Hey everyone! My name is Josh and I am a former Canadian. “Former”? Yes, you read that right I was a Canadian. But, while traveling the world I fell in love with Japan and became a citizen. Unfortunately, in Japan you cannot have dual citizenship so I gave up my old citizenship to become Japanese.
But let’s back up a bit.
I have cerebral palsy and use a power wheelchair. My family always traveled and when I started studying Japanese in high school, the travel bug bit me and I knew I wanted to see the country for myself. Before visiting Japan for the first time in 2000, I certainly had a lot of questions about accessibility but not much information. However, when I was younger I was a lot more adventurous (foolish?) and had the support of my parents. When I arrived I was impressed with the accessibility (at least it was better than I expected). I could get most of the places I wanted to go. But I was more impressed with how every time I came back for subsequent visits, the accessibility improved by leaps and bounds.
I moved to Tokyo in 2007, and I started a website in 2015 called Accessible Japan. The website shares information on accessibility of tourist spots, hotels, transportation and more.
In this blog I want to share a little bit of my accessible Tokyo with you.
Getting Around Tokyo
Most people in Tokyo use public transportation to get around – there are train and subway stations everywhere so you can get to any point in the city. The government in Japan requires that any train or subway station with 3000+ daily users must be accessible. Now, that sounds like a lot of people, but for Tokyo it isn’t. In fact, that requirement has made 96% of the stations in Tokyo accessible (though some older stations may have stair climbers instead of elevators).
Local buses in Tokyo also have ramps and seating for wheelchair users. However, most of the highway buses to other cities are not wheelchair accessible, and only a few airport buses have lifts.
While large van taxis with lifts are available, they can be hard to book because they are typically run by individuals who are focused on doctor visit transportation and usually don’t have a website or speak English (though some exist). The smaller “Japan Taxis” (modeled after London Cabs) are more available but might be a tight fit for some larger power wheelchairs.
Accessible Attractions in Tokyo
For Tokyo, while there are many exciting places to visit, I always recommend first time visitors go to Tokyo Skytree, Sensoji, and Meiji Jingu.
Tokyo Skytree is one of the tallest towers in the world and offers a commanding view. From the observation deck you can spot the places you will visit later (Sensoji and Meiji Jingu), and if it is a clear day you can see the iconic Mount Fuji. Since the tower was recently built, the accessibility is smooth and easy.
Jump on a train and travel a short distance to Sensoji. This temple and its huge lantern have graced many Tokyo travel guide books. It is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the city and the street leading up to it is lined with stores that have been selling to pilgrims for generations (though the wares have adapted to the many foreign tourists the heart remains). The temple wanted to be open to all and added an elevator to the main temple as well as flattened and smoothed out pathways.
Meiji Jingu (or Meiji Shrine) as a Shinto shrine (Japan’s native religion) dedicated to the late Meiji Emperor. As you wander down the forested path leading to the shrine, you will forget you are in one of the world’s largest cities. The paths used to be only gravel but smooth paved paths and new ramps were recently added to allow visitors in wheelchairs easier access. (Though those who need benches to rest on may want to take a break at the café and gift store mid-way to the shrine.)
Accessible Accommodations in Tokyo
Japan has had a shortage of accessible accommodations due to lax laws for hotels, though any hotel with more than 50 rooms is required by law to have at least one accessible room. Unfortunately, the accessibility features of the rooms can vary greatly and the hotels often don’t have much information available on their websites. As a rule of thumb, foreign hotels often follow international standards and the bigger the hotel the better the chances of it having an accessible room. We have a list of hotels on Accessible Japan with pictures and descriptions to help get you started.
Grabbing a Bite to Eat in Accessible Tokyo
One of the bigger challenges wheelchair users will face in Tokyo is finding a place to eat. Restaurants are often packed into small buildings and don’t offer much room to navigate larger wheelchairs. On top of that, many have a step at the entrance or are in buildings without elevators. While the owners are eager to help and may want to improve their accessibility, they are usually just tenants in the building and cannot make any unpermitted alterations to the building. This can often mean “eating where you can, not eating where you want.”
If in doubt, the top few floors of department stores and shopping malls often have a number of restaurants which are bigger and easier to access.
While we do not have a list of accessible restaurants on Accessible Japan (the restaurant industry moves too fast to keep up!), we have some suggested websites on phone apps to hopefully help you find some places to enjoy authentic Japanese cuisine.
While the future of the Tokyo Olympics is still uncertain, the years leading up to 2020 have seen Japan drastically improve in terms of accessibility and openness to visitors with disabilities. It is the city I call home, and the city I love. I hope you will fall in love with it too.
At Wheel the World, we are working hard to bring you new destinations to explore without limits with us, like Tokyo, Japan. We can’t wait to offer accessible experiences there! In the meantime, check out some of our other accessible destinations – like Singapore, Vietnam, and Fiji.