Okinawa in a wheelchair | Accessibility Guide

After spending some days in Tokyo to recover from the jetlag, we took a flight to Naha, Okinawa and spent six days on the beautiful, subtropical island in the Pacific Ocean. The southernmost prefecture of Japan basically consists of 160 islands that belong to the more than 1,000 km long Ryukyu chain. With year-round temperatures of at least 20°C (68°F) it is a nice destination to escape the chilly winters in Tokyo.

 

Vanilla Air Fuji | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Mount Fuji ©

 

So, in this extensive article, I show you where I stayed, what I experienced and, most importantly, what I found out about Okinawa’s wheelchair accessibility.

 

Flight to Okinawa Naha Airport (OKA) with Vanilla Air

I booked a flight from Tokyo-Narita to Okinawa Naha Airport with Vanilla Air, a low-cost company owned by All Nippon Airways (ANA). After the online booking process, I had to fill out the wheelchair specification form to book the special assistance. Once arrived at Narita International Airport my husband transferred me into the provided all-in-one transport/cabin wheelchair, and an agent led us through the security check to the gate. When we got to the plane with the assistance truck, the service agent removed the wheels of the transport chair and pushed me onto the airplane to my assigned seat.

 

 

Okinawa Naha Airport

After the 3 h 30 min long flight, we finally landed in Naha. As always we patiently waited until all other passengers had left the plane before my husband transferred me back into the cabin chair. Another Vanilla Air agent welcomed us and pushed me off the plane back into the assistance truck, that took us to the terminal. The first thing I noticed was the incredibly warm temperature. A real pleasure for sunseekers like us (and my muscles of course)!

 

Naha Airport Wheelchair Assistance | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Naha Airport Wheelchair Assistance ©

 

Okinawa Naha Airport is entirely wheelchair-accessible and has several accessible restrooms. The Okinawa Tourist Office has an information desk for disabled tourists, located in the arrival zone. Unfortunately, the employee didn’t speak English. Nevertheless, she gave me a brochure in English that can also be found on Accessible Okinawa’s website.

 

Information Desk for disabled visitors at Okinawa Naha Airport | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Information Desk for disabled visitors at Naha Airport ©

 

While talking to another staff member of the tourist office, we learned that their service focusses more on “Japanese only.” That is quite surprising for a service that aims to provide accessibility information for tourists.

 

Accessible Public Transport to Naha | Yui Monorail

The entirely wheelchair-accessible Yui Monorail connects Naha Airport to the city center. This budget-friendly option gets you into Naha in less than 15 minutes. We used the Yui Monorail extensively to get around Naha and to get back to the airport. There is no discount for disabled visitors (Japanese residents only).

 

 

Accessibility Fail

I planned to take a bus right from the airport to the almost 80 km away Nago as we wanted to visit the Churaumi Aquarium the next day. At the airport, I found out that sadly none of the highway bus companies has a platform lift to accommodate wheelchair users. Meaning my husband had to carry me onto the bus and put my manual wheelchair in the luggage hold. However, the Okinawa Shuttle Bus Company granted a 50 % disability discount after showing my disability certificate. So far, I couldn’t find any information about an accessible way to the Churaumi Aquarium.

 

Okinawa Airport Shuttle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

The Okinawa Airport Shuttle sadly isn’t wheelchair-accessible ©

 

Wheelchair-accessible Churaumi Aquarium and the Ocean Expo Park

 

Churaumi Aquarium | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Accessible Ocean Expo Park ©

 

Not only is the Churaumi Aquarium, located in Motobu, Japan’s largest aquarium, but it is also one of the biggest aquariums worldwide. The renowned aquarium is home to majestic shark whales, huge manta rays, colorful deep sea fish and many other beautiful, exotic creatures. It is part of the widespread Ocean Expo Park. You also find the Oceanic Culture Museum, the Tropical Dream Center, the Traditional Okinawa Village and more inside the park.

 

Whale shark at the Churaumi Aquarium Okinawa | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Whale shark at the Churaumi Aquarium Okinawa ©

 

The Churaumi and Ocean Expo Accessibility Experience

Firstly, the Churaumi Aquarium is entirely wheelchair-accessible. The Ocean Expo Park is fully wheelchair-accessible, too. Some park areas are mildly hilly. But wheelchair users can use the accessible trolley shuttle to get through the park. If you have a disability certificate you can ride the trolley for free. This also applies for one caregiver.

 

Accessible Trolley Shuttle at the Ocean Expo Park | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Wheelchair-accessible Trolley Shuttle at the Ocean Expo Park ©

 

Free motorized wheelchair rental

A particularly great feature is the free rental of motorized wheelchairs on a first come first served basis. We got to the info desk by 11:30 am, and I was lucky enough to get the last available wheelchair! The battery lasts for about two hours, and I needed three of them for the entire day.

 

Free motorized wheelchair rental | Churaumi Aquarium & Ocean Expo Park Okinawa | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Free motorized wheelchair rental at the Churaumi Aquarium ©

 

Free admission for holders of disability certificates and one caregiver

Another big plus for the Churaumi Aquarium is the free admission for holders of disability certificates. One caregiver is granted free access as well. There is no admission fee for the Ocean Expo Park. The same applies to the Oceanic Culture Museum and the Tropical Dream Center.

 

Shuri Castle and the Shurijo Castle Park

Shuri Castle, located in the Shurijo Castle Park, ranks among the most popular destinations in Naha and is one of the five most visited castles in Japan. The UNESCO World Heritage Site offers much to see, also for wheelchair users. The former palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom was destroyed during World War II, and reconstruction work began in 1992. Today Shuri Castle shines in all its splendor.

 

Shuri Castle ©

 

From Shuri Station to the Shurijo Castle Park Main Entrance

Take the wheelchair-accessible Yui Monorail to Shuri Station. From there it is a 15 min. stroll to the Shurijo Castle Park main entrance. In some areas, the sidewalks on the way to Shuri Castle are a bit uneven as can be seen below. That surprised me as even the sidewalks on the small Sakurajima Island were in better shape.

 

 

The Shuri Castle Accessibility Experience

After arriving at the main entrance to Shurijo Castle Park, we were given a map that shows the wheelchair-accessible route to the castle. While power wheelchair users won’t have any problems with the fairly steep hills to get to Shuri Castle, manual wheelchair users might (certainly) need some help. However, the accessibility features are great: Free wheelchair rental, rest houses, three accessible restrooms and more.

 

Shurijo Main Entrance | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Uphill to the Shurijo Main Entrance ©

 

The wheelchair-accessible route leads uphill through Shureimon and Kobikimon Gate to the Houshinmon Gate, where you find the ticket desk.

 

 

Free admission for holders of disability certificates and one caregiver

The ticket counter is located on the left. Disabled visitors with a disability certificate can enter Shuri Castle for free. One caregiver also gets free admission. The staff at the ticket desk has a massive folder with copies of international disability cards to make sure that there is no abuse.

 

Free admission to Shuri Castle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Free admission to Shuri Castle with a disability certificate ©

 

We passed the Houshinmon Gate and eventually saw the impressive bright red-colored Shuri Castle. The wheelchair-accessible route leads through a complex of several buildings. Almost all of them are entirely accessible.

 

Nanden/Bandokoro:
You can stay in your wheelchair, completely accessible.

 

Ramp to Nanden at Shuri Castle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Ramp to Nanden at Shuri Castle ©

 

Shoin, Sasunoma and the garden:
There is a wall-mounted stairlift that takes wheelchair users up a set of stairs. You need to transfer to the seat of the lift and then to a provided wheelchair. The guard watches after your wheelchair during the visit.

 

Stairlift to the Shoin at Shuri Castle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Wheelchair users can use the stairlift to the Shoin at Shuri Castle ©

 

Okushoin and its garden:
You can stay in your wheelchair, entirely accessible.

 

Kugani-Udun/Yuinchi, Kinju-tsumesho:
Accessible with a platform lift, you can stay in your wheelchair.

 

Kugani-Udun at Shuri Castle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

Platform lift for wheelchair users to the Kugani-Udun at Shuri Castle ©

 

Seiden (the Palace):
The heart of the palace is entirely wheelchair accessible. Lots of ramps, platform lift to the exit, you can stay in your wheelchair.

 

Inside Shuri Castle | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

The throne at Seiden ©

 

Viewing platform in the Shurijo Castle Park Area

Also, you shouldn’t miss the beautiful views of Naha and Urasoe from the accessible observatory square when leaving Shuri Castle. The observation deck is in the park area right next to the castle grounds as shown above.

 

 

Naminoue Shrine

Naminoue Shrine is a famous Shinto shrine in Naha. Its undoubtedly unique location on top of a cliff overlooks Naminoue Beach and the ocean. The Shinto shrine can be visited in a wheelchair. However, a pretty steep hill leads to the shrine’s entrance. Manual wheelchair users almost certainly need help. Unfortunately, you don’t get views of Naminoue Beach from the shrine. Also, there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom.

 

 

Naminoue Beach

Naminoue Beach is one of Naha’s beaches right in the city. It is only a short stroll away from Naha Port. The closest Yui Monorail station is Kencho Mae Station. Although it surely isn’t the most beautiful beach in Okinawa, it is worth a visit. There are wheelchair-accessible restrooms as well as access ramps to the beach.

 

 

A very cool feature is the beach wheelchair, that floats in the water. Visitors can rent this beach wheelchair from the Naminoue Beach SUP (Stand Up Paddle) shop. An employee of the Naminoue Beach SUP, Masashi, surprisingly invited me to test the beach wheelchair. My hubby transferred me to the chair and off we went. He easily pulled me through the sand right to the shore. Some Fugu fish swam nearby, and I enjoyed watching them in the sun.

 

 

Shopping at Naha International Street – Kokusai Dori

Naha International Street (Kokusai Dori) is THE shopping district in Naha. There are many different shops and restaurants. The closest Yui Monorail stations are Kencho Mae Station and Miebashi Station. The whole area is wheelchair-accessible, but some sidewalk curb cuts aren’t a 100 % flat.

 

 

If it should rain, I recommend exploring the accessible Ichiba Hon Dori shopping arcade. There are countless stores of all kind. And there also is the Makishi Public Fish Market, where you can buy fresh fish. There is a wheelchair-accessible restroom on the 2nd floor.

 

Ichiba Hon Dori Shopping Arcade ©

Ichiba Hon Dori Shopping Arcade Naha | Little Miss Turtle | Wheelchair Travel Blog

 

In addition to that, there is another accessible shopping location, the T GALLERIA at Omoromachi Station. The duty-free mall covers a large choice of luxury brands.

 

Accessible Hotel in Naha with Roll-in shower

We stayed at the modern and rather budget-friendly Red Planet Okinawa Naha. The wheelchair-accessible room is equipped with twin beds and a large bathroom with a tub and, most important, a quite convenient roll-in shower. Since accessible rooms with roll-in showers are hard to find in Japan, I was more than happy with this setting. Located close to Miebashi Station, it is a convenient base to explore Naha.

 

 

Summary

Traveling to Okinawa in a wheelchair needs without a doubt a little more planning depending on your level of mobility and where you want to go. To summarize the wheelchair accessibility in Naha is rather good. Wheelchair users can use the entirely accessible Yui Monorail to get around the city. So, if you can bare some uneven sidewalks and curb drops you will be fine. Keep in mind though that there are some steep areas around Shuri Castle. However, the lack of accessible highway busses is a true problem for wheelchair users who cannot transfer. It would be interesting to find out if there are any non-stop buses to travel long distances in Okinawa.

 

Read my travel advice for wheelchair users:

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