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A Barrier-Free Welcome

In the second of a 2-part series, we look at how more businesses in Japan are adapting to the needs of the disabled. A hotel on the island of Hokkaido has been transformed to become more accessible to such people.

A man holds a keycard over a sensor to enter his room. The door opens automatically. It's just one way that managers of the hotel are trying to make things easier for disabled guests.

Barrier Free Hotel Asunaro opened in April in Otobe, a town in southern Hokkaido. A company that provides social welfare services bought an old hotel and spent about $5.7 million to give it a makeover. The hotel is now barrier-free.

The lobby has no steps. The bathrooms are spacious. Guests can enjoy a warm soak in the hotel's hot-spring bath. A special wheelchair takes them down a gentle slope into the soothing waters.

A guest says it was worth coming to the hotel, as she liked the bath. Another guest says her mother was able to take a bath without getting out of her wheelchair. She says she hopes more similar hotels will open in Hokkaido.

Members of the hotel staff can use a special wheelchair to evacuate disabled guests if there's a fire or an earthquake.

Hidetoshi Higuchi is the head manager. He sees the expansion of the bullet-train network as a business opportunity -- and a chance to contribute to society. He says they want to offer services that can't be found anywhere else in Japan, and they want to be ready when disabled people from all over the country start taking bullet trains to Hokkaido.

The hotel's hiring practices reflect its social conscience. Twenty of its 31 staff members have disabilities.

Yukie Sato is a waitress at the hotel restaurant. She graduated in March from a school for disabled students. She was nervous when she started working at the hotel. She says she felt uneasy about serving people at first. But after training, she now serves customers with a smile on her face.

Sato wants to grow as a person through her job. Guests like her positive outlook. One of them says she likes Sato, as Sato takes good care of them.

Sato says getting more customers makes her want to work harder to make their stay enjoyable. She aims to keep improving her skills to better serve the guests.

Managers hope to spread the word about the hotel nationwide. They want to make it as barrier-free as possible before the new bullet train service begins.

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