Apr 17: Wrap-Up Part One: Wheelchair Accessibility

As you may have already surmised, the vacation is over and demands of our usual lives and my two businesses have taken my attention away from this blog. There are many more things I could write about and many more photos I could post here (I took over 2000 of them, although I did at times make use of the auto-winder mode on my camera) but I’m afraid that it’s unlikely I’ll do so. I probably will put an assortment of photos in this site’s photo gallery at some point, but it will take us awhile to go through them and pick out the best ones.

Over the next few days I’ll post some random thoughts that I haven’t posted previously.


As I’ve described in previous travelogues, one of the challenges we face when traveling in foreign countries (or our own country, for that matter) is the uncertainty of accessibility for the less mobile. Tracie has MS, causing her to have limited agility and limited stamina. In the past we have taken her wheelchair because although she can walk, doing so for any distance wears her out very rapidly. We originally planned to take her chair on this trip but made the pivotal decision to not take it shortly before our departure. The reasoning was that it would be difficult to use a wheelchair in the train stations and crowded and/or narrow sidewalks, while at the places we would most need it there would be chairs available for her use.

Our reasoning turned out to be sound and we were very glad that we did not take her wheelchair. In many cases it would have been nearly impossible to use a chair. The smaller train stations were generally not accessible, so passing through them would have been difficult. The trains themselves would have been difficult to board and maneuver within.

In general, older structures are not accessible, newer ones (say 20 years old or less, at a guess) are. Temples and shrines were often built at the top of hills ascended by a flight of steep and/or uneven stone steps. Entrances to the buildings themselves almost always have a short flight of steps and usually have a 8-10″ high threshold. All of the historic sites we visited had at least one feature that falls into a class of objects which Tracie collectively refers to as “cripple traps.” This is not meant to be a criticism or complaint, just an observation and warning to any would-be visitors to Japan with mobility hinderances of their own. We wouldn’t dream of expecting–or wanting–some centuries-old temple built by Buddhist monks to be remodeled to accomodate wheelchairs. However, if someone tells you that you won’t have any trouble getting around in Japan even though you don’t walk in the usual fashion for the species, they’re either lying or they have no idea what they’re talking about.

On the other hand, all of the hotels we stayed in had accessible elevators with both buttons placed in locations reachable from a wheelchair and audio prompts announcing the arrival at floors and the state of the doors (I think–they were in Japanese, naturally). The larger train stations such as the ones in Tokyo and Kyoto do have elevators although sometimes their location is obscure. I think that the automated ticket dispensers in the stations are low enough to be reached from a chair although I wouldn’t swear to it. The sidewalks in smaller cities such as Takayama are indeed narrow or absent altogether, but the sidewalks in large cities are usually reasonably wide and often flush with the street at corners (probably because bicycles are so common and are allowed on sidewalks). The sidewalks and the floors of train stations have clever textured strips embedded in them to help visually impaired folks find their way around. Some busses and trains have the blue-wheelchair logo on them although you’d have to get assistance from someone before you could actually make use of any accessibility features. In fact, you won’t even be able to board most trains without assistance because of the gap between the train and the platform.

One faintly amusing unanticipated issue: Japanese, generally speaking, are physically smaller than Caucasians. I’m not tall by American standards but I was a bit taller than average in Japan. Tracie was more or less the same size as Tamae. Tamae-san told us that women’s clothing comes in three sizes–small, medium, and large–and that she wears a large. Tracie, on the other hand, is squarely in the “petite” bracket of American clothing. Logically enough, Japanese wheelchairs tend to be small. On one of the occasions that we did borrow one Tracie found it fairly uncomfortable because of the length of her legs. (Well, I found it faintly amusing, anyway. I don’t think that she did.)

I’m quite sure that people in Japan, unlike people in America, would be entirely happy to help someone in need of assistance if they perceived the need. Besides the four or so occasions in which someone stopped and asked us if we needed help finding something when we were gazing around with baffled expressions on our faces (occasions which had nothing to do with Tracie’s mobility), there were several times in which someone offered Tracie their seat on a crowded bus or train when they noticed her cane. (Yes, that’s all it took, one look at her cane. I saw one middle-aged fellow notice our approach from a good distance away on a train platform and vacate his seat on the bench, which happened to be the closest one to us, even before Tracie or I realized that it was where we were likely to want to sit down.) Often they’d insist that I take the seat next to her also even though I’m not any less able to stand than the next average person. But if you were going to navigate your way through Kyoto Station in a wheelchair to meet a shinkansen at a particular time, you’d definitely want to arrive quite early so that you’d have time to both figure out where you were supposed to end up and to find someone who could help you locate the necessary elevator(s) and board the train itself.

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