I just came back from a trip to Tokyo and the Kansai region. I was blown away by how wonderful Japan was and generally pleased with accessibility.
1) You will only get disability discounts with proof even if you are very visibly disabled/in a wheelchair. I wrote up a short note detailing my disability and accommodations needed, and used Google Translate to translate it into Japanese, had a Japanese speaking friend confirm it made sense, and then had my doctor sign and put it on letterhead. I then got it laminated and just showed it at every attraction. This saved a tidy amount of yen and was accepted without question everywhere I went. The only place I didn’t get a discount was for the Shinkansen as that is available for Japanese residents only.
2) if you go to Disney, stop by Guest Services to register for the guest assistance service. You will not get a discount, but you will be able to get Fast Pass like treatment even if the Fast Passes for that attraction have already “sold out” for the day. You’ll get a return time at the attraction you want to ride and instead of sitting or standing in line, you are free to grab a bite, shop or further explore until your assigned time.
3) Ask questions about the street the hotel is on, not just hotel entrance. I stayed in a hotel in Kyoto with a perfectly accessible entrance but it was on a side street that required getting up a small mid block curb to access the front door, meaning I couldn’t go in or out by myself. I was with someone who could pop a wheelie for me in the hybrid manual/power chair I rented so it wasn’t a huge impediment but if I was alone or using a chair that can’t handle a couple of inches definitely problematic.
4) Restaurant accessibility is more miss than hit. This was especially frustrating as I’m a foodie and a lot of hot spots were either up or down a flight of stairs or had inaccessible bar/floor seating. Unlike other places in Japan, it is also very difficult to get a straight answer from restaurant staff as they often don’t see what the big deal is about having a few kitchen guys carry the chair and as muser up as much as a flight of stairs. If you need absolute accessibility, unfortunately hotels, train stations and department stores will be your best options and I had a few really great meals at these types of establishments. Because I can get up and take a few steps I could still enjoy the restaurant with two huge steps inside that had the “accessible entrance” (technically true from the street) and the one with the tiny elevator I was barely able to squeeze into. Out of the independent restaurants I visited, only one had an accessible bathroom. Staff generally don’t want to say no, so it was a 15 minute negotiation to convince the host at the big crab place on the end of Osaka’s Dotonbori street that I’d be happy going to their other location about a half block away if it was more accessible because there was no way for my wheelchair to fit in the too-small- elevator. Turned out location #2 was completely barrier free.
5) Tell station staff your full and final route when getting on the trains. They will often suggest a better way if Google Maps is not ideal and will arrange slopes throughout. You will need to do this every time you change lines as each operator provides their own assistance (i.e. the JR guy won’t get you on the Tokyo metro, so you still have to see the staff before going in).
6) Learn what the Japanese call various Accessibility features. I found that not knowing Japanese was not a problem as long as I used their terms — people will scratch their heads at what a “portable ramp” is but will quickly prepare the “slope” for you. Likewise, “accessible” isn’t as widely used as “barrier free”.
7) Be prepared for some interesting alternate means of access. Most train/subway stations have elevator access but in a few cases access is via an accessible escalator where the station staff can convert a few steps into a platform the wheelchair rides on. A little freaky at first but very very cool.
8) If you need help, just ask. Many people will go out of their way to help you.
9) Download Google Translate and set Japanese to offline mode so you will have access to the tool even if you don’t have cell service on your trip. While most people will go out of their way to help, chances are their English will be almost non-existent and especially so if your question is at all specific. This broke down the language barrier big time and allowed me to communicate with almost anyone. I say almost because my 90 year old Kyoto taxi driver couldn’t read my phone screen without a magnifying glass and was befuddled by the app 😂
10) You can rent Whills from Paris Miki eyeglass stores in Tokyo. This wasn’t widely advertised but it costs approximately 14,000 yen for a whole month! They can deliver to your hotel but the staff don’t speak any English so you will need someone to translate. I had my hotel concierge arrange everything and it was a good chair for Tokyo and the region as the rental scooters are nearly double the price and a huge model that barely fit anywhere.
11) if you rent a Whill or Yamaha type folding power wheelchair, ask for an extra battery pack! The batteries are super portable and the range isn’t what most of our “home chairs” are capable of so if you are doing a whole day of touring, you definitely need the extra juice.
12) Book way in advance. Most hotels have just 1-2 “universal rooms” so book early to secure it. That said they are very good about not giving away that specific room if you tell them you specifically need it due to disability.
13) Use email correspondence over phone. The Japanese make up for their lack of foreign language skills with their tech savvy. It is generally possible to seamlessly communicate via email in a way that isn’t over the phone. You will generally get prompt responses and detailed photos of hotel access features when you ask.
14) Do your own research. Japanese hotel staff are generally clueless about accessibility outside the hotel. They are best used for when a phone call in Japanese is necessary.
15) Enable Google Translate in a Chrome browser and look at Japanese versions of sites for accessibility info. In many cases, I found that the accessibility information was either non-existent or not as extensive on the English version of most websites, especially hotels.
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