My Month in Tokyo

Caitlin holds a white cane and sits with her friend in Japan.

My Month in Tokyo

My fascination with Asian culture began when I was about thirteen years old sitting in my parents’ house near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. It started with learning everything I could about the Chinese zodiac, various anime (which is Japanese animation), and manga (which are Japanese comics or graphic novels).

From there, it was a spiral into everything Japanese – from music to art, movies, and culture. The only thing that was difficult for me to grasp was the language, which I attributed to my limited residual vision. Stubbornly, I could rely on pictures!

In May of 2014, I lost the remainder of my residual vision and began training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, thus throwing me into a unique situation. Luckily, I was surrounded by the most incredible group of people – people who were blind, and people who understood me and my struggles with self-esteem, self-doubt, depression, and confidence. The instructors played a huge role in my training, and I don’t think I could have asked for a better group of fellow students.

Fast forward three years later, and I was traveling to Tokyo, Japan for one month to conduct research for the final paper of my master’s program in Asian Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco. The paper was a comparison piece focused on the United States and Japan when it came to people with disabilities – misconceptions, stigmas, stereotypes, and other areas such as laws and policies.

While in Japan, I ate my weight in onigiri (which are rice balls with different bits of food inside), sandwiches, and gyouza. To stay in contact with everyone back home, I rented a pocket WiFi device, which also came in handy when I needed to look up directions, restaurants, and attractions.

One thing that I found striking is how selfless Japanese people seem to be. For example, I asked a gentleman for directions to Daiso (which is Japan’s version of a dollar store) and rather than giving me directions or saying he didn’t know, he offered to walk with me to Daiso to pick up the items I needed before carrying on with his day. This wasn’t the first time that this happened to me and it’s not uncommon for Japanese people to be this selfless when it comes to foreigners (disabled or not).

Another striking thing is the sidewalks. The majority of the sidewalks have a divot down the center for blind people and others since a lot of the sidewalks blend almost seamlessly into the street. Plus, every crosswalk has tactile domes. Even train stations have Japanese Braille on the top and bottom of railings to let you know which platform you are heading toward.

The speakers on each train car are clear-sounding, and the announcements are in both Japanese and English. Train station staff will go out of their way to help as well. Since most of the posted signage at Tokyo’s train stations isn’t accessible, staff would show up at my exiting train to guide me to the correct exit, and if I had to transfer trains, someone would meet me and guide me to my transfer.

One thing I was nervous about was the language barrier, even though I had been studying Japanese for two years. I didn’t feel very confident in my skill, but a little will go a long way! I think a good practice for anyone going abroad is to learn a few phrases such as “hello,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “where is the bathroom?” I found out pretty quickly that a lot of Japanese people tried their best with English when we were speaking to one another, especially if I was struggling to find the right word to use.

One thing I made sure to have on me at all times was a sensational blackboard, pen, and paper, just in case I couldn’t get the meaning across. With these items, I had the ability to show them a crude drawing of what I was looking for, or even a map. Don’t forget, there are plenty of apps available to help with the language barrier as well (for example, I had to utilize Google Translate a few times).

I have a lot of great memories traveling through Tokyo, and these are memories that will stay with me forever. I learned how to make my own sushi, I attended a traditional tea ceremony where I drank out of a 200-year-old cup, I went to a dog café, I visited a Sensoji temple, and I saw a bunch of bands perform live.

Throughout all this, no one tried to unnecessarily grab my arm, yell, honk, or be obnoxious toward me in any way. It reminded me of attending our state and national conventions!