Last month we (Jackie O’Sullivan and Jos Franciscus) both visited Japan on our own respective family holidays and took special note of the access and the AT available and that you might need. We both come from a wheelchair user perspective, however have investigated accessibility for people of different abilities too, we hope you enjoy our insights in our 2-part blog. In part 1, we discuss general accessibility and in part 2, we share ability specific advice.
Language and Terminology
- JF: Instead of ramps, the term here is ‘slopes’ – when you approach the assistants for the bus or train use this term otherwise they won’t understand your request.
Ground Floor = First Floor
- JO: In Japan, you won’t find a ground floor anywhere. Ground level is known as Level 1.
Accessible Rooms = Universal Rooms
- JF: Use this when you’re booking accommodation. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as set guidelines for room dimensions – many have tiny rooms, have baths and narrow toilets. You really have to do your research for your accessibility needs.
“Chotto Matte Kudasai” = “one moment please”
- JO: A common phrase that we got used to hearing when we requested assistance from anyone. To get you by, here are some specific disability phrases in Japanese.
- JF: Can be tricky to locate when out and about as restaurants (especially older traditional ones) are often small and without accessible toilets. The train stations and shopping centers are great and reliably have good facilities.
Travelling with a Carer
- JO: For people requiring a carer, Japan doesn’t recognise the Australian Companion Card but has a similar system called a Disability Passbook or 障がい者手帳 (shogaisha techo). More information can be read at Japan Disability Discounts. When asking if there was a carer concession price for things like train fares and entry fees, I had planned ahead and carried in my wallet a small note written in Japanese, (used Google Translate) explaining that I was showing the person an Australian version of a Disability Passbook.
- JF: Unfortunately with ‘universal rooms’ there’s no set legislation dictating minimum requirements like widths of doors, handrails and roll-in showers. I’d highly recommend getting measurements and details before booking.
- JF: One great thing for shower chair or bench users, is culturally the Japanese shower outside the bath before bathing, which means most bathrooms are (albeit small) roll-in showers. Just watch the door widths.
- JO: The AirBnB accommodations we chose were great, but they wouldn’t have been as accessible without the travel chair. In our first AirBnB, the elevator was so tiny, you could barely squeeze in a wheelchair. In our second AirBnB, there was frustratingly a single small step into the apartment.
Getting Around Japan
Train is by far the best way to get around.
- JF: Every station has attendants and no matter what your disability, they can assist. Attendants are very helpful in getting you off/on train and helping you plan your journey safely. They coordinate from station to station so that when you arrive at the next station, they greet you with a ramp or assistance (depending what you need). This also includes multiple transfers for longer journeys.
- JF: Stations are generally quite accessible, however there’s often gaps or step ups between the train and platform. You can overcome this by either:
- asking the train assistants to accompany you with a ramp and coordinate ramps to be at every stop or
- bring your own portable ramp – but at your own risk. I preferred this as it made my journeys quicker and more spontaneous but it can be cumbersome.
- JF: Every train has at least one accessible carriage by being marked with the blue accessible sign on platform ground.
- JF: If you can’t walk stairs, there’s often only one way out of station – ask for staff directions to elevators. They have maps (not tactile/Braille unfortunately) both on street level and below level which indicate elevators.
- JF: Each platform also has a map or a guide where elevators are located in relation to carriage number. I recommend staying near a station on the green Yamanote line as it links with all the other lines.
- JF: It can get busy! Avoid if you can at peak hours, especially at Shibuya and Shinjuku.
- JF: All city trains stop at midnight! Something to factor in, if you’re having a late night.
The Bullet Trains
- JF: The Bullet Train or Shinkansen is very accessible. Each train has at least one accessible carriage which has spaces for wheelchairs (although a tad narrow) and quite large accessible toilets. If you’re too wide for the general seats there is a large detached pod you can sit in.
- JO: We purchased 14 day JR Passes. These are mainly for use on the Shinkansen and Narita Express trains, however there are a couple of local JR lines in Tokyo and all of Osaka and Kyoto train lines accept JR Pass. JR Ticketing Offices are located at most major train stations. It is important to book the Shinkansen as early as possible if you want to be near the accessible bathrooms, located between Cars 10 and 11 and have the one accessible space for a wheelchair in Car 11.
- JF: I personally wouldn’t recommend in large power chairs. I tried out first hand the black London Cab style taxis and it was a disaster. The driver had never had a passenger who was a powered wheelchair user before, and when it came to getting in, it was so small it took 30 minutes of maneuvering and taking my footplates off. Apparently there are a limited number of yellow wheelchair taxis which are apparently bigger, but fewer available.
- JO: Taxis cost roughly 50% more than Australian taxis. We travelled with a travel chair, which fits in the boot just fine. We also tried the black London Cab taxis in Japan.
- JF: Overall I found the buses quite accessible. Some had built in ramps/slopes while others had portable ramps that the bus driver manually clicked into place.
- JF: If you’re hearing impaired, most buses I saw had screens with the Japanese/English versions of the upcoming bus stops. If you’re vision impaired they did have audio cues but you have to pay close attention as they’re said quickly.
Asking for Directions
- JO: When asking for directions, it is best to provide people with the Japanese Character written option. You can plan for this eventuality by having the Google Translate App and Google Maps App on your phone. We prepared a lot of pre-translated screen shots of maps in advance of our excursions.
We’ll be back next month to share our ability-specific observations and experiences of Japan. Until then! Jackie & Jos.