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How Accessible is Japan?

Posted on February 12, 2019 by Kelly Johnstone
Traditional Japanese Building in foreground with Mount Fuji in background

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games fast approaching, many people are thinking of visiting Japan. If you have a disability, though, your first thought may be “is Japan Accessible?”

Rest assured, Japan is more accessible than you may think!

Though my cerebral palsy brought many challenges, I refused to give up on my dream of visiting Japan. But after one visit, I was hooked.

While Japan was quite accessible when I moved here in 2007, over the past 12 years I have been amazed to watch the steady improvements that make Tokyo a world-class city for everyone. Here are some basic tips to ensure you enjoy your trip to Tokyo.

Getting around

Though the subway and train map look like a (very intimidating) plate of spaghetti, there are certain perks for those with access needs.

If you use a wheelchair or are visually impaired, after buying your ticket your next stop is the staff member by the ticket gate. Tell the staff where you would like to go and after a few minutes another staff member will come to you and then guide you through the station to the train. If you are visually impaired, they will help you find a spot and if you use a wheelchair they will lay a portable ramp down for you to board the train.

The service is not done there, though. The staff will then call ahead to your destination (or transfer station) to tell the station staff there which carriage you are on and someone will be there waiting for you when you arrive and help you exit the station or make your transfer.

So, no need to worry about the jumble of a map – you have a personal guide! Here is a video to see how it works:

There are some things to be aware of though. First of all, most elevators have been added on a long time after the stations were built – so many times the accessible routes are not well marked nor direct. Secondly, while they are slowly being accepted, mobility scooters are still sometimes refused entry at certain stations.

Finding an accessible place to stay in Japan

Hotels in Japan are only required to have one accessible room if there are more than 50 rooms – but only one. So, accessible rooms are in short supply.

Adding to this challenge, accessible rooms must generally be booked by contacting the hotel directly and cannot be booked online. Since many hotels do not list their email on the website, you may need to call a hotel to book a room or go through a travel agent.

There are also no clear laws regarding the facilities of an accessible room and so the rooms can vary wildly from hotel to hotel. Try to find pictures of the room or request pictures from the hotel to be sure the room will meet your needs.

I suggest you start looking for hotels well in advance of your stay. The Accessible Japan website has a database of rooms listed as being accessible, which may be a good start.

Seeing the sights

Tokyo is a fascinating place to get lost in. Every neighbourhood has a unique flavor and charm all its own. There are also a number of great tourist spots to visit.

Start with a trip up Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. Visitors with disabilities get priority access to the elevators, and the building is made with accessibility in mind. From here you can see all the places you will later visit and maybe even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji on a clear day.

After Skytree, go one train stop over and see the famous Sensoji Temple. Not only is this 1300 year old temple an icon of Tokyo, it also has an elevator built on to the side so visitors with disabilities can enjoy the intricate altar and ceiling paintings.

Take the train across the city to Meiji Shrine. The shrine is located deep within an artificial forest, making it easy to forget you are in the heart of the city. While the approach to the shrine is long, there are smooth paths at the side if the gravel walkway to make it easier in a wheelchair. Ramps have been added to the sanctuary, allowing access to all visitors.

Stroll around the trendy (and very crowded) Harajuku next to the shrine and end your first day in Tokyo knowing you have seen so much but just scratched the surface.

Josh Grisdale

Josh Grisdale smilingJosh Grisdale was born in Toronto, Canada but grew up on a small farm in the country. Though his cerebral palsy brought many challenges, he refused to give up on his dream of visiting Japan. But after one visit, he was hooked. He moved to Japan permanently in 2007 and gained Japanese citizenship in 2016. He works as a webmaster for a medium-sized company in Tokyo, but in his spare time he travels around Japan to share about the accessibility of tourist spots and encourages people to visit the country he loves – regardless of ability.