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Loving My Trip to Japan in a Wheelchair
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Loving My Trip to Japan in a Wheelchair

Tokyo

I was really impressed with Tokyo. I found it a great city that was very accessible, and the fact that every underground station had an accessible universal toilet made a huge difference. It meant that wherever you went, you always knew where the nearest disabled toilet was. I also found that the only time I had to queue for the toilet was when there was a cleaner inside it. The toilets were spotless, unlike they often are in other public places!

I stayed at the Vessel Inn Hotel, which was located by Iriya station. One of the platforms was immediately wheelchair accessible; however, if you are going in the opposite direction, you have to take a special conveyor down the stairs. If you’re in the least bit self-conscious, this would not be ideal, but the station staff are very quick to help. I had this positive experience at every train station in Tokyo. Even the stations that weren’t immediately accessible had been made accessible, so I had no problems at all getting around Tokyo.

In the hotel, as in all the hotels in which I stayed throughout Japan, the bathroom was accessible but the shower was not a roll in shower. The room was small, which I expected, but it would have been more spacious if it was not so full of furniture. Still, the bathroom was a reasonable size. Unfortunately, though, the bed was right against one wall and it was not possible to get a wheelchair in the space that was left between the bed and the wall on the other side.

After a very happy stay in Tokyo, we traveled to Kyoto on the bullet train. There was dedicated seating for wheelchair users but we did not use that as I preferred to transfer to a standard seat. There was ample space to put my fold up wheelchair behind the seats at the end of the carriage and the toilet had grab rails which I think are a standard feature.

Kyoto

Kyoto is an incredibly interesting city with a cultural mix of old, older, new and newer. Around every corner, you will find a different environment. It is like going to a different city every time you visit a different part. I would say though, that in my experience the train station staff in Kyoto are a lot more indifferent to wheelchair users than those in Tokyo. In Tokyo, I found that the train station staff were really on the ball and very keen to assist you and would often approach you first, whereas in Kyoto they wouldn’t immediately assist you and often waited until you approach them. In Tokyo, they immediately assume that you would need a ramp at your destination station and asked you where you were going before you boarded. In Kyoto, I often needed to volunteer this information as they seemed a lot less interested. The other thing that I noticed was that in Tokyo the train station staff who met you at your destination station would generally accompany you to the accessible exit. In Kyoto, they would give a dismissive wave of the hand in the general direction you needed to go and rarely would they accompany you to the exit. On the positive side though. I did find that all stations were accessible. There were dropped curbs everywhere and a lot of level access so getting around was not difficult at all.

Whereas trains were brilliant in Tokyo, I found that the buses were a much better option in Kyoto, not least because the views were spectacular! The buses were all accessible with a dedicated space for wheelchairs, which was created by tipping up 2 seats. The bus conductors seemed to take great pride in clearing this space when it was needed and they ushered you on to the bus with the aid of a manual ramp which they came round to put out for you. Another thing that they had that I have not seen anywhere was blocks to put against my wheels to make sure my chair did not skid around with the motion of the bus. Personally, I found these much more pleasant than being strapped down by some form of an awkward seatbelt.

I stayed in the Kyoto Garden Palace hotel. The room was one of the largest I have ever stayed in that wasn’t a suite. It had 2 double beds, a sofa, and plenty room to get around. The bathroom is accessed through a sliding door and is very spacious as well. Like most Japanese hotel bathrooms, it did not have a roll in shower but came with a bath chair in the bath. There was no shower curtain like most of the bathrooms in Japan, so I had to be very careful with the shower hose.

The hotel itself had good level access throughout, as well as a disabled toilet on the ground floor where there are 2 restaurants. The hotel is right opposite the Imperial Palace, which is really handy, but it is 5 minutes’ walk from either of the nearest train stations and the buses also depart from outside the stations. So although it is flat, it is not perfect. There are buses that go along the road in front of the hotel, but I am not sure where they go as I never used them.

It is a very nice hotel and the meals that we ate there were also very good. We had breakfast included, and I think it's worth mentioning that the Western breakfast was quite strange and included a potato salad! There was a so-called ‘bowl of fruit’ but that turned out to just be 4 very small pieces of fruit. To give you an example of how small, one of them was a strawberry!

During my time in Kyoto, I visited the Gion Corner Theatre, which I had read had good level access and a dedicated wheelchair space in the audience. It was a display of Japanese customs like the tea ceremony, singing, and some bizarre instruments. Interesting, but not always pleasant sounding!

At Nijo Castle, I had my first encounter with the dreaded gravel. I had read that this was a big problem for wheelchair users, but I really underestimated just how hard it would make things. And I imagine that it would be hard for any wheelchair, whether manual or power, as your wheels just sink into the gravel. However, once you have gotten past the gravel, there is a dedicated entrance for wheelchair users and you are encouraged to transfer into one of the clean wheelchairs. Everyone else has to remove their shoes, so I guess this is the equivalent. There is another option if you are not able to transfer – I did not see this but I think there is something that they put around your tyres so you do not bring in any external dirt.

There *are* accessible bathrooms, though I found these a little bit difficult to locate.

I also visited the Philosophers Walk.  This is very beautiful, especially in cherry blossom season. I had read about a parallel side street that was much easier for wheelchair users; however, when I got there, I discovered that it was not a side street at all but a path that ran along next to the philosophers walk. It was actually used by most people as the original philosophers walk path is quite uneven. There are also accessible bridges along the way so you can look up and down the canal. There are restaurants along the side of the path, but they are quite small, so if you need an accessible toilet then you would need to use one in the temples that flank the path at either end.

I also visited Higashiyama District, which is the principal temple area in Kyoto. Unfortunately, not all the temples are accessible. However, the outside area is accessible and, personally, I found that it was very enjoyable just to look at the temples. Some of the temples are accessible and in them, you will also find accessible bathrooms.

Day trips from near Kyoto

Staying in central Kyoto is not cheap, so in order to do some day trips to nearby destinations, I moved out of Kyoto central and stayed near the edge of Kyoto at the Royal Oak Hotel Spa and Gardens. It was near enough to get into Kyoto with ease, as most of the destinations required you to start your journey from Kyoto anyway.

Whilst I stayed there, I visited Nara, which is an ancient capital of Japan and Iga Ueno, and the birthplace of ninja. Nara was a great destination. All of the main temples are handily located in one park, which has ample accessible bathrooms and nearly all of the temples are also accessible. There are wild deer roaming free in the park, and they are very used to visitors. In fact, there are a number of stands selling deer food so you can hand feed the deer. It is also important to note that the deer are not in the least bit fazed by wheelchairs – they do not keep away from you, and if you have food, they will happily approach you and take advantage of the fact that you are unable to move the food higher than their heads!

Iga Ueno was a more challenging visit. Even though the town itself was very wheelchair accessible, the train station was more of a challenge. And whilst it could be made wheelchair accessible, it was not naturally accessible, and on my journey, I encountered trains that did not have a dedicated wheelchair space. However, I found the Japanese people very amenable. They did their best to make sure that I was able to complete my journey. 

I visited Iga Ueno’s ninja festival, which was located in a park that was definitely not very wheelchair accessible. There was an auditorium where they were doing ninja displays. Initially, I wanted to sit in the front row. But in the end, I was glad that I had been instructed to sit further back as the ninjas threw stars, used whips and various other things which you would not want to be in close proximity to! Health and safety were definitely not a priority at this event!

The hotel in which I stayed was a strange affair. I’m pretty sure that it was not owned by Japanese people. It seemed to be more of a strange mishmash of influences than anything else.

The room I stayed in was accessible with an accessible bathroom, but it was unusual, containing things that I did not really understand that I am sure would be useful for some people with disabilities! The bath tub seemed to slide out and the toilet seat doubles as a shower chair, with a very high back and a shower curtain rail running above it. There was also another lowered shower head and a piece of equipment that I guess could be a shower stool? I was quite mystified by the equipment!

The sink was located outside of the bathroom, which was awkward if you needed to wash your hands after using the toilet. It was by the front door and this section of the room could be closed off if you wanted privacy while you were getting ready. This would close off the sink even more from the bathroom area though.

The room was a reasonable size, but I would have to describe the design as garish, as nothing matched and this contrasted sharply with the quiet elegance of the Japanese rooms in which I had stayed up to this point. For example, the curtains were one material, the carpet did not match them, there was a sofa of entirely different design and unrelated fabric and then the majority of the extra furniture was wicker! This is not something that I would usually notice but as everywhere else in Japan was so elegant, this really stuck out!

The hotel itself is accessible, but you have to use a shuttle bus to get there from the station and the shuttle bus is not wheelchair accessible. To get on the bus, you have to climb up 3 steps and there is no area for your wheelchair – it just has to be stuffed in the luggage rack and it is not a big luggage rack, so it doesn’t really fit. Also, the area in which the shuttle bus accesses the hotel entrance does not have a dropped curb so you can only get out directly onto the pavement.

Aside from the accessibility, the biggest difficulty with this hotel is the fact that the last shuttle bus leaves at 9 PM. This means that you have to be at Kyoto station by 8:30 PM, so evening meals either have to be very early or forgotten! If you are thinking that you will have a meal at the hotel instead, it is worth noting that the hotel restaurants stop serving at 9 PM, leaving only room service with a small number of dishes available after 9 PM. The restaurants also seem to get booked out, so you need to make a reservation if you want to eat at them. One night we did eat at the steak restaurant and the food was really good, with the Japanese chef preparing our food right in front of us and giving us special garlic chips that were really lovely.

I have to say that overall I didn’t really like this hotel but it was a much cheaper option than those in central Kyoto.

Hakone

My final destination was Hakone, which I visited in order to see Mount Fuji. It was rainy and cloudy, and apparently, it is like this most of the time, so the best view of Mount Fuji that we had was when we travelled past it on the bullet train on an exceptionally clear day!

I had originally booked the Manatei Hotel, as it showed on hotel search engines as wheelchair accessible. However, I contacted the hotel directly and after a number of emails, they confirmed that it did not have wheelchair accessible rooms, so we were upgraded for free to the to the Hyatt Hotel, as it was the only place that was definitely wheelchair accessible in the area. However, just like the previous hotel, the hotel transport which collected us from the station was not wheelchair accessible. The hotel itself was accessible and had a disabled toilet in the general area. It also had a fantastic happy hour with free drinks – literally anything between 4 PM and 7 PM. We made the mistake of ordering a bar snack to stave off our hunger until our evening meal and we were horribly disappointed because it was really small and incredibly expensive!

The room was a reasonable size but as usual in Japanese bathrooms, it was not a roll in shower but a bathtub with a shower chair. This one did at least have a shower curtain!

On a day trip to the lake, I travelled on the public bus which was wheelchair accessible, but I saw a lot of private bus tours which did not appear to be accessible, so bear this in mind when you’re booking a tour.

The lakeside station was wheelchair accessible and had a disabled toilet. The lake boat tour was also supposedly wheelchair accessible; however, to gain access to the boat, they just lifted me in, so I am not sure what they would do with a heavy wheelchair. There was an accessible bathroom, but it was very small as you would expect on a boat.

Back in Tokyo

I returned to Tokyo and stayed at hotel Mystays Haneda. The room and bathroom were both small, but it was fine for just one night, as it had the usual grab rails. There was also an accessible toilet in the general area.

All in all, I had an absolutely fantastic time in Japan and I would fully recommend it to all wheelchair using travelers as it is an immensely accessible country and I found that travelling there was nowhere near as challenging as it is in countries that are supposed to be accessible. Just an aside, they have also made huge efforts to help people with visual impairment, and there is tactile surfacing in the stations and all the way along the pavements, which is massively helpful and demonstrates the Japanese commitment to helping people with disabilities integrate into society. 

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