By Nicky Durston
I‘m Nicky and I’m married to David, we live in the beautiful Cotswolds in the heart of the UK. The main purpose for our trip to Japan is for the Hansa Worlds 2018 sailing regatta which is taking place in Hiroshima this October; David is competing as a disabled sailor. I can’t believe that in nearly 5 weeks from now, we will be in Japan; a country I have always dreamed of visiting, the culture and charms of which continue to excite and enthrall me as I research the many sites we hope to see.
As with any of our trips, the research is mainly specific to accommodating my husband’s wheelchair and checking the accessibility of destinations, transport and hotels. I thought we may manage all this on our own with Google as our cheery assistant, but quickly discovered that navigating accessible Japan without some expert advice was going to be tricky. Having fallen at the first hurdle trying to even find a suitable hotel room in a specific part of Tokyo, we chose to use ‘Inside Japan’; a specialist travel agency with plenty of knowledge of both Japan, and accessibility.
We started with an idea of what we wanted to see and then presented our travel advisor with a VERY LONG list of questions! My husband has a high level (C5/6 complete) spinal cord injury and as such, is a full time wheelchair user with limited hand and arm function and very little sitting balance. At home we have hoists, a bespoke commode chair and a profiling bed which help with his personal care and prevent me from injuring myself too! We find hiring equipment overseas is not always ideal and so when we travel, we “make do” and manage without the things that make both our lives so much easier. One of our primary needs was to find out the bed heights in proposed hotels; too high, or too low and it makes my job as his caregiver extremely difficult! Also the space around the bed is crucial for transferring him as we need to get his chair at the correct angle. Secondly we needed to know we could travel the country on the exemplary Japanese railway system; research concluded that booking a wheelchair space on the Shinkansen would not be straightforward and required visits to the station and a level of Japanese that might be beyond us! Taxis…hmmm…my husband uses a rigid frame chair and whilst the wheels can be removed and stowed, the frame itself will not fit into a saloon style car. Extensive Googling told us that there are limited ‘wheel in’ taxi services available in Tokyo (there seem to be painfully few and these must be pre booked in advance) and virtually nothing at all in many other towns and cities. So taxis are off the list for us – if you can fold your chair or mobility aid and transfer into a seat, it seems that you may be ok!
Our Top Tip: Think about what is REALLY crucial to you when travelling. What are your needs? Can they be met? What is your contingency plan? What can you NOT manage without? We have spent hours planning this trip and have had to compromise; think about what you CANNOT manage without and research every detail before you make a booking.
Once all this research had been done, we were able to book our trip; safe in the knowledge that we would have an amazing experience on our visits to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.
Some parts of the trip we have decided to brave alone, without the services of a private guide or driver. This will involve using the public transport and I am confident we can manage this thanks to the useful information we have found via this site and also from YouTube videos and various blog posts I have read. Google maps and Hyperdia will be my choice of vital smartphone apps for negotiating the myriad of train lines we will encounter.
We have had to consider other issues too; my husband has limited hand and arm dexterity so needs his food (even noodles!) cut up and a fork to eat. We know that cutlery won’t be available everywhere and so we will pack our own, plus plenty of straws to reach the bottom of the beer glasses! His wheelchair has battery powered wheels; we already checked with the manufacturer that they will charge safely on the lower voltage Japanese electricity system (see here for more information) and we have spare inner tubes and tools for the wheels in case a bicycle shop is hard to find. We discovered that we must carry our passports with us at all times; Japanese law requires visitors to have ID. I also asked questions about some of the sites we want to visit on the Accessible Travel Forum which has proved to be a mine of crucial information.
Until we started to research for our trip, I hadn’t appreciated that Japan is a mainly cash based society and as such, we need to consider having cash available rather than relying on our credit cards which we are used to doing in Europe. We have also taken the precaution to check the large supply of medication that we need to bring, will be accepted by Japanese customs; this was really straightforward and we had all our questions answered by the Embassy (we contacted the Japanese Embassy based in London, UK) who advised us to carry a copy of the prescriptions as well as keeping medication in its original packaging – handy to know! Definitely check with your Embassy in advance; a number of medicines are banned in Japan.
Thanks to this site, we know that public accessible bathrooms are plentiful throughout Japan. Whilst they may not always be perfect for everyone’s needs, a huge effort has been made to accommodate a range of features for those with impairments. Elevators are supposedly everywhere, although I’m still trying to figure which one of the 200 exits from Shinjuku station are step-free and near to our hotel! It’s going to be an adventure…
So Japan, I’m looking forward to everything you will throw at us! I don’t think it’ll all be easy and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun figuring things out as we go. It’s exciting to see that with the impending 2019 Rugby World Cup, 2020 Olympics and Paralympics that many Japanese businesses are trying to be accessible to ALL visitors which is also helping make our adventure a bit easier. Many of the major UK and European cities are hard to navigate and accessibility is hit and miss at major attractions. We’re delighted to find that almost everything we want to see in Japan is mostly accessible. Sure, we’ll have to compromise occasionally but that all adds to the excitement. There will be many an Izakaya that we won’t be able to fit into and plenty of restaurants that we will have to pass by, but we’ll make the most of the way that Japan is embracing access and visit every destination on our list with our usual ‘make do’ attitude and a whole lot of appreciation for every bit of assistance we ask for with our polite mumblings of ‘Sumimasen’ as we wheel about.
5 weeks to go….Bring it on!