How a Map Changed My Tokyo: A Wheelchair Photo Diary

Wheelchair Accessible Tokyo Koenji
A very abled fellow going through Tokyo’s streets at high noon.

I had the best encounter yesterday morning as I sat on the grass at 8am, writing as usual.

The morning was a prelude to another smothering summer day, but at least it began with a breeze. I sat in the same spot with a bench to use as a table and the leafy weeds as my chair. My bare feet were dug into the dirt; it provides a daily hippie placebo effect. Until about 10am, this spot is shaded by two trees close by.

A man in a wheelchair swung by and asked me if I wasn’t uncomfortable. We chatted for a while. He ventured some English phrases. I replied in broken Japanese. On his phone, he showed me his Google+ timeline of paths he took and flowers he’d seen.

高野克 Takano Google+ Profile
Takano-san’s Google+ Photo posts

Takano-san has myasthenia gravis. His Google+ profile reads: “I want to live happily every day. I like the photo. I also want to see pictures of everyone. Thank you very much in advance.”

I’d never seen Takano-san before even though I sit at the park every non-rainy morning. He’d come from across town to a class.

I’ve been wanting to meet someone like him for months now.

Wheelchairs have been on my mind ever since I created an Accessibility Map of Tokyo on a whim. I was pissed that none existed. The map took a few days, but all 216 stations on the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, and JR Yamanote line are included.

Then, I realised I needed to make my map accessible, too. I went out to take photos to show people what Tokyo had to offer. Without wheelchair-bound friends, I could only guess at what they might care about: lifts, washrooms, accessible gates, step-free sidewalks. I finished the posts and published them. It felt like going on a treasure hunt. I’d notice the bright wheelchair signs.

Even though the posts are done, I’ve never stopped looking.

Wheelchair Accessible Tokyo Metro Lift
Tokyo Metro Station Attendants setting up the lift for a wheelchair guest.

I’ve nearly crashed into morning commuters watching someone in a wheelchair go up the stair-lifts in the Tokyo Metro. It was so cool to see them actually in operation.

Wheelchair Accessible Tokyo-4774
Slurping ramen at Nakano Broadway

I’ve stood at an entrance trying to figure out how a wheelchair person got into a raised ramen restaurant as he slurped his noodles.

Wheelchair Accessible Tokyo Koenji
Going through Tokyo’s Suginami-Ku neighbourhood at high noon.

I’ve also jogged after a wheelchair zooming through the residential streets on a sunny afternoon to snap a photo of someone who’s very able.

I’ve noticed more people going around in wheelchairs in Tokyo than other cities. On the step-free bus, I watched the ramp being put down. There are wheelchair users who brave rush hour.

Enter a captionI love the colourful and visual signs for toilets in Tokyo.

I’ve become toilet-fascinated and compared multiple stations in big cities and small towns.

What I meant to say was, I started something on impulse. I never imagined how much it would impact the things I noticed. It’s also made me aware of the people I’ve yet to meet, and the perspectives I’ve still never encountered. Even though I thought about how to ‘seek out’ this demographic, it felt tokenising to want to get to know someone because of one characteristic.

Wheelchair Accessible Tokyo Metro
Met this French couple on the train to Asakusa! – Photo by Athena Lam

So, this is all to say, I’m so grateful that life just delivered this opportunity right to my door.

Ironically, today’s the only day I didn’t bring my cell phone … so I just e-mailed Takano-san the map. Next time, I’d like to demo it on my phone, although he clearly gets by fine anyway!

I would love to go on a walk with him one day and see the world in a different way through his perspective. I’ll wait at my spot typing away in the mornings until he comes again. Next time, I’ll take a photo with him and his beaming smile.

Park in Koto-Ku Eastern Tokyo
The ever-changing morning view at my writing corner.

PS: This is my Accessible Tokyo Guide and this is a tutorial on how to use my map on your phone.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant. Passionate about storytelling for great teams and products. Co-founder of Business 3.0 (, Personal blog at

3 thoughts on “How a Map Changed My Tokyo: A Wheelchair Photo Diary

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