Kansai proves no barrier to travel

by Suzanne Kamata

Special To The Japan Times

Having planned a family trip from our home in Tokushima Prefecture to Kobe and Osaka, we packed our 14-year-old daughter’s wheelchair in the car and took the highway to Awaji Island.

By flashing our daughter’s red techo (an identification card for individuals with disabilities available to those covered by the National Health Insurance), we were able to get a 50 percent reduction on highway fees on the Kobe Awaji Naruto Expressway. Two hours later, we were in Kobe, the sixth-largest city in the country.

Our first stop was Glicopia, the headquarters of Glico, maker of popular snacks Pocky and Pretz and our favorite brand of instant curry roux, among other things.

The gleaming white compound is located in an industrial park, which hardly sounds attractive, but as soon as we got out of the car, the caramel-scented air enticed. There were hardly any cars in the parking lot on this cold, sunny morning.

When we entered, a young woman guide with impeccable makeup and hair ushered us inside and invited us to look around the lobby. There was a display of Glico inventions and accomplishments, along with photos of the many domestic celebrities who have endorsed its products.

Before the start of the factory tour, we were invited to view a short film about chocolate. Luckily for my daughter, who is deaf, the Glico-produced movie was subtitled in Japanese. As there was no information available in English — or any language other than Japanese — I’m assuming that few foreign visitors find their way to Glicopia, which is a shame. After all, it’s fun, educational and cheap.

The factory was, however, prepared to accommodate my daughter’s wheelchair. We were ushered to an elevator while everyone else in our group took the stairs to the fourth floor for the start of the tour.

Although the guide didn’t use sign language, my daughter could pretty much understand what was going on by observing the action on the conveyor belts — the dough going into the cutter, the baked sticks coming out of the oven, the sticks going into packages and a robot making cartons. Signs hanging over each station also gave simple explanations of what was going on in Japanese. On our way out, we were given a gift bag with Pretz and Pocky packets.

Our next stop was Osaka Castle, the former abode of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the man who unified Japan. No longer a residence, the castle, about 67 km from Kobe via the Hanshin Expressway, is now a museum housing artifacts from the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Surrounded by a moat and a park, the 1,250 plum trees and 4,500 cherry trees also make it a prime spot for blossom-viewing in spring. In autumn, the Osaka Castle Chrysanthemum Festival also takes place there, but, unfortunately, our visit didn’t coincide with any blooms. Nevertheless, the sky was blue, the sun shone and the white-colored Osaka Castle, with its black and gold trim, was an impressive sight.

Although my husband inquired about parking for people with disabilities, we had to walk some distance. Once at the castle, however, we bought tickets from a vending machine and were ushered to an elevator at the back, which was operated by a middle-aged woman.

Assessing that we were an international family, she addressed us in English at first, then switched to Japanese when she heard us speaking in that language. After I signed a few words to my daughter, our attentive elevator operator then also did the same, to our daughter’s great surprise and delight.

We were all impressed by this woman’s multilingual skills. She told us that visitors come from all over the world, so she had to be prepared. She knew some Chinese and Korean, too.

My twin 14-year-old son, who’s a big history buff, enjoyed the exhibitions at the castle about the lives of the shogun. We took in the displays of armor, scrolls and swords.

Venturing on to the eighth-floor deck, wheelchair and all, we took a closer look at the golden shachi (dolphin-shaped fish) decorating the roof and the panorama of the city below. There were at least two other wheelchair users touring the castle at the same time.

Before leaving, we posed in costumes in front of the crouching golden tiger on the second floor. By this time, we’d worked up a rapport with our friendly elevator operator. My husband showed her the photos we’d taken of my daughter with a samurai helmet, so big that it fell over her eyes. She and my daughter exchanged goodbyes in sign language, and we were on our way again.

There was still some light left in the day, so my husband suggested a cruise by water taxi for a different perspective of the city. After a quick inquiry, we discovered that there was a landing point nearby, so we hurried there on foot and wheels.

Unfortunately, the water taxi was not accessible by wheelchair; there were only steps, no ramp. But having come this far, we didn’t want to miss the boat (pun intended), so we boarded behind a Chinese tour group, my husband carrying our daughter to her seat. Over the loudspeaker, a taped voice narrated the sights along the way between selections of American pop music, circa early 1980s.

By the time we got off the boat an hour later, dusk had fallen. My husband and son went to get the car, while my daughter and I waited on the sidewalk, across from a train station. I saw a woman in an electric wheelchair cross the street, zoom up the ramp leading to the station and enter the building, presumably to board a train with equal ease.

As the voice on the boat’s loudspeaker had reminded us, Osaka is called “The Country’s Kitchen.” Long known as a culinary heaven, we were sure we’d find something good to eat in the city. We drove to a residential district in search of food delights. Spotting a shopping center housing a variety of restaurants, we ended up with a “B-grade gourmet” meal.

My son had been craving okonomiyaki, so we found a restaurant, Fuugetsu, serving just that. Once seated, the waitress brought us menus in Japanese and English. When she came back to the table, and having noticed our mode of communication, she signed to my daughter. The service, at least, was certainly A-grade.

With plans to visit the highly-accessible Universal Studios Japan the next day, we booked accommodation at Rihga Royal Hotel Osaka, about 10 minutes away by car. On previous visits, we’d stayed in an official Universal Studios hotel, within walking distance of the amusement park. But by choosing off-site accommodation, we managed to save several thousand yen, while staying in an equally-swanky hotel.

This would be our fourth family visit to Universal Studios since its opening in March 2001.

We had liked visiting the park, because we’d found it was one of the most disabled-friendly attractions in Japan. Our daughter was allowed a discount at the gate and with a special guest pass she (and the rest of us accompanying her) were not required to wait in long lines.

Happily, the park had become even more accessible since our last visit. The “Jaws” ride now allowed wheelchairs, as did the “Amazing Adventures of Spider Man” ride — something that was not previously possible, much to the disappointment of my daughter at the time.

Upon reflection, I’d rarely seen so many wheelchair users out and about in such a short span of time. We’d run into a few bumps, it was true. However, Kansai is truly showing signs of becoming barrier-free.

Finding enlightenment at Happiness Village

On a previous trip to Kobe, we visited Shiawase no Mura (Happiness Village) — a sprawling government-funded complex, featuring training and treatment centers for individuals with disabilities as well as a wide range of recreational facilities.

Far from institutional, we found the central lodge to be a welcoming Mediterranean-inspired yellow stucco building with a tiled roof.

The wheelchairs parked outside the tennis court were the only indication that this was no typical resort. Although we’d only dropped by for a bit of horseback riding, we wandered around the grounds for future reference.

All of the facilities are open to both disabled and able-bodied visitors. The hot-spring health center includes a swimming pool and jungle spa, while an orchard, campsite, lawn bowling green and archery range are other facilities on offer. Seniors and people with disabilities can stay overnight at the Tanpopo no Ie (Dandelion House) at a discount.

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