Every year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) selects a theme for World Tourism Day on the 27th of September. The theme selected for 2016 was ‘Tourism for All’ or ‘Universally Accessible Tourism’. It is the mission of ‘Accessible Tourism’ to make the joys of travel accessible to all citizens – including but not limited to those with disabilities, senior citizens and families travelling with young children.
The tourist organization ‘Trip Designer Co. Ltd’ offers a “barrier free” tour of Tokyo for overseas visitors, a tour in which I personally participated. This tour was established so that wheelchair users could enjoy sightseeing without difficulty. On our tour was Barry Joshua Grisdale, representative and editor of the ‘Accessible Japan’ website. The licensed interpreter-tour guides who conduct the tour all have certifications in care work and are versed in the management of serious disabilities. So… in terms of accessibility, is Tokyo qualified to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games?
The first stop on our tour was the district of Asakusa. Asakusa enjoys pride of place as one of Tokyo’s most popular sightseeing destinations. Seeing as it is an area rich in history, I harbored doubts as to whether or not the area would be wheelchair accessible. We travelled to the seat of Asakusa Tourism, the ‘Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center’. The top floor of this building is a routine sightseeing spot from which visitors can admire an unbroken view of the district. Of course, it is also possible to see the Tokyo Sky Tree from here. For safety purposes, the safety railing has been set at a tall height, making it somewhat difficult for wheelchair users to appreciate the view.
After the Tourist Center, we headed toward the symbol of Asakusa, Senso-ji Temple. The main gate, ‘Kaminarimon’, famous for its gigantic red paper lantern, did not present any access problems for wheelchair users. Nor did the tourist shopping street located within the temple grounds. Upon leaving the lively shopping area, the spectacular figure of the main temple building appears right before your eyes. Beneath the stairway entrance to the main building, we saw a number of baby strollers and wheelchairs crowded around what turned out to be an elevator. Noting that the elevator was positioned at the back of the main building, we learnt that it had been specifically designed so as not to interfere with the traditional landscape of the temple.
Having reached the main temple, of course you can look around or pay your respects. On our tour that day there was a special guest amongst our number – the wheelchair racer Kazumi Nakayama, Japanese representative of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Ms. Nakayama was surprised that she was “able to come so far” into the temple, and her words left a deep impression on me. I was left thinking that perhaps many people are unaware of the existence of the elevator and thus are dissuaded from visiting.
After we had finished lunch, we headed for Shibuya via the subway. I was happy to discover that all Tokyo Metro stations provide wheelchair assistance. The station workers employ wheelchair ramps and assist with boarding and disembarking.
Having arrived at Shibuya, we traversed Tokyo’s famous ‘Scrambled Crossing’ (a crossroads where traffic lights allow pedestrians to cross in any direction simultaneously). This ‘scrambled crossing’ has become representative of modern-day Tokyo. We then window-shopped along ‘Cat Street’ before proceeding to the final stop on our tour, Meiji Shrine.
At the end of 2016, the gravel path leading to the main shrine building was completely paved over. Seeing as it was (and still is) the sole point of entry, wheelchair users and those with limited mobility were previously forced to walk over gravel, or stones, known as ‘Tamajari’. Stepping over tamajari is thought to purify the bodies of worshippers before they enter the temple. Therefore, while the reformed path provides (literally) a much smoother means of access, the proposed modifications initially generated much controversy. I realized what a difficult balancing act it must be – maintaining tradition while promoting an accessible environment.
Disability/Limited Mobility Access in Tokyo
For the duration of this tour, we had ample opportunity to inspect the toilet facilities. According to Mr. Grisdale, “Japanese toilets are ‘daredemo’ (multipurpose) toilets that can be used by anyone. In this way, they are streets ahead of other countries. However, it’s unfortunate that the toilets are not constructed according to any unified, set criteria. This means, depending on the toilet area, there will be different facilities available”.
As it happened, we did not need to use stairs or an escalator on the tour even once. To be honest, I originally thought it would be impossible to travel from Shibuya to Harajuku without the use of stairs. However, it was often difficult to find where the elevators were located and the resulting detours proved somewhat inconvenient. The tour itself was all very much smooth-sailing. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that this ease of travel was vitally dependent on our guides’ knowledge of accessible routes. In the end, I felt that the goal of universally accessible tourism could not be achieved by providing ‘accessible’ equipment alone. Rather, from experience, I can attest that the support of real people is absolutely essential.
At the time of the 2020 Paralympic Games, it is estimated that in excess of 7000 wheelchair users will attend the games every day. In order for everyone to enjoy the sights of Tokyo, more work is needed to make the city truly ‘barrier free’. Moreover, it is necessary to raise international awareness of the access facilities available in Tokyo.
With the Cooperation of Trip Designer Co. Ltd.