Moving Around Japan: Wheelchair & Mobility/Vision-Impaired Travel
In some regards, Japan is well-setup for travellers with particular access and mobility needs however not yet adequately addressing that needs of everyone. On this page you will find information about the following:
For further essential travel information, see our ‘Plan Your Visit’ main page.
1 / WHEELCHAIR ACCESS
There is an ongoing push to improve wheelchair access throughout society and the situation is getting better, however it must be said that overall, Japan does not match other developed countries in terms of providing ‘barrier-free’ facilities and services. The ‘Accessible Japan’ website is a good resource for wheelchair access information:
The major issue is space. Japanese streets tend to be narrow and often have no footpath. Buildings including restaurants and traditional guesthouses are also often small and in the case of older buildings, are unlikely to have an elevator. For travellers using wheelchairs, there will be times in Japan when you unfortunately cannot access some buildings and will have to move through streets that are crowded with both people and traffic. Fortunately, most Japanese are courteous and will allow you as much space as they can. Public toilets often include a multipurpose toilet designed for wheelchair access. Amenities inside are designed and positioned for wheelchair-users and are typically easy to use.
Japan’s ageing population has led to a push to improve access across the country, especially public transport. All major train stations will have elevators and some also equipped with stair-lifts and most train services will have at least one carriage – typically the first or last carriage – with dedicated space for wheelchairs. Station staff will usually guide you to the carriage to help you board. They will also ask which station you are disembarking at and someone will then be waiting for you to assist. Shinkansen/Bullet Trains are also equipped with wheelchair spaces however best to book in advance to ensure it is available.
Buses are increasingly equipped to allow wheelchair access. Many lower to the ground as they open their doors with many also now equipped with wheelchair ramps. This is however most common in large cities. Small towns and regional areas are less likely to have these buses yet – despite often being the areas that need them the most – with older/inaccessible buses still in use. This extends to rural/regional stations that are unlikely to have an elevator. Thankfully staff are endlessly helpful and will go out of their way to assist.
Wheelchair access varies greatly across Japan’s countless places of interest. Some are well-appointed and easily accessible while others are sorely lacking. It’s a matter of checking the specific destination to confirm its suitability.
As mentioned above, the major challenge for wheelchair access in Japan is space. This is most pronounced in older areas and buildings, including traditional guesthouses, they are typically small and include staircases and narrow hallways. New hotels are however required to be accessible by law making them your best bet when seeking barrier-free accommodation.
2 / MOBILITY-IMPAIRED ACCESS
Japan’s ageing population means that it is relatively well-setup for mobility-impaired persons of all ages. There is still room for improvement however mobility-impaired travellers will generally have good access to things in Japan:
As the world’s oldest society, Japan is generally well-setup for mobility-impaired people. Most public facilities have elevators and/or escalators, seating, and toilets designed for mobility-impaired people. Transport has dedicated seating while most Japanese are very courteous, and will ensure you are well-looked after. Much-like wheelchair access, the biggest issue will be a lack of elevators in some buildings and inadequate or no separate walking space on narrow streets. In addition, there is no a lack of seating in public spaces in Japan. This is difficult to explain and is inconvenient for many people.
All trains and buses in Japan have seating reserved for mobility-impaired travellers. Anyone can sit in these seats but (in theory) should vacate the seat if someone needs it. Frustratingly, some people choose to ignore these rule and might pretend to sleep rather than offer their seat. Should you need it, don’t hestitate to say something and ask them politely to stand-up for you. It’s the only way that annoying trend is going to change.
Older buses are being replaced by new models that lower to the ground when the doors open and drivers are courteous in allowing passengers time to be seated before moving on. Taxis too will typically be very courteous and get-out of the car to assist you should you need help.
Access for mobility-impaired travellers varies between destinations so it’s worth checking directly with them. Some locations are well-setup while others are less so. Unlike some other countries, most Japanese attractions expect visitors to walk and do not provide any assistance in the form of vehicles or automated travel. Make sure to check in advance.
Many hotels and guesthouses cater to guests with mobility needs including well-appointed bathrooms and railing throughout. Large hotels are best-suited, allowing greater space and modification for mobility-impaired guests. New hotels are required by law to be ‘barrier-free’ including bathing facilities and rooms. Older hotels including many traditional guesthouses may also have updated their facilities in order to cater to older guests. The most likely issue you will encounter at such accommodation is lack of elevators and staircases so it’s best to contact the guesthouse prior to booking, to check whether it is suited to your needs.
3 / VISION-IMPAIRED ACCESS
Japan is well-appointed for vision-impaired access with public spaces and buildings consistently including features designed to assist people move around easily. Braille is in common use however it is based on the Japanese syllabary meaning that it will not aid most international visitors:
Visitors to Japan will quickly notice the yellow tactile paving found in public spaces including train stations and on the streets. The simple system uses two basic patterns – straight bars to indicate the direction of the path and round bumps indicating an intersection of paths or place to stop – which are followed by using a cane. Japanese are mindful of people using the system and allow them space, even on busy streets and in train stations.
Railings, seating, public toilets and other amenities often have braille imprinted on them however it uses the Japanese syllabary making it of use to only a limited number of international visitors. Repeating sounds are often used at traffic lights and intersections, to aid vision-impaired people crossing safely. Japan extends its use of sound to many facilities and public areas to aid in this manner.
Any large train station will be well-appointed for vision-impaired travellers. Using the system of yellow paving stones described above, travellers can navigate themselves through stations to the ticket gates and onto the platform. Most stations do not have a barrier separating the platform from the track meaning that you need to be careful. Thankfully, the rounded bump patterns mark where to wait for the train, safely back from the platform edge. Repeating sounds within many stations also lead you to ticket offices, exits, toilets and other facilities.
Trains and buses have dedicated seating for vision-impaired travellers. While other passengers can sit in them, they should be made available for you once onboard. Seating on many services including Shinkansen/Bullet Trains will also have braille on the seat to assist passengers, while many buses lower to the ground to assist with boarding and disembarking. Drivers are also very considerate and will help when needed and allow passengers time to sit down before moving on.
While Japan’s use of yellow paving stones in public areas is of great assistance, the same system does not unfortunately extend into most attractions which can be challenging to navigate. Large-scale and popular attractions – especially those in large cities – are most likely to have been modified to assist vision-impaired travellers to move around however this does not extend to smaller attractions and especially those outside of major urban areas.
Modern hotels and accommodation will cater best to vision-impaired travellers including ‘barrier-free’ bathing facilities, rooms and access via elevators. Smaller, traditional guesthouses may also cater to vision-impaired guests however it’s certainly best to check before booking. Some older guesthouses cannot be easily modified meaning that many will be not be easily accessible for vision-impaired guests.