17m 40s

Accessibility in Japan / Old Japanese Architecture

Living in Japan

Broadcast on October 2, 2022 Available until October 30, 2023

Josh Grisdale has spent life with a wheelchair since the age of four. Fascinated by Japan, he decided to relocate from his home country, Canada. Now he runs a travel information website in Japan for disabled people. On our program, he shares information about accessibility in Japan, based on 15 years of experience.
In the latter part of the program, NHK WORLD-JAPAN producer Fukuda Kei explores the allure of old Japanese architecture. He tells us about some of the interesting buildings he’s visited and what he finds so attractive about them.

【Guest】 Josh Grisdale, founder of "Accessible Japan" and "TabiFolk" websites
Jizodo, Shofukuji Temple (Tokyo) Photo by The Folk Museum of Higashimurayama
Sanroden in Sukunahikona Shrine (Ozu, Ehime Prefecture)


Living in Japan. Hello everyone. Thanks for tuning in to our show. I'm Stuart. I'm Ruth.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan, whether you're here now or expect to be here in the future.
We're the place to turn to for tips on making the most of your life in Japan.
Ruth, you've been here quite a long time. Do any places still confuse you?
Are you kidding? Of course. Many places still confuse me. Especially train stations. I always rely on my intuition, and I usually get lost.
I get lost all the time, especially Ikebukuro station. I have no idea how to get out of there.
They add another wing or remodel or a new tunnel.
Or a new shop or something.
These days, the remodeling just isn't about packing in more stores. Some stations are changing to becoming more accessible, installing elevators and ramps and things like that. And today's topic is related to that. It's about wheelchair life in Japan.
Wow, that is really important. And I think it concerns everyone, right? Four years ago, I broke my ankle and I had to rely on crutches for several weeks, and I found out that accessibility can be an important issue for anyone at any time.
Yes, it can be. Our guest today is someone who knows all about that issue. Josh Grisdale moved to Japan 15 years ago, and he uses a wheelchair. He's created a website called "Accessible Japan."
Woo! Glad he's with us. 


Time for hints from Senpai. Senpai is a Japanese word meaning someone with more knowledge or experience than you. Now, each month we ask a Senpai to enlighten us about what he or she has already found out.
Today's Senpai is Josh Grisdale. He works in the IT section of a social service company and runs a website called "Accessible Japan." How great. The website offers travel guides for people who have additional needs in getting around. Josh has visited more than 150 tourist sites himself, so he's got a wealth of information to share. He also operates a forum for accessible travel, for answering questions, and sharing experiences. Welcome, Josh.
Welcome, Josh!
Thank you for having me.
Terrific. It's great that you're here with us. So, tell us, how did you get started with all of this?
Well, yeah, I've moved to Japan about 15 years ago, but I first came here back in 2000. It's over 22 years ago. At that time, there wasn't enough information in guidebooks or on the Internet about accessible travel. So, I want to sort of give back to society and make something that I wish I had back then. I would start off with mostly focused on wheelchair travel, but I got a lot of questions about, you know, Braille, guide dogs, and things I wasn't necessarily an expert on. So, I grew to expand it to cover all sorts of accessibility. And I realized it can help people who have maybe like broken legs, or ankles, like you did, Ruth. So, it's for everybody, especially those that get older as well too.

So Josh, can you tell us why did you choose to come to Japan?

So, yeah, I use a wheelchair. I have disability called cerebral palsy. I've been using a wheelchair since I was four. And when I was in high school, I started taking some Japanese classes, and I really wanted to visit. And I wasn't quite sure how it would work, but my parents really encouraged me that it's important to take that challenge and to just try. So, I came here back in 2000, and I fell in love with the country.
How was it at that time? Was it easy or when you first came?
I was pleasantly surprised. It was better than I had envisioned or had seen in movies or TV dramas, but it still had, if you compare it to today, it had a long way to go, I think.
So, I think probably at that time a lot of wheelchair users may have dismissed a trip to Japan as something that's impossible.
Yeah, it's a word I really don't like that much, "impossible." In Japanese, "muzukashii" or "taihen." Yeah. When I hear that word, I want to do it all the more. I really like to go out on adventures, but, because I have a disability, it means a lot of things I have to research in advance. And I'm a bit of a worrywart as well, so I get as much information as I can, and I thought that that might be helpful for others as well.
That is absolutely fantastic. Do you have any particular recommendations for travel destinations at all?
Well, of course, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka are all quite good for accessibility, so people can get the Golden Triangle covered, no problem, I think. But there's a lot of other places that are sort of not commonly thought of. For example, Tottori, the sand dunes there. Yeah, they have a ramp that goes up to it, but they also have two wheelchairs that you can borrow that have extra-large tires that don't sink into the sand. Or in Okinawa, in Taketomi, there's the accessible water buffalo rides. I actually I've been doing...
Oh, that's so good.
And as you said, a lot of this information is not just for people in wheelchairs, right? Steps are an issue for people on crutches and the elderly. I have a relative who's coming soon who just had a hip replacement, so she has trouble with stairs. You know, I worry about her not being able to walk long distances. So, you know, steps and things like that, it can really sort of make you worry.
In Japan, it's really part of the culture in many ways. And, you know, when you go into a home, there's a genkan, so there's a step up into your house. A lot of old restaurants, kominka, and stuff like that.
Now, usually, of course, people take off the shoes. But how do you do that? Do you just go in with the wheelchair, or is there another wheelchair provided that's inside use, interior use? How does that work?
Yeah, it really depends on the location. I think, example, some of the historical sites, they actually have a wheelchair that they'll provide for you, and you can sort of transfer into that wheelchair to use. Other places I've been to, they'll just wipe off your tires. I've been to one place where they wiped off my tires and they put on little baggies on my shoes, even though they weren't touching the ground. But I've experienced it all, I think, yeah.
So please tell us a bit about the experiences that you've had in train stations so far.
Yeah, I think Japan actually has some of the most accessible train stations in the world, and I've never even gotten lost in one once.
What? Even In the giant ones?
Actually, when you use a wheelchair here, we have a staff member who will guide you. When you go in to buy the tickets, you tell the person to where it is you want to go. They'll take you to the platform you're going to get on, they'll put a ramp down so you can get on the train. And then from there, some people are waiting for you when you get off at your destination or to transfer, and they'll guide you to the exit that you're planning on going to. So, I have never gotten lost. Wow.
Almost all the stations have tamokuteki toilet. It's accessible; it's a multifunction toilet. And not only is it for people in wheelchairs, but there a lot of them have facilities for people who need to use ostomy bags or colostomy, or for people who are nursing babies. So, if you're ever stuck, then I would just say look for the nearest train station.
And my favorite thing is that they are so clean. One of my friends came from the U.S. She's a doctor. And she was taking so long in every single toilet, at every single station we went through. Turns out she was taking photos of all the little like baby seats. And how clean everything is so that she could go back and show it to all her doctor friends. I think it's great.
We have something common then I guess, I think. I take a lot of pictures of toilets.
The thing that I would like to know, though, is how do you get into one of those toilets? How do you get to use one if you're not using the station?
Yeah, well, they're free to use. Of course, you should ask the staff so you can say something like "Toire wo kashitekudasai," or "Toire wo tukaitaindesukedo." Or even if you say toilet, they'll pretty much understand, and they'll let you use that, and they're fine with that. Speaking of words, though, there are some other words that people should be aware of that are a little bit different. For one, "ramp" is not commonly used here in Japan in the same way. We do use the word "suropu," from slope, and if you say "ramp," they might think of a "lamp."
Yeah. There's a light right above your head. What are you talking about?
We've been talking a lot about infrastructure today. What about communicating with Japanese people, Josh?
Yeah, and I've had some really, really great experiences even the first time I came here, which probably influenced me coming back later. I was in Asakusa, and I was trying to find my way into a subway station, and I couldn't find an elevator. So, my friend went down to the station staff and asked, you know, how I can get in. And they said, "Oh, we don't have an elevator." So, we were about to give up. But then they came up with three guys from the station to come and lift me down, and it was too heavy. So, I said, "That's okay, it's okay." But they said, "just a minute." And they came back with six guys to help me down the stairs and, you know, it's such an impactful moment. And I thought, you know, wow, this is a country that really knows about omotenashi. It had a really great impact for me.
Although I find that talking to strangers is not really so common in Japan as it is in, say, the States or Australia or Canada, for example. What do you think of that?
Yeah, I think what people here, yeah, a little bit more hesitant, especially for people with disabilities. They might see somebody in a wheelchair, and they really want to help, but they think, oh, I don't really know what to do because I don't have any experience with somebody in a wheelchair. And maybe somebody who's professional knows more, so, I don't want to make a mistake, so it might just be best to be silent. You know, it's okay to be, you know, when you come to Japan to just… maybe take the initiative and just ask for the help directly. I think everybody will be really eager to help you for sure. And so, they'll be doing that. So, just a good place to start is always to make some eye contact and smile. It's a good way to start.
OK, we've been talking with Josh Grisdale about accessibility in Japan. Josh, if you had one piece of advice to offer to somebody coming to Japan, what would that be?
Yeah, I think my advice would be for people who have disabilities is to make yourself seen. Like, it's really important to change perceptions. So, by just being and doing the things you want to do, by going to the restaurants you want to go to and say, "How can I get in here?" or "Do you have an elevator?" And asking those questions will really help people start thinking about accessibility. Yeah, if the pandemic hadn't happened, I think that a lot of people would have come to watch the Olympics and Paralympics. And it would have been a really great opportunity for people to have cross-cultural communication about these challenges and come up with solutions together. But unfortunately, that didn't really happen. But I'm looking forward to seeing people with all sorts of disabilities come and the impact that will have on Japan in the future.
Yeah. The, the opening of the borders means that people of all different shapes and sizes and conditions get to come to Japan and experience the great place that it is.
And live here. Come live here. Come live in Japan.
It's fantastic.

So, thanks, Josh, for sharing your experiences with us, and for your insights into accessibility in Japan.
Today's guest was Josh Grisdale. Thank you so much for joining us.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.


Now we move on to Good to Know. In this part of the show, we get recommendations for enjoying our lives in Japan even more. Today, Kei from NHK WORLD-JAPAN is here to tell us about Japanese architecture.
Hi, Kei.
Hi, great to be here. I love visiting old buildings like temples and shrines and even stately homes. Do you guys have any favorites of this sort?
I mean, don't even get me started, because I love any kind of real estate so much, and I love Japan. So, of course, I love Japanese-style hotels like the traditional ones, and there are so many to enjoy.
So, if you like traditional buildings, you can't go wrong with the places like Kyoto or Nara. Each was the capital hundreds of years ago, and both are popular tourist destinations. Those aren't the only places to find historic structures, though.
That's right. You could be just walking down one of your local streets, and you can find a temple that may have been there for hundreds of years or what have you. So yeah, there's stuff all around us, as you say, Kei.
Japanese buildings are often made of wood. So, sadly, lots of them have been destroyed in earthquakes or burned down by fire or war. The very existence of those that remains is extraordinary in itself.  Let me mention a few that I particularly like.
Yes, please. Yes, please. Yes, please. Yes, please.
Please go ahead. Yes, please. That sounds fantastic.
OK. Tokyo might seem to be an unlikely place to find old buildings. It's had fires and earthquakes, heavy bombings in World War ll. Despite this, a few historical buildings still exist in our capital, and two of them are designated as National Treasures. One of them is state guesthouse Akasaka Palace.
Whoa, the other day when I walked by it the first time, I was like, whoa, what is this? It really, it's magnificent.  
Now I also wanted to visit for such a long time. And finally, I discovered you can go in now. They have tours in there, guided tours and what have you. So yeah, definitely get in there and have a look if you can.
So, it looks like a palace which you would see in Europe. And it catches your eye, doesn't it?
It does.
It was built in 1909, and these days it's used to welcome foreign guests such as presidents and prime ministers. The other national treasure that I had in mind is less well known: in a suburb of Tokyo, a wooden building called Jizodo. The neighborhood is residential, and not many tourists visit. The building, though, is exceptional. They say it's been standing there for more than 600 years.
600 years.
Usually you can only see its exterior. The austere antique appearance is well worth a look, but I'm told the real beauty is inside. Jizodo is open three times a year. The next time is the 3rd of November.
I like that. I'm told the real beauty is inside. I'm gonna use that next time. Now can you tell us about other parts of the country?
Of course, while I used to work in NHK in Ehime Prefecture, and one of the most famous buildings there is Dogo Onsen, Honkan. It's a public bath that's been renovated several times and preserved in its current form since 1935. You can go inside and have a nice soak in an officially designated important cultural property.
Wow. I bet you, and that means that if you go in there, you're going to feel royal just by sitting in the onsen.
And there are so many others, and let me tell you about my favorite.
There is a building called Sanroden in the southern part of Ehime Prefecture. It’s in a shrine. When I visited 11 years ago, I saw holes in the floor and the ceiling, and until then nobody had been paying much attention to it. But at some point, architects found that the way it was built was very unusual. The building is sticking out from a hill and standing on a slope, and only about 10% of the floor is actually touching the ground. It's quite difficult to get a mental picture of that from a description, so we have posted a photo on the website.
Oh yes, I'm looking at it right now. Have a look at this. There's stilts, right? That's kind of on a slope as you said. It looks fantastic.
It looks like it would be in an anime or something like that, in some kind of anime. What a beautiful building.
It is a beautiful building, yeah.
So, after the community realized Sanroden was something special, people solicited donations and arranged for it to be beautifully repaired. It's now back in use as a site for yoga classes, concerts, and other activities. How amazing is that?
It's such a beautiful building, you know? And it's so unique. That's that's amazing.
Preserving these old buildings is not easy, and unfortunately, many of these structures don't get the attention they deserve and end up being torn down.
Oh, no.
I think this is a huge loss because great architects put their talents into them. And once they're gone, we'll never be able to get them back.
Yeah. That's true.
For me, visiting a building that has been standing in the same place for such a long time is like seeing our country's history.
They are all around, so please go see for yourself.
Ladies and gentlemen, please take Kei's advice, 'cause yes, they are all around. You'll find gems everywhere.
Kei, thank you so much. That was fantastic.
Thank you.
I'm really looking forward to going to the preschool where I volunteer to teach English and looking for acorns with all the kids.
Looking for acorns? Yes, it's October. We have Halloween in October. I spend a lot of time on stage in a big inflatable jack-o'-lantern.
Halloween songs for kids and so on. It's great fun.
If you want to hear today's program again or introduce someone else to it, just head to our website.
Go to the NHK WORLD-JAPAN website, click on "On-Demand," choose "Audio," and select "Living in Japan."
If you have any comments or requests, you can send us a message through the site. We'd be happy to hear from you. We'll be back on November 6th with another edition of Living in Japan.

Program Outline