden Route and Hiroshima are extremely wheelchair accessible, with pavement curbs usually well cut and easily crossed in a wheelchair, so we were able to walk from each of our hotels very easily.
Accessible taxis are few and far between and must be booked in advance, but companies specialising in wheelchair transport have the best service in the world. Our cruise port (Yokohama) and Narita airport transfers were made by pre-booked fully wheelchair accessible vans. IJT, take a bow.
Street eateries are typically small and wheelchair access is impossible to most of these little restaurants – which can force you to find a chain when late and tired or eat in a hotel with a good restaurant (Japanese if you are lucky).
Travelling around Japan in a wheelchair was safe and reasonably hassle-free, and the Japanese people were courteous to a fault. Thank you to all concerned who put together our wheelchair accessible Golden Route Tour!