Okinawa in a wheelchair: An Accessibility Guide
After spending some days in Tokyo to recover from the jetlag, we flew to Naha, Okinawa. We spent six days on the beautiful, subtropical island in the Pacific Ocean. Japan’s southernmost prefecture 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 Tokyo’s chilly winters.
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 special assistance. Once we arrived at Narita International Airport, my husband transferred me into the provided all-in-one transport/cabin wheelchair. 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 heat. A real pleasure for sunseekers like us (and my muscles, of course)!
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 also available on Accessible Okinawa’s website.
While talking to another staff member of the tourist office, we learned that their service focuses 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).
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.
Wheelchair-accessible Churaumi Aquarium and the 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.
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 to one caregiver.
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 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 Japan’s five most visited castles. 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.
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 shown 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 Shurijo Castle Park’s main entrance, 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.
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 ticket desk staff has a massive folder with copies of international disability cards to make sure that there is no abuse.
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.
You can stay in your wheelchair, completely accessible.
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.
Okushoin and its garden:
You can stay in your wheelchair, entirely accessible.
Accessible with a platform lift, you can stay in your wheelchair.
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.
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 right next to the castle grounds, as shown above.
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 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 100 % flat.
If it should rain, I recommend exploring the accessible Ichiba Hon Dori shopping arcade. There are countless stores of all kinds. 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.
In addition to that, there is another accessible shopping location, the T GALLERIA at Omoromachi Station. The duty-free mall covers a wide 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.
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 bear 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.
Travel advice for wheelchair users:
Ready to explore Japan?
- Wheelchair accessible MUST SEES in Tokyo
- Mobility Scooter Rental Experience in Tokyo – March 2018
- Tokyo Travel Diary | All about Accessibility
- Visiting Tokyo Skytree in a wheelchair
- Shinkansen & Japan Rail Pass as a wheelchair user
- Miyajima Island in a wheelchair | Accessibility Review
- Kagoshima in a wheelchair | Accessibility Review
- Sakurajima Ferry & Sakurajima Volcano in a wheelchair
Have you traveled to Okinawa in a wheelchair?
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