A Well-Oiled Machine: “My” Japan

Tour group at Japanese temple
Megan Smith shares her insights into accessible travel in Japan.

When images of Japan post-earthquake and tsunami bombarded us, it made it difficult for anyone familiar with Japan to remember the extreme organization and efficiency of this awe-inspiring nation. Soon after I read a Newsweek article, “Apocalypse Now?”, which said  “Before now, Japan has never been pitied”. 

I found this profoundly moving, not just because as a person with a disability I am all too familiar with the negative connotation of pity, but as a recent guest of Japan, I have experienced the astounding fortitude and fierce independence of this nation. And so I ask you, the reader, to experience ‘my’ Japan and whatever you do, do not pity Japan, admire it for its resilience, complexity and independence.

As a traveler, Japan was a nation of contradictions, whether it was the ancient Shinto temples in the shadows of monumental, Technicolor skyscrapers, the extremely flamboyant style of the Harajuko girls walking along the masses of uniformed Japanese businessmen, or being served green tea with a helping of cigarette smoke.

For me, Japan had the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. The Tokyo trains arrived and left exactly on time, and the station staff would follow me to the train, lay down a ramp and then radio ahead to the station I was getting off at and have a station manager meet me with a ramp.  The hotel, Toyama Sunrise, boasted accessible rooms and restrooms for hostel prices, and while not comparable to the accessibility in the United States, the shops, restaurants and attractions of Tokyo were able to accommodate my wheelchair.

In Japanese culture, an individual’s independence is not as important as the community’s overall wellbeing; as a fiercely independent American woman in a wheelchair, it was difficult to be forced to accept assistance. Even if I could pop up my wheelchair the 2 inches to get on the trains, I still had to use the ramp the white gloved station manager laid down.

I realized in Japan I could not go rogue and figure it out as I traveled—my motto in all the other countries I’d been. But then again, I didn’t need to, because like a well-oiled machine, Japan had the entire infrastructure in place for disabled travelers. And once I figured out the rules and processes, I no longer was a loose bolt in that well-oiled machine.

Interested in traveling to Japan as a person with a disability? Here are my top 7 tips.

  1. Ask for assistance. Even if you do not know one word of Japanese, people are very willing to assist you.
  2. Find an accessible or partially accessible hotel in Tokyo (they exist! - see related links)
  3. Rent a cell phone. You can do this at the airport and, whether you have a disability or not, cell phones are vital if touring Tokyo (they include texting) (Cultural tip:  Never talk on your cell phone in the train!)
  4. Experience Japanese Super-Toilets: Japan has super-toilets which can wash you, dry you, massage you and sing to you. Make sure you press the right button for the right function on the toilet as you may get a surprise. (Usually, these directions are brailled).
  5. Ride the escalators. In Japan many of the escalators in train stations and shopping malls will have a special function which flattens several steps on the escalator, creating a platform where wheelchair users or those with physical disabilities can easily ride up the escalator.
  6. Follow the yellow tactile trail: Throughout Tokyo you will see or feel an extensive tactile ribbed trail which guides individuals with vision disabilities throughout Tokyo, including within train stations. 
  7. Make sure your hotel has a shower or bathtub—not all do! Japanese public baths are popular and mostly inaccessible for those who have physical disabilities, so ensuring you have a Western bathing facility available to you may be key.


Megan Smith