A sensory trip around UK football stadia

Images: Akiko Hashiguchi

Having conducted an initial visit to the UK in 2019, Akiko Hashiguchi, a developmental disorders universal design consultant, recently returned to the country for another fact-finding mission in her ongoing goal of driving the development of sensory room facilities at Japanese stadia.

In 2019, Hashiguchi visited three football clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea and Watford – and had the chance to study the sensory rooms in their stadia. She was then able to initiate and participate in a project to install sensory rooms in public athletic facilities across Japan.

Hashiguchi’s latest project has involved the delivery of sensory rooms for Edion Peace Wing Hiroshima, the new stadium of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which staged its opening J1 League game last week.

Writing for, Hashiguchi reflects on a one-month trip which took place in November and December, this time taking in visits to 22 stadia in the UK, a market she believes is the world’s standard-bearer for sensory room development in athletic facilities.

“I believe in sensory rooms changing lives. In November 2023, I arrived in the UK to inspect sensory rooms, which are being progressively installed, particularly in football stadiums. The plan to inspect 22 stadiums in a little over a month seemed reckless and dreamlike, not only to those around me, but also to myself. However, I was passionate about it.

“I wanted to bring back the knowledge I had gained from what I had seen and heard from my visits to UK for the benefit of children with developmental disorders and their families, and to realise a society in Japan where anyone can watch football matches.

“I work as a universal design consultant specialising in people with developmental disorders in Japan. I am a member of the universal design committee for the Osaka Expo to be held in 2025. I am also involved in the installation of sensory rooms at the new Hiroshima Football Stadium, which was completed in December 2023. In 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Chelsea, Arsenal and Watford to inspect and research the sensory rooms at their stadia, which I could not have done without the knowledge gained through this opportunity.

“The impetus for this work came 24 years ago when my son was diagnosed with a developmental disorder. At that time, when there was not as much understanding of developmental disorders as there is now, I had a very difficult time raising my son and thought it was impossible to watch football games. Maybe that’s why I felt this adventure was my mission.

“The adventure of visiting mainly Premier League club stadiums began with Bournemouth on the south coast and took two weeks to reach Newcastle in the north-east, before shifting base to London and visiting stadiums in and around the capital.

“What I learnt on this adventure was that each club with a sensory room has its own unique sensory room, reflecting the characteristics of the stadium, the opinions of its users and the club’s intentions. The survey also showed that efforts are being made to combine hard side, such as barrier-free routes and facilities, with soft side, such as support and management by dedicated staff.

“In Japan, the revised ‘Act on Promotion of Smooth Transportation, etc. of Elderly Persons, Disabled Persons, etc.’, which came into force in April 2021, emphasises the importance of ‘integrated hard side and soft side initiatives’, but is still late in addressing people with disabilities that are difficult to see. That is why it was a great achievement to visit the sensory rooms, where the hard side and soft side are integrated.

“What I would most like to take this opportunity to say is that it has been an adventure full of love and gratitude, thanks to the people at each club who welcomed me with open arms and enthusiastically taught me, even though I am not a good English speaker.

“Despite the limited schedule due to my circumstances, I can only thank the various clubs that took the time to tell me about their various universal design initiatives for their stadiums, not to mention the sensory rooms.

“There were also, unsurprisingly, a few clubs where appointments could not be made. Those stadiums were attended if there was a stadium tour available, and even if there was no stadium tour, I actually went and inspected the stadium surroundings and visited the club shops. But even there, there was an abundance of love and gratitude.

“At one club, a supporter who happened to be in the shop gave us a Christmas card when he found out we were from Japan. Also, at one club, I really wanted to see the sensory room, so after taking the stadium tour, I made a request and the staff were able to coordinate and get me into the sensory room. These are valuable experiences that could not have been encountered without going there.

“Visiting 22 stadiums also gave me an insight into the history of football stadiums. I was shocked and very surprised when I saw a stadium surrounded by private houses, something I could never see in Japan, but I could deeply feel that both football and the stadium are for the local people, by the local people, and loved by the local people.

“The adventure, which lasted a little over a month, with train and bus transfers and about 18,000 steps a day, ended with many encounters and learnings. However, this adventure is far from over. I am planning a three-month visit to the UK this year.

“This is because I want to learn about the soft aspects of how they actually deal with children, such as support. I would like to gain experience working in a sensory room, preferably as a volunteer, while holding a class on making origami footballs.

“Finally, I see sensory rooms as a place where children grow step by step through the sensory room. Some people who take watching football for granted may think it is just a football match. However, for children and their families who have given up watching football because of developmental disorders or other characteristics, sensory rooms can be a starting point to turn giving up into hope and expand the range of their activities and lives.

“So I believe that sensory rooms change lives. My deepest and most sincere thanks to all the people I have met in the UK who have made my adventure possible. Arigatou!”