5 beautiful Japanese travel movies

5 beautiful Japanese travel movies

Classic holiday flicks to take you beyond the concrete and steel of Tokyo

That noted font of all wisdom, Madonna Louise Ciccone, once claimed that, “just one day out of life” constitutes a holiday. Ludicrous, obviously, but if a day is all you have, why not book a first-class seat on your sofa and check out these five fab flicks shot in some of the most scenic parts of Japan?

Sekai No Chuushin De Ai Wo Sakebu"Sekai No Chuushin De, Ai Wo Sakebu" was also a popular TV series in Japan.

1. "Sekai No Chuushin De, Ai Wo Sakebu"

(“Crying Out Love, In The Center Of The World”)

Setting: Shikoku

Year: 2004

Director: Isao Yukisada

English-subtitled version available: Yes

Set around the island of Shikoku -- mostly Takamatsu and Aji -- “Sekai No Chuushin De, Ai Wo Sakebu” is an adaptation of the successful manga by Kyoichi Katayama, himself born up the road in Ehime.

The movie was a smash hit, making a star of teenage lead actress Masami Nagasawa, and is a tear-jerking tale of young love in the face of impending doom.

Aji is a sentimental old coastal town, perfect for the film’s 1980s setting. Its sleepy streets yawn wide, pocked with suspended power lines and rickety wooden buildings that hug the tarmac. There’s even a streetcar.

A constant background (and sometimes foreground) fixture in the movie is the Seto Inland Sea, which stretches to meet an expansive blue sky smeared only lightly with fluffy white clouds.

From the quaint harbor, whose jetties are lined with speedboats and small fishing trawlers, lead couple Sakutaro (Takao Osawa) and Aki (Nagasawa) take a ride to Yume Island (which as far as we can work out doesn’t really exist; there are plenty of very real desert islands though), where sandy beaches, imposing cliffs and a lush forest hide a dilapidated abandoned resort hotel.

And with this film you even get a bonus trip to Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia -- talk about jet-set. Just remember to have a pack of tissues handy ­-- “Sekai No Chuushin De, Ai Wo Sakebu” is the kind of weepy movie that makes you want to cling tightly to the ones you love in case they disappear forever.

Shimotsuma Monogatari"Shimotsuma Monogatari" ranges far and wide across Ibaraki Prefecture.

2. “Shimotsuma Monogatari”

(“Kamikaze Girls”)

Setting: Ibaraki Prefecture

Year: 2004

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima 

English-subtitled version available: Yes

Directed by an ad-director-turned-filmmaker and based on a book by 18th-century-France obsessive Novala Takemoto, "Shimotsuma Monogatari" is an amazing film on many levels.

You want Lolita fashion, girl biker gangs, heavily saturated shots of wide-open landscapes and a smattering of comedy and fight scenes? Look no further.

Released abroad as “Kamikaze Girls,” the Japanese title means “Shimotsuma Story,” and the film was shot on location in the countryside town of the same name.

Loner Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) loves nothing better than to escape to Tokyo on shopping trips, so Shimotsuma Station seems to be where she gets a lot of her thinking done; she also has a heart-to-heart with unlikely new best friend, yankii (delinquent) Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya), at Tobanoe Station, a popular haunt among train-spotters, FYI.

Then there’s a showdown at Pachinko Slot MGM, a den of wretched souls (in the film, anyway) that lies a 15-minute walk east of Shimotsuma Station on National Route 125. Another 20 minutes takes you to Jusco, the value hypermarket where Ichigo proudly announces she’d bought her terrible biker outfit.

The cluttered kitsch cafe with French-maid waitresses where Momoko and Ichigo chat is Mori No Yakata (Forest Mansion -- though its name at the time of shooting was the more fitting Kizoku No Mori, or Forest of the Aristocrats).

Many homes in Shimotsuma sustained structural damage in the earthquake of March 11 and lost electricity and water for a while. The annual cherry blossom was cancelled, as is this August’s fireworks display.

Some scenes were also shot in Ushiku, on the other side of Tsukuba. The jaw-dropping 120-meter-tall Buddha statue is at Ushiku Daibutsu. Visitors can climb up to the statue’s fourth floor, take in the zoo and botanical gardens or the pond just behind the statue, where the film’s final fight takes place.

Aruku, Hito"Aruku, Hito" features snow -- enough of the stuff to last half a year.

3. “Aruku, Hito”

(“Man Walking On Snow”)

Setting: Hokkaido

Year: 2001

Director: Masahiro Kobayashi

English-subtitled version available: Yes

This earthy family drama is a character study of a stubborn father (Ken Ogata) and his two equally obstinate sons (Yasufumi Hayashi and Teruyuki Kagawa) as the anniversary of their mother’s death approaches.

The pace of "Aruku, Hito" is as slow as life in Mashike, a town on the west coast of Hokkaido that was left behind during the economic boom of the 1990s and now plays host to heron fishermen from nearby Russia and not much else.

But, if you like flopping facedown in snow, this is the place for you. According to the movie, Mashike gets six months of it a year, and the white stuff makes its presence felt in every scene, whether it’s the blanketed vistas outside or the indoor bits where characters huddle around a gas heater for warmth.

Bulldozers clear the wide roads, creating ivory alps on the pavement. Icicles dangle from the awnings of shops that have gone unchanged since the 1980s, and leafless trees cut a brittle figure against a clear sky crisscrossed with powerlines and backed by distant mountains.

Mashike Station is shown as a dusty wooden building, its timetable written on a blackboard, with just a few plastic seats and an ashtray for furniture. A tiny coastal bus stop, meanwhile, stands alone against a backdrop of the sea.

The film’s central family run the Kunimare sake brewery -- this is actually a real company, and its grand wooden building is one of Mashike’s central attractions (guided tours are available).

Apparently, cold weather is good for sake production, and as Kunimare is the northernmost brewery in all of Japan, you’d better believe it’s good suppin’.

TidakankanIf it's sunshine you're after, then "Tidakankan" should do the trick, Okinawa style.

4. “Tidakankan”

(“Radiant Sun”)

Setting: Okinawa

Year: 2010

Director: Toshio Lee   

English-subtitled version available: No

If Mashike must endure a semi-perpetual winter, then Yomitan in Okinawa is its polar opposite. In this sun-kissed subtropical seaside village, temperatures reach 20 C even in December.

Based on a true story, “Tidakankan” (Okinawa dialect for ‘radiant sun’) sees everyman ocean enthusiast Koji Kinjo (Takashi Okamura) risk his family’s future when he closes his profitable bar to become the world’s first specialist in coral restoration.

Cue breathtaking underwater footage of a rich variety of frolicsome fish, as Koji and his gang of amateurs don their scuba gear to transplant homegrown coral to the reefs below Yomitan’s crystal clear waters -- to the chagrin of the local fishermen.

In fact, Koji’s company, Sea Seed, is a real-life non-profit organization, and for a small fee visitors can buy coral and plant it themselves, escorted by Sea Seed staffers.

The grounds also house a bizarre coral aquarium, making it a neat spot to take the kiddies.

“Tidakankan” paints a paradise of endless horizons, verdant bluffs and unbroken beaches, where the sky, sea and sand take on the same blue hue at dawn.

A wedding scene is all colorful kimonos and Okinawan folk singing, and the closest you get to hustle and bustle is a local shotengai (shopping street) at Christmas.

And the best thing about experiencing it from your own living room is? Well, just look out for the typhoon scene, OK?

Swing GirlsWho knew food poisoning could lead to such highs? "Swing Girls" has the answer.

5. “Swing Girls”

Setting: Yamagata Prefecture

Year: 2004

Director: Shinobu Yaguchi

English-subtitled version available: Yes

In this hit feel-good movie, "Swing Girls" sees a class of underachieving schoolgirls get together as stand-ins for the high-school band after they accidentally give them food poisoning. With barely a shred of musical experience between them, the girls must tap their raw talent and, of course, learn a few lessons about music, friendship and life. Bless.

Set in the countryside of Yamagata Prefecture during a hot summer, the movie is crammed with green fields and rice paddies, lush forests and babbling streams, all soundtracked by the electrified croak of cicadas.

There are no high-rise buildings here, just ramshackle wooden houses with low roofs and mountains visible on every horizon.

From their perfectly typical school, Yamakawa Koukou (shot at Yamagata Kenritsu Takahata Koutou Gakkou, its peeling paintwork and boxy design betraying its age), the girls take a Yamagata Railroad Line train across open plains and scattered villages, passing Akayu Station (their intended stop) and alighting at Ringo Station.

Walking back through the tall grass, they frolic in the crystal-clear Omono River that gurgles beneath an iron rail bridge.

But it’s not all rural pursuits. The town of Yonezawa (undamaged in the Tohoku quake, but currently housing evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture) features in several key scenes, such as when Tomoko (Juri Ueno) trades in her sister’s PlayStation for a used saxophone at Discount Shop Ebisu-ya.

And, as the girls rehearse their jazzy big-band tunes outside the Big Tomato pachinko parlor, some banter between an onlooking mother and daughter typifies the script’s broad but witty humor: “Mommy, who are they?” “Don’t look at them.”

That's not to say the town is full of small-minded meanies, but hey -- even if it is, who cares? From the safety of your living room, you get only the best of any vicarious vacation just by popping in a DVD. Let's have your non-Tokyo Japan faves in the comments below.

Daniel Robson is a British journalist and events organizer based in Tokyo, where he writes about music, video games and culture for publications on four continents.

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