By Cristina Hartmann

My two-and-half weeks in Japan as someone with both vision and hearing impairments left me amazed—in a good way. My time in Tokyo, the megalopolis to end all megalopolises, and Sapporo, the largest city of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, showed me how different countries deal with visually impaired people.

Japan was the last stop for my 4-month around-the-world trip. Out of the 15 countries that I visited, Japan had the most accessible infrastructure of any country I’ve ever been to, including my own, the United States.

The most notable accessibility feature for the visually impaired is the yellow tactile strips that serve as guiding lines in almost every major public venue, such as subway stations, sidewalks in Tokyo, and some indoor malls. They serve a dual purpose. First, it allows you and others to stay on the left side while moving in the crowded and busy spaces. (In Japan you stay on the left, not the right.) Second, these lines lead you to key places like ticket kiosks and the exits. These are more useful if you actually know where you are going, unlike most tourists. Strips of tactile bumps also precede many of the stairwells and escalators, which is good because there are many, especially in a major Tokyo subway station.

I found these features incredibly helpful and couldn’t help wondering why my own country almost never implements these. They’re easy to install, not obstructive, and helpful for everyone, not just the visually impaired.

It doesn’t mean, however, that the accessibility features compensate for how utterly confusing older Japanese cities, such as Tokyo, can be. Neither the roads nor the subway station follow a grid system, so being a flummoxed tourist in such cities is a given. The labyrinthine Tokyo subway stations are hard for any foreigner to navigate due to the dearth of English-language signage and the multiple exits and entrances. The rush hour is particularly difficult as space becomes a precious commodity. Even though Japanese people are generally polite and will make space for you, sometimes there is no space to be made. There are no safety barriers between the tracks and the platforms, so the visually impaired should exercise extra caution during rush hour. Such places can be disorienting and downright bewildering despite the tactile strips. (Note to visitors: you can ask for help at any station, but they might not necessarily speak much English.)

I found Sapporo calmer and easier to navigate as it is one of the only Japanese cities with a grid system. The subway system there is newer and more spacious than Tokyo’s, making it a more accessible and smoother ride. I went there during the winter, so snow and ice were inevitable although I’ve been told that Hokkaido is lovely during the summers.

Other little accessibility features helpful to the visually impaired popped up during my visit. One of them was braille on beer cans. The braille usually simply says “alcohol,” but sometimes it spells out the manufacture’s name. Alas, this was little use to me as I don’t know Japanese braille.

Another issue that I encountered (or rather, my white cane did) was the genkan, the entryway area that marks the transition between the outdoors and indoors—in other words, where you take off your shoes to go inside. A major reason for this custom is to prevent outdoor shoes from dirtying up the inside. My white cane is indeed quite dirty—as its tip is always on the ground—but I also needed it to navigate an unfamiliar environment. I ended up having to do one of the two options. If wipes were available, I would scrub down the tip the best I could. If wipes weren’t available, I would navigate the indoor spaces on my own, which was relatively easy as Japanese homes are usually sparsely furnished and simply laid out. I’ll have to remember to bring my own wipes next time!

Visiting Japan brought me face-to-face to a wonderful new culture and people. The little accessibility features inbuilt into Japan’s streets made what was already a wonderful experience even better.

I’m also writing about my 4-month trip around the world as a deafblind woman. If you’re interested, please read:

Have you been to Japan? Do you have a disability? If so, we would love to share your story! Shared stories not only provide practical information, they also encourage other people with disabilities to come visit Japan. If you are interested, please get in touch.

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