How Accessible is Japan?

How Accessible is Japan?

So, you’ve decided to visit Japan. Maybe you’re just going on your own, maybe you’re an educator taking a group of students. Especially if you’re taking students, you may be wondering if students with reduced mobility or neurological conditions will be able to enjoy their time in Japan. Lucky for you, I just came from Japan and I have both! For reference, I have both early onset arthritis which reduces my ability to walk or stand for a sustained length of time and epilepsy. Due to the epilepsy, I have sensory issues such as photosensitivity and trouble processing multiple sources of sound. To make this as useful to as many people as possible, I am going to address other people with disabilities, and educators can take in the information as needed.

To start with, Japan is one of the most accessible places I’ve ever been. It is dramatically more accessible than where I currently live, New York City. If you utilize mobility or medical devices, it’s important to communicate it first with the airline you’re travelling with. My experience with JAL was particularly excellent. Their reception desk at Narita even had an adapted desk for a spot to place my cane while arrangements were made for transport.

The adapted desk at Narita.

That said, there are things to keep in mind. First off, if you have prescription medication, make sure they’re able to be taken to Japan. There are also limitations on what OTC drugs can be taken into Japan. Be especially careful of CBD oil. I take CBD for epilepsy, but was not able to bring it to Japan. Laws surrounding CBD are far more stringent, and US strains of CBD often have trace amounts of THC… which will cause problems if caught by Japanese authorities. Japanese drug laws are notoriously strict and punitive.

The Japanese transit system is a dream, and the majority of stations in Tokyo have escalators and elevators- but not all of them do. There was a smaller station near our hotel which had only stairs. Pay attention to signage and digital displays which indicate elevators and escalators in various stations. Also, it’s helpful to attempt to board near the doors closest to priority seating. The most useful phrase for me in Japan was “Sumimasen”, which approximates to “pardon me” or “excuse me”. If someone gives you a seat, be sure to thank them thoroughly (“Arigatou” or the more formal “Arigatou gosaimasu” comes in handy here). These two phrases are honestly the most useful in navigating Tokyo- my husband got around on these phrases alone. For wheelchair users, I recommend this resource from Accessible Japan.

All things considered, here are a few challenges I faced in Japan. Some of them are specific to my interests as an otaku, which is why I want to point them out.

Game centers and pachinko parlors are extremely noisy and contain a lot of flashing lights. I was aware of this and for the most part avoided them. My husband went to the game centers at night to gather intel and images for his work. But at one point, we went to the gachapon floor in the Shinjuku Yodabashi Camera. There were also rhythm games on this floor, and my brain couldn’t handle the sheer volume and variety of sounds coming from these machines. The synesthesia it invoked was on a whole other level. What I’ve been told by doctors in the past is that my brain can’t group audio as a single noise, and tries to process each sound individually. It made me dizzy, nauseous, and discombobulated. I actually don’t really remember what else we did that day. To avoid this situation happening again, I carried a pair of ear plugs from Daiso for the rest of the trip. If you have neurodivergence, I urge you to do the same, especially if visiting game centers is a dream you hold near and dear. For me, I was able to visit a purikura booth at Shibuya 109 and I could wander the UFO catcher/crane game machine in a Taito game center, so the things I wanted to do in game centers were covered. But if you dream of playing the many rhythm games but also find excessive loudness to be triggering, consider employing ear plugs. This is, I feel, an important consideration for travelers on the autism spectrum.

Also important is that many shops, especially in Akihabara, are not accessible. The day I went with my husband to Akihabara, we went to an obscure retro game store in a basement called Beep. It was insanely cool… and down a very narrow and steep staircase. The actual shop is stuffed to the gills, and is tight and a little difficult to navigate for a person unencumbered by assistive devices. This is the norm for Akihabara, where space is at a premium. Akihabara was the hardest day for me physically, with many stairs and a general lack of public seating. Even Animate is a tight space, although there is a bank of elevators. I was almost ready to quit the whole endeavor until we made our way to Akiba Culture Zone, the most accessible bank of otaku wares on multiple floors with elevators and escalators. I would honestly say Nakano Broadway might be a better destination. There was also a great shop, Surugaya, encompassing an entire floor at Shinjuku Marui Annex which had a great collection of items to choose from. (If you’re interested in knowing more about Beep and other eclectic gaming culture, I recommend following my husband over at Attract Mode.)

I’d actually highly recommend Shinjuku Marui Annex not only for this shop, but also for lolita shops. One half of Laforet in Harajuku is difficult to access because of its unusual layout, and Shinjuku Marui Annex has the majority of the key lolita shops such as Angelic Pretty, Jane Marple, Innocent World, and Baby the Stars Shine Bright.

Speaking of Harajuku… it is packed to the gills with tourists and social media fame hunters. This was the most difficult location in terms of humans pushing on me, making faces at me, and generally being horrible. On the other side of the planet, other Americans were honestly the worst part of my visit to Japan. At some point, I’ll talk about etiquette advice, but this isn’t the post for that. What’s important to convey is the difficulty navigating Takeshita Dori/Street. It is packed, and slightly sloped. If you’re in a wheelchair, you probably won’t see much, and what there is to see… well, it’s mostly tourist traps. Maybe it’s having always lived my life in tourist towns, but I have a sense for when something is purely there for the tourists. The fashionistas have long since left for another, quieter street in Harajuku, and all that’s left are cheap knockoffs, giant cotton candy, and lukewarm crepes. I’m not saying don’t go to Harajuku, but just know that it’s not what it used to be. I approximate it to St. Marks here in NYC… the style and substance left a long time ago. The one store worth visiting, 6% Doki Doki, is not easily accessible as it’s on the second floor of a building with no elevator (also, it’s not on Takeshita Dori, so I really don’t know what the point is). Hit up any of the many department stores for fashionable finds. I snagged an excellent skirt from Punyus at Shibuya 109 and had no problems navigating the space.

Crowds at Takeshita Dori in Harajuku.

The final place I had difficulty accessing was in the Studio Ghibli Museum. Generally speaking, the Ghibli is tremendously accessible. It’s an enchanting, magical space, with multiple elevators and accessible seating in its amazing movie theater screening unreleased Ghibli shorts. But… the roof is only accessible by a wrought iron spiral staircase. It, honestly, was a bit of a shock, as Miyazaki himself is a great advocate for accessibility. Infamously, the roof is the only “photo spot” in the museum. There’s no photography permitted elsewhere. It’s where you can take a photo with a robot from Laputa. I made my way up, because I’d traveled around the world to see this robot, but it wasn’t easy. The staff offered to show me a photo of the roof when they informed me there was no elevator. I wonder about all of the people who aren’t as lucky as me to still be capable of climbing stairs, if all they could do was look at a laminated photo of one of the most memorable parts of the museum.

The non-accessible roof at the Studio Ghibli Museum.

Otherwise, Tokyo was incredibly accessible. It’s also a tremendously walkable city. It’s remarkably clean and public transit is very accessible. The Japanese people I encountered were also incredibly helpful and kind, and went out of their way to help me when I struggled in little ways in restaurants and shops. Honestly, it was more accessible than where I live, so my complaints are minimal. I just wish Americans would learn to not shove and push on people with mobility issues… but that’s outside the purview of this blog.

Recommended Resource:

“Accessible Japan – アクセシブルジャパン.” Accessible Japan | アクセシブルジャパン, https://www.accessible-japan.com/.

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