Since returning from Tokyo the most frequently asked question I’ve received has been; ‘how was Japan?’, and after carefully considering my response, my condensed answer is now always; ‘Japan was beautifully unexpected’.
Despite never having prioritised visiting Japan in the past, once I caught wind of the fact that Cathay Pacific UK would be keen to send me to Tokyo to investigate accessibility ahead of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games – I was immediately sold on the idea.
Due to not being terribly au fait with all things relating to Japanese culture, the result meant that I had the blissfully beautiful experience of discovering Japan’s richly diverse traditions from a place of genuine curiosity and learning. From the moment I landed my senses were instantly bombarded with all manner of delights.
There are a few positive stereotypes that I’d heard about Japan and these mostly (if not entirely) turned out to be accurate. For example; Tokyo is indeed an unfathomably clean city. The mind boggles when trying to consider that 13 million registered inhabitants across an insanely busy megatropolis can keep their city streets so neat and tidy.
Another social cliche that was quickly confirmed was how orderly and polite everyone was. Whether it’s queuing to enter a packed out Metro – or bowing repeatedly as diners vacate restaurants – Japanese folk offer an air of graciousness in an otherwise sickeningly fast paced world.
Even though Tokyo is densely populated, I rarely felt claustrophobic in any way. Naturally there are many famous areas that are extremely overcrowded – such as Akihabara (Electric Town) – but it all adds to the charm of the city and it’s easy to escape the madness.
Before arriving in Japan, I’d become increasingly concerned about just how expensive the country was meant to be. I was really surprised to find that compared to other westernised cities, Tokyo wasn’t actually that pricey at all. To give an example of how reasonable some places were – I ate a mountain of sushi at a random eatery somewhere in the heart of the city and my final bill came to less than £7. It’s hard to verbally contextualise just how much I ate, but the equivalent amount of Sushi in the UK would have cost me in excess of £30!
Many of the activities within Tokyo were actually free of charge, and you can gain a lot of memorable experiences – such as viewing the cities entire skyline at night at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – without having to fork out a single penny.
What to expect in Tokyo in terms of Accessibility
The Tokyo Metro system is enough to turn even the most logical brain into mush. It’s complex, it’s chaotic and it’s anything but straightforward. It obviously goes without saying that as a wheelchair user it’s probably best to try and avoid the Metro during busy rush hour times – although certain lines still remain reasonably quiet.
Not all Metro stations are barrier-free, although I did notice that several of the stations that didn’t have access were undergoing some form of reconstruction in what looked to be access adjustments ahead of the 2020 games.
All of the local buses that I saw around the city had ramps and spaces for wheelchairs which was good to see, however, the coach from Tokyo to Mt Fuji was not accessible at all and my wheelchair had to go in the under-carriage with all the luggage. I’m fortunate enough to be able to get myself up onto a coach via the steps, but I know for many this would be nigh-on impossible.
Accessible taxi’s – that are usually used for local disabled people within the city – can be chartered for sightseeing purposes. Regular taxi’s that operate throughout the city are usually old and small and may not be suitable for accommodating a wheelchair user.
During the ten nights I spent in Tokyo I stayed in a wide range of accommodation types, from hotels and hostels, to couchsurfing and AirBnB. The latter offered an insight into the lives of local people, and I was impressed to find that a great number of AirBnB listings in Tokyo were moderately suitable for wheelchair users in the respect that they were often open plan and with elevators within the buildings.
All of the hotels I stayed in within the city centre of Tokyo were fully accessible, with disabled friendly rooms available and lifts, automatic doors and ramps at the entrance all in place to make your stay as easy as possible. Japan is famous for convenience and ease of living and this certainly extends into the field of accessibility.
I was pleasantly surprised by how affordable many of the hotels within Tokyo actually were. Compared to other major cities such as London, New York and Hong Kong, the cost of finding a place to stay in Tokyo was very reasonable and you can find a really nice place to stay for as little as £30-£40 per night.
Restaurants, Cafes and Shops
Tokyo is a city made for food, and with that, you’re never short of choices when it comes to restaurants. Contrary to what you might believe, sushi isn’t that easy to come by unless you’re situated next to the sea. The likes of Ramen and Katsu Curry being the main stables in Japanese cuisine and can be found just about anywhere you go. Although some of the restaurants were a little on the small side, I never had too much of a problem finding somewhere to sit that was accessible in my wheelchair and it was surprisingly easy to find restaurants that had toilet facilities for the disabled.
It was a similar story with many of the cafes and shops that I visited – often the buildings would be narrow with not a great deal of room to get around, but fortunately for me there was never really any instances where I became stuck. Add to this the naturally kind nature of Japanese people and I was never too far away from being granted some greatly welcomed assistance.
Recommendations on what to do in Tokyo…
I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find enough activities to fill all the time I was planning to spend in Tokyo – but boy how I was wrong. There is no shortage of things to do in this great city – so here are just a selection of the things I got up to – all of which were perfectly fine for me in my wheelchair.
Less than a couple of hours by train or bus from Tokyo and you’re suddenly face to face with one of the most famous mountains in the world – Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the mountain is hidden above the clouds, but when I spent a night at the base of the mountain I was lucky enough to get full views of this majestic volcano and take in all of it’s gigantic beauty.
One of the major tourist attractions within Tokyo is the phenomenally beautiful Meiji Shrine which seems to appear out of nowhere deep in the heart of the city. The peace and tranquility that the shrine offers is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding busy streets.
The shrine offers plenty in terms of walks and nature trails, with the obvious attraction of stumbling across ancient religious monuments and temples. Of course, the shrine itself is quite overcrowded as it is one of the most popular tourist areas in Tokyo.
Senso-Ji offers a fantastic opportunity to indulge in a spot of memorabilia shopping as well as it being yet another fantastically awesome temple. If it wasn’t for the throngs of tourists, Senso-Ji would be a very relaxing setting for one to enjoy searching for a little bit of inner peace.
Here’s a piece of advice – if you enter the tourist information office opposite the walkway to Senso-Ji, you will find the most amazing lookout tower and cafe, with the best views of the sprawling magnificence below you.
For an awesome view of Tokyo’s skyline, I recommend visiting Tokyo Tower. There is a small fee to go upstairs via lift to the lookout decks but it is totally worth it and you can even enjoy something to eat and drink whilst you marvel in the horizon and the epic living portrait that infiltrates and energises your eyes.
The tower has almost a striking resemblance to that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and it’s grandiose presence is only bolstered by the fact that Tokyo Tower is the second tallest building in the whole of Japan.
Imperial Palace Gardens
The Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo dominates a vast section of the cities landscape, covering a hefty chunk of land enclosed by a walkway that tops 5 km. On any given day you will see hundreds of runners running around the outskirts of the gardens, making it a popular spot for both locals and tourists alike.
The gardens are extremely well preserved and easy to get lost in. It’s hard to believe that you’re smack bang in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities. The peace and quiet within the Imperial Palace Gardens is astounding.
There is of course the famous Imperial Palace situated inside the gardens, but unless you organise a dedicated tour, you’ll be hard pressed to get anywhere near it (at least from my experiences) unless you head up to the viewing area within the gardens, which requires climbing a crazily steep hill – one which isn’t exactly wheelchair friendly, nor is it good for the hips for those who intend on walking it.
There are a wealth of different activities that you can take part in whilst in Tokyo, and to list them all would be somewhat exhaustive. Needless to say, you’ll never get bored in the Japanese capital, even after spending a couple of weeks there – or even a month or two!
Other notable mentions of things to check out in Tokyo include:
- Sumo Town
- Ginza District
- Tsukiji Fish Market
- Tokyo Skytree
- Tokyo Disneyland
Check the short video below to see a Time-Lapse I recorded whilst taking a ride on the brilliant Yurikamome Line which I can highly recommend. The trains are completely driver-less which gives a really cool dynamic to your ride and means you can also get really close to the front and rear of the train for those perfect shots!
In closing I would like to emphasise once again what an amazing country Japan is. I’m humbled by the fact that despite having no pre-existing hunger to visit, Japan has slotted itself nicely into my top 3 travel destinations – just pipping Vietnam into second place and narrowly missing out on my top spot which is currently held by New Zealand (personal opinions of course)!
I think what I appreciated the most about Japan was perhaps also one of the most subtle aspects of the country. Japan is the first place I have ever been to where I experienced no one staring at me. It probably has a lot to do with the Japanese culture of respect and humility – but it made a refreshing change from constantly feeling judged by the looks that others give me.
I would just also like to take a moment to thank Cathay Pacific for giving me the opportunity to find out more about this fascinating and beautiful country and for placing their trust in me when asking me to write about Tokyo on their behalf. Stay tuned for my comprehensive review of the airlines service – which is coming soon. I also have some great footage of my time in Japan which I am currently piecing together and I look forward to releasing a video on my YouTube channel in the near future.