Visiting the Land of the Rising Sun

by Elizabeth Sharpe on January 1, 2009 - 3:31pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 1
Derek Albietz, pictured here with mom Janet Hartman, took a dream trip to Japan and found few barriers to his power chair. One of their stops was Itsukushima Shrine, the “grand gate” to Miyajima Island.

Below the armrest of Derek Albietz’s power wheelchair dangles an omamori, a Japanese good luck charm he bought in 2005 during a two-week vacation in Japan with his parents, Janet Hartman and John Albietz, and his friend Jacob Brinkmeyer.

The charm is a symbol of a dream come true for Derek, a 22-year-old Seattle resident with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, who has studied Japanese since his first year in high school and has made many Japanese friends in college and on the Internet.

Getting there

The trip began with an 11-hour Air Canada direct flight from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Kansai International Airport outside Osaka.

Derek’s power chair posed no problem on the flight; it went in with the luggage. But the Hoyer lift, used to transfer him from wheelchair to bed, was another story. Air Canada said the lift was too heavy and would need to be transported by air freight, and might take up to a week to retrieve in Japan. Disappointed but not discouraged, the group decided to do without the Hoyer and lift Derek manually when needed.

By using Osaka as their home base, the travelers could take day trips to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Tokyo on the super-convenient high-speed Japan Railways (JR) trains. Before leaving home, everyone purchased a seven-day JR Pass that allowed unlimited usage of JR trains and ferries.

Derek and mom at Kyoto’s Mirror Pond with the famous Golden Temple, painted in genuine gold leaf, in the background.

In planning the trip, Derek compared hotel prices in Osaka via the Internet, then called to ask about room accessibility: the width of the doorway, floor space around the furniture for wheelchair mobility, and the type of bed (platform or non-platform). 

Hotel staff sometimes can make a platform bed compatible with patient lifts by raising the bed off the floor with blocks or pallets, said Thom Tullis, managing director of Travel02, a company that delivers durable medical equipment to travelers in different countries.

But even with Derek’s elementary Japanese language skills, asking specifics about the bed, for example, and if it could be raised off the floor was very difficult over the phone. Derek and Janet sometimes enlisted the help of Japanese friends to make arrangements.

They settled on Hotel Granvia Osaka. The hotel was built above the JR Osaka train station, smack in the middle of Umeda, a major shopping district in Osaka. Talk about easy access.

Getting around

The people in Japan were so helpful, say both Janet and Derek. For example, when taking the train from the airport to Osaka, a station attendant escorted them from the wheelchair-accessible gate to the train. He carried a portable ramp under his arm that he unfolded over the gap between the station platform and the train carriage. The Kansai Airport Rapid Service train from the airport to Osaka took a little more than an hour. When the train pulled to a stop in Osaka, another attendant was waiting outside to unfold a similar ramp.

They encountered similar treatment on all their rail travel, says Derek. If the train track was underground, a station attendant would direct them to the elevator and then to the right train.

Derek spotted several wheelchair-accessible taxis, although he never used them. “In Japan, you walk everywhere,” he explains.  Plus, Japan has a reputation for its relative safety. As big as Osaka is, Derek says he never felt nervous or unsafe. He found the sidewalks easy to navigate, with every curb ending in a curb cut. Signs were written in English and Japanese.

Derek enjoyed wandering around the modern, always bustling city of Osaka.  He window-shopped in the enormous underground mall and explored the Tenjimbashi-Suji, the longest covered shopping arcade in Japan. He viewed the colossal red Ferris wheel — nearly 350 feet off the ground at the top — that is set on top of and twirls through the HEP Five shopping center.  And he sampled takoyaki, a battered and fried ball filled with octopus, covered with sauce and katsuobushi, or fish flakes.

He also explored one of Osaka’s most famous landmarks, Osaka Castle, which even had an elevator. The current structure is a replica of the lavishly decorated original built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi more than 400 years ago, in an age of samurai and feuding shoguns, or military overlords.

Visiting “old” Japan — Kyoto

Derek’s friend Shunsuke, whom he knew from the community college they both attended in Washington state, met the group at the train station in Kyoto and showed them around.

Kyoto was once the capital of Japan. Since it was spared the bombs dropped during World War II, buildings in Kyoto date back hundreds of years to a much older Japan. Shrines and temples are everywhere. One of the best known is the Golden Temple, or Kinkaku-ji, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Built next to Kyoko-chi or Mirror Pond, the temple is covered in genuine gold leaf.  Derek found the wide path winding around the pond and Golden Temple easy to travel by wheelchair, save for the number of tourists exploring the same route.

Around Kyoto, the group traveled on public buses with wheelchair-accessible ramps, which ran the same routes as other buses but less frequently. Timetables noted when these buses were scheduled.

Before heading back to Osaka, the group went for dinner at a kaiten-zushi restaurant, which had a rotating sushi buffet. Various types of sushi came around on a conveyer belt above the counter where customers sat.  They pulled what they liked off the belt and ordered what they didn’t see. 

Touring the Japanese way — Miyajima

Toko met them in Hiroshima. She was eager to show them an island called Miyajima frequented by Japanese tourists.

Derek knew Toko from one of the online chat rooms he used to practice his Japanese. Most of the chat rooms were text-based (written conversation) but, with some friends, Derek also communicated live using Web cams and microphones.

From Hiroshima, Toko took them by train to Miyajimaguchi Station, where they all boarded a ferry to Miyajima.

Miyajima means “the Shrine Island.” One of the most photographed shrines in Japan, the Itsukushima Shrine, is found on this island. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the otorii, or grand gate, was built in 1168 and appears to float at high tide. 

Derek took pictures of the deer that roam freely on the island, mingling with tourists. In Shinto, a religion native to Japan, deer are considered sacred messengers to the gods.

However, Derek became wary when one of the four-legged sacred messengers started to nibble on his drive stick.  Neither he nor his mother wanted a problem with the wheelchair, especially after the initial difficulty they’d had finding a Japanese-voltage version of the battery charger for his power chair.

Because they worried the U.S. version of the charger wouldn’t work in Japan, Janet decided to play it safe and find a Japanese version.  But tracking one down wasn’t easy. After several phone calls, the U.S. wheelchair manufacturer eventually was able to locate a Japan-based office. Derek asked a friend fluent in Japanese to translate. The Japanese company had never had someone call them directly from the U.S. with a similar request, and so the company arranged to deliver a charger to their hotel room free of charge to use in Japan. (Otherwise, the voltage in Japan — 100 volts — wasn’t a problem for their other electronics, including the digital camera and laptop.)

Skyscraper central — Tokyo

The last day-trip was Tokyo. Keiko, another friend Derek had met online, met them in Shibuya. One of 23 wards in Tokyo, Shibuya showcases trendy fashion and the most-talked-about crosswalk in Hachiko Square. Crowds of pedestrians scramble across the street while above them television screens cover whole building facades and flash advertisements day and night.

Derek had fun browsing cheap knock-offs and trinkets in the department stores and markets, including a famous one called the Ameya-yokocho street market or Ameyoko for short, where black market goods were sold after World War II and where international goods can still be bought at bargain prices.

Karaoke, a favorite pastime in Japan, was next on the agenda. Private karaoke “boxes” or rooms rent by the hour. Unfortunately, they had to look at several before finding one that Derek could access. Typically small, the room was furnished with a couch, table, karaoke machine, TV screen, and a phone for ordering food and drink. 

Keeping in contact

Back home again, Derek is now a junior majoring in Japanese linguistics at the University of Washington. Speaking a second language and “being able to understand other people,” says Derek, “makes us [Americans] not have such a selfish perspective.”  He says another big plus is “being able to hang out with people all over the place.” He keeps in contact with Japanese friends online through MSN Messenger and Second Life, and a few have visited him in Seattle, letting him take his turn as tour guide. 

But he’s serious about where his Japanese studies will take him, too. He hopes one day to become a translator.

He acknowledges that “there are good things about the Western culture and good things about the Eastern culture.”  But his predilection for all things Japanese goes deeper, Derek explains. Because in Japan, “they took the best things from both sides and put them together … the modern and traditional together."

Elizabeth Sharpe is a freelance writer living in Seattle.


No votes yet
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy