When our Asian cruise departing from Japan was cancelled and we were left holding our prepaid no- cancellation airline tickets, my wife Meg and I decided to travel around Japan instead. Neither of us had visited Japan before and since my wife is in a wheelchair we were a bit apprehensive. To put our situation in context, my wife uses a power-assist folding wheelchair and can walk very short distances with assistance. This means she can get on and off standard tour buses with a little help.
Our first hurdle was booking accommodation with rooms for the disabled. We usually do our own reservations using the internet but this time it proved too difficult, so we used an agent with experience in this area. It was decided to visit five cities, starting and leaving from Tokyo and using a Japan Rail Pass.
The Japanese rail system proved to be incredibly good. The carriages were spotless and the trains ran on time to the minute. However, if you are using a wheelchair you have to book special seating in advance. The normal doors and aisle access are not wide enough for some wheelchairs as we found out, to our horror. To reserve special seats you must attend the ticket office at least a day before departing and then, if possible, book all your tickets for all the destinations at one time. (Don't forget to take your Japan Pass at all times otherwise the tickets can't be processed.) We made the mistake of not understanding this process and ended up with standard seats and it took quite a bit of work to get them converted once our journey commenced. To the Japan Rail staff's credit and our persistence, the changes were all made satisfactorily.
This experience highlighted the problem of communication, or to be more precise, the lack of it. This is no criticism of the Japanese staff but their English is minimal at best, so trying to resolve a problem such as changing our seats was not easy. (I hesitate to think how a Japanese visitor with no English would fare at the ticket counter of Transperth!) Enter our iPad with an English-to- Japanese translator app.
I was able to compose the problem on the tablet, convert it to Japanese and show the result to the ticket issuer, with a pleasing result.
For inter-city connections, the high-speed Shinkansen or "Bullet Train" is used. Once armed with the correct tickets everything then became a breeze, or nearly!
After we arrived at the station and presented the tickets, a staff member would guide us to the correct platform and rail carriage. He, or she, would have a portable ramp and guide us to the special seating for the person in the wheelchair and the allocated seat for the carer. At our destination we were met once again by an assistant with a ramp and guided to the station exit. All of this was done with no fuss or bother, illustrating once more the locals' kindness and politeness to strangers.
Getting around the bigger cities is remarkably easy. The kerbs, often the bane of anyone in a wheelchair, are low and easy to negotiate. To find a lift in hotels and shops, ask anyone where the "elevator" is and you will be guided appropriately. At most tourist destinations ramps and lifts are provided and the local guides, (and even passers-by), will go out of their way to assist you. In some of the many beautiful gardens access can be a bit difficult and restricted but there is usually enough to see to make little bit of effort worthwhile.
The biggest problem we faced was the handling of our luggage. There didn't seem to be the same porter and trolley arrangement we were used to in European stations and there was very limited storage space in the carriages.
The way around this is to use the very efficient inter-hotel luggage- moving service offered at all the places we stayed. For about $50 we could get our three cases sent to our next hotel destination and delivered to our room. This required a bit of forward planning but it meant that we could travel with a minimum of baggage.
Taxis are plentiful, spotless but expensive. The drivers, who are all Japanese, were in the main very helpful but it is essential that you have your destination written down or clearly indicated on a map.
Using the suburban and underground rail systems was a bit daunting at first but they are well worth the effort when mastered. The Japan Rail Pass will get you on to most rail lines at no additional cost, except the underground where you have to pay. The JR pass will also get you on to certain ferries, such as the one to the remarkable Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. If you are at all unsure of where to go, show one of the staff your destination which they will recognise even if written in English, and someone will be sent to show you the way.
TIPS AND HINTS
There is no tipping in Japan and that includes taxis, meals, hotel staff.
A small computer notebook or tablet is perfect for keeping in touch with friends and relatives since most hotels provide some level of wi-fi free. Some cafes such as Starbucks also provide free wi-fi.
The ABC iView doesn't work but The West Australian, ABC News and other news apps work fine.
Using your mobile telephone can be very expensive. Talk to your service provider to make sure you don't inadvertently get charged for things you weren't aware of, such as downloading maps etc. We used Skype for telephone calls using the free wi-fi in the hotel to good effect.
Nothing is cheap in Japan. Eating out, and especially in your hotel, can be very expensive. Watch out for "over 65" and "disabled" discounts at many attractions, but you must have your passport and Acrod ticket with you.
Since 100 yen very roughly equates to $1, comparing prices to Australian is reasonably easy. Hence 5000 yen is approximately $50. This will obviously be dependent on the current rate of exchange, but it is a good first approximation.
There is no bargaining.