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portrait of josh grisdale smilin on his wheelchair and wearing a pale blue shirt with rolled up sleeves

Josh Grisdale: the mind and wheels behind Accessible Japan

What can you do if you totally fall in love with a country, and you just can’t get enough of it? We asked Josh Grisdale, born in Canada and now a naturalised Japanese citizen, who has been discovering every hidden corner of this beautiful country, where he lives and works, and telling all about it in the Bible of accessible tourism in Japan: Accessible-Japan.com.
His website is the reference for all those who wish to visit Japan, with detailed information and videos where he shows us places, and gives all the necessary information, mainly to wheelchair users like himself. He has also created a community for travelers of all abilities: tabifolk.com. We recorded this interview with Josh as part of the podcast All Inclusive in February 2021.

Welcome Josh and thank you for taking part in the podcast, you are a Canadian who’s fallen in love with Japan and has been living there for 20 years, right?

I first came in 2000 and then I came a couple other times after that, so yes, my first experience in Japan was about 20 years ago.

You like to say you’re not an expat, but a naturalized citizen.

Yes that’s right, because actually I am a naturalized citizen, I gave up my Canadian citizenship and I became a Japanese citizen about four years ago, almost five years ago I guess, in 2016. So I love Japan that much that I’m willing to be a full-time member.

You’ve been working as a webmaster for Azalee Group, which is a service for elderly care, education and medicine, but we have you here because you are the top expert on accessibility in Japan, and I’m actually wondering why the tourism board doesn’t just hire you to do this, you know everything!

Well I actually do have a great relationship with the tourism board in Japan, I’m on a couple of committees and encouraging accessible tourism, so I’ve got my foot in the door, I have my wheel in the door.

Your website accessible-japan.com is the resource for people who want to come and visit Japan, and I’m guessing you get a lot of questions and lots of emails and messages.

Photo of Josh from behind. He climbs onto the back of a bus using a ramp.

Yeah I’m quite busy with helping people find the information they need, I’m not a tour operator and so I need to let people know that sometimes, because this is sort of a part-time hobby of mine. What I wanted to do was, when I first came to Japan back in 2000, since there was really no information on accessible travel, there weren’t really many websites, there wasn’t like a Tripadvisor or those kind of websites to find lots of information, so you’d only have this information from guidebooks, in guidebooks only maybe 300 pages long, so they’re not going to dedicate a lot of information for accessibility. You might get something like “you know Japan is very crowded and difficult to get around in a wheelchair” and that’s maybe all you’d find, if you ever did find anything at all. So one of the goals for Accessible Japan is to create the website that I wish I had 20 years ago, and serve as an all-purpose general guide to getting the best to help you prepare for your trip, but also just some tips for when you’re here, places to see, places to stay, stuff like that.

You did more, because you created accessible-japan.com in 2015, but then two years later you created a community for accessible travel worldwide, a community which was called Accessible Travel Forum and which since 2020 is called Tabifolk. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Yeah it’s quite related to Accessible Japan. I think that is one of the lessons I learned a lot from building Accessible Japan. It actually started more as a blog, and then I would get all these questions from people and I think, if somebody has the desire to go and write an email, there’s probably 10 other people that have the same question that aren’t going as far as writing emails. I figured it was better having something online for people who are looking up information or want to peek, so they can also see that information and learn something from it, and if they want they can jump in. So I thought having some sort of community would be great. That’s where the Accessible Travel Forum started, and I quickly realized that the name was way too long, and I was thinking about a lot of companies where the name sort of goes away after a while, after you keep saying it, it sort of just becomes a sound like Facebook or something like that. If you say Facebook it sounds really really silly, if you think about it, but it’s just become a word now. So I wanted to create a shorter name that had some of the roots in there; so Tabi actually means – it’s not the cat, everybody thinks it’s the cat – “tabi” means “journey” in Japanese and “folk” means “people” so you know it’s “people on a journey”, it’s where the name comes from. It’s like Facebook in a way, people can enjoy and create their own profiles, they can join different groups and they can ask questions or share information and share funny videos, and you know other people ask questions “where is the best place to get some ramen in Tokyo” or something like that.

So what is the best place to get ramen in Tokyo? Now you have to answer, you have to tell us!

Well right now with all the restrictions on travel… wherever you can get ramen it’s probably the best place to get it.

tabi” means “journey” in Japanese and “folk” means “people” so you know it’s “people on a journey”.

I want to know something about you as a traveler, because you’ve done a lot for other travelers who want to come to Japan and they can consult your website and community, but I really want to know about you, what do you like when you travel what do you look for, what’s your favorite um holiday or trip experience?

I think one big difference with being in Japan and living and working in Japan is that we don’t get a lot of time for vacation, and if we do go on vacation it’s very very short as I, you know, talk to people who are coming to Japan, and they are like “you know oh we’re going to be here for two weeks” or something like that. To me that seems unbelievable, how do you not get bored after two weeks? But for us in Japan maybe we go for two or three days to a place, even if it’s in another country.

The last time I went home to my family I went all the way to Toronto and Canada – it’s about a 14 hour flight to get there – and I stayed for three days, and then I came back, so I mean that was a long holiday. The thing is for myself I need to get that time off work, but then also I travel with the personal care assistant and so they also have difficulty getting that much time off work, so it’s our happy compromise, it’s not as long but at least we both go. So for myself I’ve not been on too many tours of places, I tend to be a bit more my own pace kind of things, I’ll come up with the things I want to see and then I’ll try to look up the information to see what’s necessary and so it’s usually the way I do things for me. The biggest thing I think is often transportation because I have a heavy power wheelchair, I can’t just fold it up, put in the back of a taxi or I can’t walk at all so I can’t usually get by with most hotel rooms, so that’s sort of number two on the list I think. If i can’t get to the hotel or if I can’t get to a destination I want to see, and that’s the biggest challenge for me, so trying to find that information can be quite a challenge at times, and the way different countries do things is always different, so you know, it takes a lot of leg work trying to figure out what it’s going to be like.

Josh is from behind in his wheelchair wearing a black t-shirt. He is exploring fushimi inari taisha in kyoto. There are a lot of traditional wood architecture paint in red all around him with Japanese writings and they are forming a path.

But for myself the most interesting place I’ve been to I think was Mongolia. So I went there, it wasn’t something I planned myself as before I worked at where I’m working right now, I used to work at an NPO that took wheelchairs that were unused in Japan. In Japan you can get a wheelchair every three years through the system, so there’s a lot of used wheelchairs that don’t have any use afterwards, that are available. A lady that I knew, her son was disabled, and she saw all these wasted wheelchairs at the school for those with disabilities, and she wanted to make some use of them, so what they would do is, they collect the old wheelchairs, they would clean them and repair them and then they’d send them to other parts of Asia where they needed wheelchairs. In different parts of the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand etc., if there’s somebody who’s wanting a wheelchair, then they try to get it to them, and they would send them as extra luggage of somebody who was going to that destination anyways, so if somebody’s going to, say, Cambodia for business, or for humanitarian work or something like that instead of a suitcase they would take a wheelchair with them.

It’s brilliant, that’s so smart and cost-effective!

Yeah exactly so, especially because the Japanese travelers, a lot of times for business, they don’t usually take a lot of luggage because they’re just going for such a short amount of time, so for the international luggage allowances they usually have extra space. We organized a trip to Mongolia and we went as a group of staff and we took a full container full of wheelchairs and so, because of the infrastructure in Mongolia at the time, taking my power wheelchair was sort of out of the question, so I ended up using a manual wheelchair which is actually going to be one of the wheelchairs we gave to people. I used it, then at the airport I gave it to one of the people there, so it’s a really interesting, eye-opening experience for me to see the different challenges and different parts of the world if you have disability, in a place that’s not as accessible as this place where I live now, so that’s probably one of my most memorable experiences.

What did you really really love about Mongolia? Did you get to see all the nature, you went out a bit in the wild or how was it? I’ve never been so I’m very curious.

It’s really interesting to see, because I guess there’s a lot of soviet presence back from a number of decades ago, so there’s sort of that, the nomadic lifestyle, and the Chinese influence as well, so it was really quite fascinating and the people were very very generous and we went to, as a group, we went to this nomadic it’s a yurt it’s called, it’s the tent that people would live in. So we got to see what it was like inside and the lady who was showing it her husband had recently passed away, so that was her method of income. She had made some homemade horse yogurt, so you know everybody got a cup of it and she came over to start feeding me, and then you know because I finished it all, then she said “oh it’s finished, okay I’ll get you another one” so I had two very large portions of horse yogurt! That was kind of an interesting experience, but it’s such a really beautiful country, I’d love to go back and see what it’s like, but there are so many other countries, places I’d like to go see so I’ll have to wait I guess.

Your interview is very much linked with the one before, two days ago I had a really nice chat with Kamil Goungor and I know that you two have a connection, as wonderlusters, even if in two different completely different parts of the world, can you tell us about the story of how you two met?

josh and kamil posing in the metro on their wheelchairs and smiling
Josh and Kamil’s casual meetup in Tokyo at the train station elevators

That’s one of the exciting things about working in the accessible travel industry is that you get a lot of opportunities to make new friends, I think that it doesn’t exist in a lot of other industries, so Kamil is one of them, and back I don’t remember what it was, a couple years ago, anyways not long after I started Accessible Japan I think, him and his sister and one of their friends were planning a trip to Japan and they found the website and we were corresponding and you know they need to get some rental equipment that’s one of the actually the big challenges that I try to solve a lot of the the facilities for renting places are renting equipment like hoists or wheelchairs are available, but they’re not really, the idea of accessible travel or international accessible travel is somewhat new to Japan I think. Because of that, a lot of companies are completely missing business opportunities because they’re focused on the way things have always been done. So trying to help them try to get the equipment that they needed for their trip, we corresponded a number of times and then well, sort of like, you’re gonna be coming soon, so I said well you know have a good trip. And then I was out and about one day in Tokyo and I was at a station and I was going to use the elevator to go up to the ground, and i noticed in front of me there were four or three foreigners in wheelchairs, I was like “that’s pretty unusual for Tokyo” so I was like, I wonder if it’s Kamil and his sister and friend and so I thought, okay well I don’t usually just randomly ask people who they are, but I was waiting for them at the elevator “you’re not Kamil are you? and he’s like “yeah” “oh I’m Josh”- you know so I mean it’s huge I don’t know what the population of Belgium is, but yeah the greater Tokyo area is probably about 30 million people and Tokyo is about 13 million and so in that huge city, they’re only here for two weeks or something like that, and they’re in other cities as well, we happen to bump into each other at the elevator of a train station in Tokyo so we chatted for a while and we took a picture and we’ve been in touch ever since. So yeah, so there’s your connection we’re all linked.

Kamil was very proud of his trip to Japan and he did credit that he really used your content and the website and your help to organize it, and it’s actually one of his tips that he gave to fellow travelers, to – he said – “exploit” your friends living in other countries, because they will take you to cool places and you know they will help out with the with practical details. Do you exploit your friends too, or do you do everything by yourself?

Mutual exploitation I think! I think that the amazing things about the internet and like comparing to when I first came 20 years ago, there really wasn’t the same kind of infinite internet infrastructure and it’s such a great equalizer for people with disabilities, without disabilities to just be able to connect in a different way and to have a whole new level of access to information that we didn’t have before and even if you know, we’re not traveling, we have things like this like podcasts where we can learn from others and hear stories and so you know it’s really a powerful tool I think.

What have you done in 2020, where have you been in this terrible year?

In Japan we don’t have the same kind of lockdown, like a lot of places in Europe, but right now we’re again in a state of emergency, which means I had to cancel a trip this weekend actually, but at the beginning of 2020 I only traveled in Japan, I went to Okinawa which is the southern islands of Japan. I went there twice actually, last year, and they call it Japan’s Hawaii, it’s very it’s tropical, so you know the palm trees and beaches and stuff like that, so probably one of my favorite parts of Japan but it’s also quite neat, it’s got a different history, so it’s Japan but it’s also not Japan, so it sort of feels a little bit like going to a different country. Then I went to a place called Tottori, which is sort of on the sea side of Japan so it’s not very big, actually the entire population of the province is smaller than my city. So through my current work, there is a politician there, he used to work for a tea company, and we were their customer, so we were somehow related to them. Anyways now they want to promote tourism and they’re actually quite progressive in terms of accessible tourism, but one of the challenges they have is getting the information out there, so they asked me to come as a influencer. So I got a free trip to Tottori, to meet the Governor and go to see the lots of different places, it actually has a desert or sand dunes I guess we call it, so it’s the only sand dunes in Japan so if you go but it feels like you’re in the middle of Sahara, because it’s sand dunes but these are across and then also the ocean, so it’s a very interesting place to be.

I went there and then I got back, and pretty much immediately after that it was a state of emergency so I didn’t go a lot of places after that. Then as part of the promotion of the economy here, they had a go-to travel campaign in Japan where the government was encouraging people to travel and they would give like 30% discounts on travel as well as you’d get maybe another 20% worth of vouchers that you could use in the local community, so I went to two different places but then it’s gotten a bit more severe again here in Tokyo. I was supposed to go to Ouchi which is another prefecture, but a bit further south of Japan as a tour monitor to go check out a new accessible tour, but I work with the elderly, in very close proximity and it didn’t feel like a good time to go, so I canceled that for now, but hopefully I have the opportunity to go again. If it was just me traveling then I’d probably consider it, but then right now because I work in a facility with over 150 people who are high-risk categories, that probably wasn’t really the best time so I’ve done some traveling, I would love to do more, I’d love to get out of Japan as well but waiting for the right time and it’s not really possible.

You’re there at the right moment, when Japan is actually opening up to accessible tourism and it’s great because you’ve already established yourself, because you really know your topic so the timing was great.

Yes well I don’t know what’s gonna happen now, but the Olympics were supposed to happen. So I think in a large part of it, the movement towards disability and travel I think it definitely relates to the Olympics and Paralympics, so I’m very very thankful for that opportunity. Actually, I’m actually going to be one of the torchbearers so they’re going to attach the torch to the wheelchair, so I’ll be one of the torchbearers for Tokyo, if it happens.

Right now the plans are for Tokyo 2021 but at the moment there’s sort of a public sentiment is that maybe eighty percent of people either say to postpone it or stop so the government of course doesn’t want to do that, and the Olympic committee and part of the community as well are trying to think of different ways to do that, from what I understand in about March or April they’ll make a final decision for this year, so whether that will be. So I think postponing it again is not possible, so it would be to have it or not happen at all. But at the same time a lot of the infrastructure changes have already been made, so so that’s, in terms of accessible travel, you know that’s the biggest part of the goal it’s been achieved I think.

Let’s hope for Tokyo 2021! Now you’re going in lockdown again, what will it take for you to start traveling again, would you travel again like already as soon as the border is open, are you maybe waiting for the vaccine, what’s your take on this?

For domestic travel I think if we weren’t in a state of emergency right now, I probably travel domestically, like I said, last year I went to a couple places within Japan and you know everybody’s very very cautious and careful. I think it’s important to have that balance between that caution and care, but also you know we’re maintaining normal balance as much as possible. I think the bigger challenge right now is definitely the state of emergency, but also just because of where I work, and also there is a lot of social pressure in Japan. If everybody here is going back home by at 8 pm and not going to restaurants, and then I was on vacation, you know, or something like that, and then if I did end up getting Corona and I bring it back, I could potentially face a lot of backlash from co-workers. So I have a little bit more caution than probably other people. I think we’re supposed to get the vaccination in starting the end of next month here in Tokyo and it will start with people working care facilities, as well as the elderly, so I’ll probably be among the first batch of people because of where I work, so that’s good. So once I’ve gotten that I’d like to move back to travel as much as possible after that, but I don’t expect anything international very very soon, though maybe for the end of 2021 that would be nice but I’m not gonna, I’m going to hope but not expect, so it’s a good opportunity I think for people to explore their own communities and countries now. You don’t need to go far to go on vacation, so I think it’s a good opportunity people to go back to their roots and enjoy the places around them as well, so I’m gonna do that.

What’s the most alternative place that people can visit in Japan, like foreigners coming for a holiday in Japan what would you say is the most alternative place, like really completely off the beaten track, a place that only the locals know?

Well I’d say like some places like the Tottori, I think, it’s a small, it’s a little bit harder to get there, but I think for people with disabilities they have, because they’re trying to encourage travel so much, they’re one of the places where they have taxis, about half of taxis are all accessible which is amazing for Japan and because they have an elderly population as well. They also have these discounts, where if you’re a visitor you can go for a three-hour taxi ride for about 2000 yen, which is about 20 dollars. So it’s quite, that’s something off the beaten path. They have a big ramp up to this, so you can see the sand dunes there, and they also have a buggy for going in the sand as well, so they’ve done a lot I think. On the same Japan side, if you go up and to the north there’s a place called Yamagata which is in northern Japan, and there’s a guy there who runs an accessible tour organization and his biggest thing is paragliding. He has an accessible paragliding from the hill, the mountain there, so you just you can sit in it, and somebody will do the steering for you. He set the record for being the longest solo flight in the world, so he’s got some great opportunities there, it’s not place a lot of people go to so but you can go in one train, one bullet train from Tokyo, so it’s actually pretty easy to get there and he’s very he’s actually becoming a politician right now, so definitely good. We’ll have three people in wheelchairs in our government, our parliament. And a personal favorite is Okinawa as I mentioned before, it’s Japan but it’s not Japan, so if you like sunny tropical places, they’re a flavoring of Japan and a definitely interesting place to go, there’s tons of different little islands, there’s an archaeology part so if you go to Ishigaki, which is one of the islands and there’s about five or six big islands, there are smaller islands that you can go to by a ferry. The ferries are more or less accessible, some of them are more accessible than others but if you don’t mind going over a small gap to get to the boat, then you know you can do that too and one of them it’s sort of a traditional way of getting around, water buffaloes pull these carts that people go on tours on, and one of them is accessible, they have a ramp that comes out the back of it, so there’s lots of interesting places to go and definitely would recommend going outside of Tokyo and Kyoto. I mean those are great places as well but there are lots of other places.

Want to listen to the full interview? You can find the podcast on all your favourite platforms, and a subtitled version on our YouTube channel.
Want to plan a future trip to Japan? Visit Accessible-Japan.com and become a member of the online accessible travel community Tabifolk.

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