With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games underway, we are sharing an introductory guide to accessible travel in Japan.
Sure, Japan is packed with culture, the most incredible cuisine, a bunch of must-see attractions and a never-ending list of utterly unique things to do. But with the Paralympics underway in Tokyo, it got us asking… just how accessible is Japan?
The good news? Access in Japan has improved dramatically since 2020 after the release of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities to help combat discrimination. Since then, a nation-wide push for accessibility has seen an evolution in accessible facilities that has made Japan one of the more accessible tourist destinations in the world. Having visited six times in recent years, it is clear that challenges do remain, but everyday things are getting easier. The infrastructure around the Tokyo Olympics has certainly had an impact, but even our own observations are that even out of the way destinations are making steps to remove limits for disabled travellers.
In our introductory guide to accessible travel in Japan, we look at how the country is working towards becoming “barrier-free” for both citizens and visitors.
Accessible transport in Japan
First things first. We need to look at how to get around Japan when you get there. There are an estimated 882 train stations in the Tokyo Metropolitan area alone. The good news is that 96% of them are accessible. In fact, nearly all train and subway stations across Japan are accessible with ramps and accessible bathroom facilities. Some do require assistance, but staff are well trained and happy to assist.
The iconic Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka offers accessible seating which can be booked a month in advance of a trip. Japan Rail (JR) have also removed gap and height differences between the train and platform at Tokyo station to make access easier.
The vast majority of city buses in Japan are non-step or kneeling. Drivers will park as close to the curb as possible and have ramps for wheelchair users. Oddly, airport buses are not as accessible, with multiple steps and access may require prior arrangement. In smaller towns, you may also still encounter older style buses that are less accessible.
While ordinary Taxi’s are plentiful in Tokyo, a growing fleet of JPN Taxis have seats that can be moved to accommodate a wheelchair and one carer, and a ramp tucked away under the seat that can be installed quickly. The accessible taxis also have yellow markings and lights on the floor to assist the visually impaired. Van style taxis with powered lifts are available in major cities across Japan but can be difficult for non-locals to use due to language limitations on their website. However, an amazing service called Wilgo offers accessible, van-style taxis in Tokyo (you’ll need to prebook) and even offers help with access to other services in Tokyo.
If you’d rather the privacy of self-drive, some car rental companies offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles with prices not greatly different from regular vehicles. However, you may need to call to confirm.
Japan’s yellow brick roads make navigation easier for people who are blind and visually impaired. Commonly used in public areas, yellow tactile paving is one of the most widespread examples of barrier-free design in Japan. The yellow tactile paving is a form of street braille with linear ridges indicating where to walk and raised circles indicating stairs or other potential obstacles. Braille is also commonly found in public facilities and on-board trains and even printed on some packaging; however, it uses Japanese Braille Code and requires access to a fluent Japanese reader or someone who understands the rules for Japanese braille.
Sound plays its part too with traffic intersections having audible cues to indicate when it’s safe to cross. Stations and public facilities also offer a variety of sounds and announcements in conjunction with the yellow tactile paving near exits, toilets and braille maps for assisted orientation.
Guide, hearing and mobility dogs
It is law in Japan that any individual with guide, hearing, or mobility dogs cannot be denied access to any facility open to the public. This includes hotels, public transportation, and restaurants. However, some places make them feel more welcome than others.
Who doesn’t love a Japanese toilet with their toasty warm seats and unexpected (and sometimes alarming) bells and whistles? Beyond the bonus warm bum, there are plenty that are accessible with train stations, tourist attractions, public buildings, department stores, larger supermarkets and even parks offering accessible restrooms. There’s even a Check A Toilet app available on iPhone and Android for emergencies, and it’s in English.
When it comes to accessible travel in Japan, one of our very favourite independent tour companies, InsideJapan Tours, provide cultural adventures for all. The Japan specialists, they offer fully tailored travel designed to suit all interests, timeframes and a range of budgets. They specialise in creating itineraries unlike anything else on offer, revealing inside secrets and showcasing attractions that will work for your family, whatever your accessibly needs. Working with Tokyo resident and accessible travel guru, Josh Grisdale, who has cerebral palsy, InsideJapan have made it a goal to continue to provide tours for all people.
InsideJapan’s Harry Sargent says, “With our expert team on the ground in Japan, and our in-depth knowledge of how Japan operates, we open up Japan to all travellers, catering for any extra requirements or needs. Getting around Japan using a wheelchair might look daunting, but with our help you’ll understand exactly how to navigate train stations and you’ll have cars and assistance on hand for those tricky transfers. You’ll fully explore the sights with ease, and relax in well-suited accommodation of all styles – no one need miss out”.
InsideJapan’s 10-night Wheelchair Accessible Golden Route trip is one such adventure taking all the guesswork out of a trip to Japan as it introduces travellers with mobility issues to the very best sights in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and beyond… minus the stress. The tour includes 10 nights’ accommodation in Tokyo, Osaka and even in a traditional town house in Kyoto, transport across Japan including Bullet Train bookings and private guiding with wheelchair accessible transport around Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Nara.
If you’re keen to do it on your own, the Japanese pride themselves on making as many attractions as accessible as possible with a push towards barrier-free facilities. Cities have relatively spacious, dedicated sidewalks, however it is worth noting that some smaller, more traditional towns can have uneven and narrow sidewalks.
Older buildings in Japan tend to have narrow access and interiors which can prove difficult to navigate with wheelchairs, but modern shopping centres, including the towering Tokyo SkyTree, and department stores in large centres such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are wheelchair accessible and include accessible restrooms.
While some of Japan’s famous temples and shrines can be problematic due to steep and/or pebbled pathways, some have adapted to allow access. Tokyo’s must visit Sensoji Temple is wheelchair accessible, with an elevator on the side of the main hall, and Meji Shrine has ramps and elevators. Naritasan Shinshoji is another large temple complex, minutes from Narita Airport, that is wheelchair accessible. Kyoto’s Heian Jingu Shrine has accessible ramps and bathrooms, but gravel pathways can be hard to negotiate. Despite it’s lofty mountaintop setting, iconic Kiyomizu-dera Temple also offer ramps and there is a wheelchair entry via a road behind the main access road.
Most museums too are inclusive with ramps and elevators, and many offer facilities for sensory difficulties. In terms of services, multi-sensory approaches have become common in most museums. Standout museums in Tokyo are the barrier-free Nezu Museum and the Tokyo National Museum, which invites service animals and is not only wheelchair accessible, but offers a unique tactile map for the visually impaired in the educational space in Room 19 on the first floor of the Honkan. The incredible Miraikan (Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) welcomes guide dogs, service dogs and hearing assistance dogs. They also offer a wheelchair rental service, elevators and ramps, accessible bathrooms and wheelchair accessible seating in the Dome Theatre. For visitors with impaired vision there is Braille block guidance. In Osaka, the Osaka Museum of History has accessible facilities and gorgeous Osaka Castle is also completely wheelchair accessible with all floors accessible by lift.
Given public bathhouses are frequented by seniors, floors are generally quite level, but they can still be hard to access in a wheelchair. However, Tokyo’s historic Mikokuyu Bathouse is an exception after a comprehensive renovation. Along with lift access, and lowered water temperatures, there’s a fully accessible family bath on the ground floor that includes a tub with an attached swivel seat and an adjacent bathtub for a caregiver.
Accessible Theme Parks
Accessible travel in Japan also means accesible theme parks. While it isn’t 100% barrier-free,,Universal Studios Japan( USJ) ticks a lot of the right boxes. Access is via Universal City Station which has elevators and an accessible restroom, or the Captain Line, a wheelchair accessible ferry that connects USJ with the Osaka Aquarium. There’s also plenty of parking for wheelchair users. Rental wheelchairs are available, and the park welcomes services animals. Pathways are flat, all restrooms are wheelchair-accessible and most of the shows are accessible. However only a handful of rides are accessible. Sadly, many popular rides, including those in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are not, due to safety issues in the case of an emergency.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea also have an excellent accessibility program. Rental Wheelchairs are available at the gate and a Guest Assistance Card can be applied for upon arriving at the park, though success is not guaranteed without a Japanese disability passbook. Disney Parks also welcomes service animals. Accessible restrooms are located throughout both parks and accessible viewing areas are available at designated shows, parades and theatre attractions. The Tokyo Disney Resort also offers a range of accommodation catering to visual, hearing, and mobility impairments as well to those with developmental disorders.
One of our favourite theme parks is Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a working Edo Period movie lot. Paths are flat and any stairs are equipped with ramps. Along with excellent accessible bathrooms, they have braille and audio guidance and there are guided park tours by local actors.
One of the most important factors of accessible travel in Japan is where to stay. The good news is that there’s plenty of accessible accommodation. Most hotels will have a ‘barrier-free’ accessible room, but they vary greatly in comfort, practicality and style The bad news is that a much-coveted stay in a traditional ryokan is harder as the tatami-matted areas and onsen of the traditional Japanese-style inns are mostly off limits to wheelchairs. There are some exceptions though. One of these is the fabulous Asama Onsen Hotel Tamanoyu in the gorgeous castle town of Matsumoto in Nagano (just under three hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo), where there are several wheelchair accessible rooms with barrier-free open-air baths.
For more detailed information on accessibility in Japan visit Josh Grinsdale’s Accessible Japan – a fantastic hub of information on accessibility in Japan including tips, hotel information, reviews and more.