by Lachie O’Brien, Community Networks Coordinator

Earlier in the year, on a nice sunny day, my dad and I hopped on a plane and headed to beautiful Japan. 

Usually when I fly, at every checkpoint I explain to the staff that I want to go all the way to the gate, get in an aisle chair, and have my wheelchair ready at the door of the aircraft when I land. 

This time, my dad suggested that I ask Qantas to move me to the front seat, allowing me to get straight on without an aisle chair. To my delight, it worked! The rest of the flight was nice and cruisy.

We arrived in Tokyo, and then transferred over to Noto, a gorgeous country area in Japan. It was three degrees and there was snow! Brrrrrr! We checked out a nice fish market and then went to our accommodation. Our room overlooked the bay, with large hills in the background – it was stunning! We finished the day with a delicious dinner in a Tatami room (a traditional Japanese room). 

After checking out some beautiful gardens in the nearby Kanazawa, we took a bullet train to Osaka, which I was super excited for! Osaka is known for its delicious street food, nightlife and an incredible castle. We were in Osaka for three days eating delicious ramen, okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake), takoyaki (battered octopus balls, and my personal  favourite), checked out the castle, and pushed for hours around the city.

But, that’s when I hit some trouble. After leaving the bullet train and heading to the bus, I wheelied down a curb, and as I landed I felt a thump. The bolt holding my backrest together snapped, making my wheelchair unusable. It was a blow. I was anxious and stressed, unsure if I’d be able to continue my trip.

Luckily, I came prepared, and have a process in place for issues like this:

  1. Get myself in a safe and stable environment and process what is going on. So, I got assistance getting to my hotel room.
  2. Assess the situation. The bolt is snapped – I need the tool, and a replacement bolt. I have the tool, and I sourced the bolt from hotel maintenance. 
  3. Fix it! I got the bolt, put it together, and tested it for safety. Hey presto! I repaired my Wheelchair. What a relief!

Having been on multiple trips, and having lived with a spinal injury for 13 years, I’ve learned to always come prepared. 

When I travel, I always carry: 

  • Two spare tubes
  • Two tyre levers
  • A mini electronic pump
  • A multi purpose tool that is able to tighten or loosen any bolts/parts on my chair 
  • A thorough understanding of how my chair is built

After my chair was back together, we forged on with our culinary adventure, eventually making our way to Kyoto. I fell in love with the city. The stunning cherry blossoms by the river, seeing a Geisha (which is incredibly rare), eating the best katsukare I have ever had (Japanese style pork cutlet and curry), sake bars, teppanyaki, visiting some awe-inspiring shrines and temples and going to one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to in my life – Kinobu, a Michelin star restaurant. 

The hotel, however, had a very different definition of what accessibility is: there was a big step into the bathroom. Luckily, my upper body strength and transfer technique allowed me to get across to a stool, and then onto the shower chair. Usually, I organise my own accommodation and check the rooms by requesting photos. But this was an organised tour, so I explained my requirements to the organiser: no steps, wide doors, handrails etc. Unfortunately, this was overlooked. 

Lesson learned! Next time I’ll check regardless of who’s organising it.  

After saying a farewell to Kyoto, we headed to our final destination, Tokyo!

Tokyo offered more amazing food, of course. My favourite dish was sukiyaki – thin beef cooked in a soy broth with noodles and vegetables. I rolled 7km around the imperial palace, got some beautiful lacquerware, met some Japanese pop idols at a local sake festival and had an amazing night singing my heart out at Karaoke.

Two weeks just isn’t enough to cover this amazing place! Accessibility was incredible aside from the old hotel I stayed at in Kyoto. At some of the temples, they asked people to remove their shoes, and they tried to provide wheelchair users with another wheelchair, but I managed to negotiate wiping my wheels down thoroughly instead. 

Even though it can be uncomfortable at times, it’s important to be assertive with your requests, on a trip or in general. I find a lot of people don’t understand the importance of independence and what it is we require.

I highly recommend Japan for any wheelchair user, as the Japanese people are incredibly polite and always willing to help – including putting lifts in very old temples.

  • June 12, 2023

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