The next morning we woke up at 5:00 am Japan time, which was 3:00 in the afternoon back home. We were up and ready to explore Japan for the first time. We got ready and we left our room at 6:00 am with Scarlett pushing me in my wheelchair and with a traveling wallet around my neck containing our cash, passports, and credit cards. It looked pretty barren outside, nothing was open and there were barely any people walking around. Once outside the first thing we saw was a big KFC building (we used this as a location marker for the first few days). The weather outside reminded us of Houston’s weather, hot and humid. The sidewalk was lined with bikes, some locked up while others weren’t. This didn’t surprise me given that the crime-rate in Japan is so low, although I have heard that the most frequent crime is bike theft, which, after seeing the setup, was no surprise why. Since there were so many bikes I had no worry about the sidewalks being accessible, but the accessibility of buildings was another story. As we walked, sadly to say, some of what I read online seemed like it might be true, most of the buildings we passed had at least one step to go inside and no ramps. Since nothing was open yet I couldn’t really get a real idea about the accessibility inside.
After walking around for about 10 minutes we saw a vending machine for drinks on the corner of the sidewalk. We rushed over to it, eager to try our first authentic Japanese beverage. My first instinct was to buy each drink to try them all, but realizing that we forgot my straws (I packed a box of straws just in case) at the hotel room, my selection was limited to only bottled drinks. The difference in the grip and the mouth opening makes bottle drinks much easier for me to drink from than cans if I am not using a straw. There were 2 main drinks I couldn’t wait to try on this trip, Japanese milk tea and Japanese green tea. Seeing that the vending machine had milk tea in a can and green tea in a bottle, I got the green tea. After highly recommending the milk tea to Scarlett, she got that. Both happy with our choices, we stood there drinking our drinks, blown away at the fact that we were no longer in the states. As soon as we finished drinking, we continued walking around a little bit more. Just about every few minutes we saw a vending machine with mostly different drinks in each one. Me, worried about my usual bathroom dilemma, resisted the urge to buy something from each one, we just peeked in every vending machine we passed looking at all the different kinds of drinks. At around 7:00 am seeing nothing was opening, we decided to head back to the hotel. Being that we were headed back to our hotel room, supplied with straws, I bought 2 canned drinks, milk tea and something new to try while Scarlett got a water and another milk tea.
When we got back to the hotel room I messaged a pen pal I had communicated with ever since I knew I was coming to Japan, who lived in Osaka to see when things normally opened. After she responded saying 10:00 am, we decided to just eat at the hotel restaurant again since we were starving. I was hoping the selection might have been more culturally traditional for breakfast. My hopes failed me; it was a buffet serving American breakfast, but we were given traditional hot green tea to drink which made me happy while I ate a croissant, eggs (sashimi style, finger food), and sliced up fruit as my second meal in Japan. After eating we went back to our room to plan out the day.
Before leaving for Japan we bought a guidebook specifically for Osaka. Both looking in the book and online we decided to check out Namba, a popular shopping district in Osaka. I checked out the location of it on my newly bought ipad and saw it was a straight shot from the hotel, either a 20 minute walk or a 3 minute train ride. We opted to walk for many reasons, the main reason was we just wanted to explore.
We left our room around 9:30 bringing my silverware set and a couple of straws with us. This time there was a bunch more people walking outside with a few stores opened. While we walked to Namba I just looked around and stared in amazement at being in Japan; it was a dream come true. The more we walked the more lack of accessibility we saw. Given the inaccessibility I began wondering again how I was going to be viewed and/or treated throughout this trip. And the prospect of me actually living there one day was diminishing right before my eyes. When we arrived at what seemed to be Namba, it wasn’t quite ten yet so we went in to a little café conveniently located at the entrance of the shopping strip. Luckily the café was accessible to get in to it. We were greeted with a polite ‘irasshaimase’ (welcome) by the staff as we walked in. Since it wasn’t crowded we both took our time looking at the menu and we both ordered milk teas. To our surprise they weren’t sweetened at all, but they came with something called “Gum Syrup” to use as our sweetener. As we sat in the café drinking, we could tell outside was getting livelier.
Finished, we walked outside, turned and we saw two rows of shops on each side of us stretching as far as we could see. This area seemed to have better accessibility, fewer buildings had steps. Ten minutes of walking we approached a crosswalk with massive advertisements on buildings, unlike we have ever seen before. The shops continued and the second section had a gigantic multiple story H&M store which was the first store we went in to, unfortunately due to not finding an elevator we just strolled around on the 1st floor.
The second store we went in to was a small shop that sold kimonos; we were greeted by a girl who could understand and speak a little English. We asked her where the kimonos were and she took us in the back where they were. Scarlett and I looked around for a minute and then the girl came back with a book. She started showing Scarlett some of the kimonos. Given that she was talking to Scarlett I started to zone out, half-way listening and looking downwards. Admittedly, this is something I need to work on; it is my defense mechanism a lot of the time to avoid awkwardness when I’m in my manual wheelchair since people often talk to the one pushing me and avoid talking to me. But this experience was totally different, after showing Scarlett the kimonos she came over to me and asked if I wanted to see or try on any kimonos for guys. Stunned she was talking to me so nonchalantly; I perked up and snapped out of my ‘shy mode’. We left the store soon after she showed me a few kimonos with only purchasing a fan.
We continued walking through the strip some more, and approached yet another crosswalk with even more shopping following. In this section we passed by a shop that sold art prints with two stacks of some sitting on a table outside. Being that Scarlett’s major is art, we had to stop and thumb through them. We were standing there for a good 7 minutes just flipping through and admiring all of the prints. Then all of the sudden the owner of the store came out with a chair for Scarlett and then went back inside behind the counter. At this point we were at loss for words; we just started laughing uncontrollably at the kindness of the owner. We sat there looking for 5 minutes longer and then Scarlett wanted to move inside. After noticing the aisles were too narrow for my wheelchair, I told Scarlett that she could go inside if she just parked me somewhere out of the way. Reluctantly, she parked me off to the side of the store, and went inside while I waited. A few seconds after Scarlett went inside I noticed the owner coming outside again, He came over to me saying it was too hot outside and I agreed. He then pushed me over to where Scarlett was, pushing stuff out of the way in order to make room for my wheelchair. Once he got me inside beside her he returned to sit behind the counter. We stayed inside for about five minutes then exited the shop with the owner once again helping Scarlett steer me out of the tight place. We left expressing our gratitude towards the owner saying a whole bunch of ‘arigatos’ and bowing.
We continued walking down the strip in disbelief of how kind everyone was. We finally reached the end with the jet lag getting to the both of us. We decided to make our way back to the hotel. On our way back in the strip, we passed by a cart with sweets which I had to buy something at. Not knowing what anything said or was I just randomly chose and bought something. What I bought looked similar to mochi balls which I have had before, but these were much bigger and came in a case of 6. We managed to get back at the Sheraton at 2:30 and took a nap until 6:30 in the evening.
When we awoke from our naps we weren’t that hungry since we drank a ton of liquid throughout the day from the vending machines that were all over the place. I was eager to try my sweets I bought though; I tried one. After realizing that I was happy with my pick I decided to save the rest for later. We noticed it was starting to get dark outside so we figured we would stick to what we knew and started walking towards Namba again. It was much busier compared to the morning, most everything was opened. Once again I was amazed that I was in Japan seeing everything in Japanese and just witnessing the Japanese culture around me; I was in heaven.
Reaching Namba, Scarlett saw some café advertising New York style pancakes so we went in. Not being hungry I didn’t order anything to eat. We both ordered milk tea which was served as a teapot with hot tea with milk on the side. Not having or finding a straw I had to use one we brought with us (probably had one if we asked). I was stuck very awkwardly drinking from a teacup with a straw with the added awkwardness of using one we brought. We left with Scarlett disappointed with the pancakes and both of us disappointed at the way our milk tea was served.
We began walking around Namba, after noticing some of the stores were closing and the crowd was starting to die down even though it was only 8:00 pm. We started to meander out of the main Namba strip heading in the general direction of our hotel. Not having any sense of direction I was clueless to whether we were headed in the right direction, but Scarlett seemed like she did. About 25 minutes of heading in one direction, we finally concluded we were lost. We ended up asking a guy for directions, but either due to the language barrier or the fact that he just didn’t know where the Sheraton was he wasn’t much help.
While continuing to walk, we passed by 3 girls with a bike. We debated whether or not we should stop them and ask for directions again. Finally we decided to ask, but by then they were a bit behind us. Scarlett asked me what was ‘excuse me’ in Japanese again which was one of words I taught her on the plane ride. I told her ‘sumimasen’, she turned around and said ‘sumimasen’ loudly where they could hear her. They stopped and turned around, both Scarlett and I were amazed that it worked.
We walked towards them and asked them if they knew where the ‘Sheraton Miyako Hotel’ was. One of the girls seemed like they knew what we were asking and where it was by clarifying ‘the business hotel?’ With it clarified they told us that they would take us there. We were told that it was a 30 minute walk. Shocked that we had walked that far, we just started laughing at ourselves, grateful that we got their attention by ‘sumimasen’. They seemed to be around our age and in college. At the beginning of our journey with them we were told that one of them was taking English classes in school. They asked us how we got to where we were. I tried to respond in Japanese, my first real attempt at communicating in Japanese, but they couldn’t understand me (I’m thinking to myself, crap, my Japanese isn’t understandable). Scarlett on the other hand used English to say ‘walking’ and they understood her. They replied by saying ‘sugoi, sugoi’ which means wow, amazing, incredible, or awesome. We mainly walked behind the girls, but at times the girl who was learning English would fall back to talk to us, rotating. Throughout escorting us they were singing karaoke-like and just having a good time walking.
All of the sudden the girl fell back and pointed to her friend saying,”Professional singer.” The girl she pointed to turned around and started laughing so we did the same thinking they were just having fun and wanted to poke fun at each other since all three of them were singing. Not, but a minute later the ‘professional singer’ began to belt out a beautiful old timey traditional Japanese song. Shocked with disbelief we listened with complete awe. Near the end of the song the other two girls chimed in as background singers. It was absolutely amazing, when they finished we were both stunned and didn’t know whether we should applaud loudly or just acknowledge how incredible it was to ourselves. We picked the latter of the two, looking back on it, we should have tried to convey how impressive it was to them, but at the time there were way too many emotions going on in our head to think clearly. They continued on having fun and acting goofy the remainder of the walk. Near the end, the main girl who talked to us tapped on the handle of the wheelchair and said, “There are a lot of barriers.” Not quite understanding what she meant at the time we just nodded our heads. When we finally reached the hotel, we managed to take some pictures of us with the girls. They left with us profusely saying ‘thank you’.
Back in the room, before going to bed, I found out that the word I said in Japanese that they couldn’t understand wasn’t even a Japanese word; the word I meant to say was ‘sanpo’ meaning walking or strolling. And I also realized the girl was trying to tell us that there are many barriers in Japan for wheelchair. This could have been another language barrier or me being biased about Japan, but I thought it was interesting that she patted my wheelchair as she said what she said instead of somehow insinuating I was the one with the barriers. I took this as her viewing my wheelchair as only for what it was – a vehicle to help me get place to place and not as something that defines me. Again, this might have just been wishful thinking, but given how I was treated throughout the day it led me to believe this was the case.