Things to read and watch before visiting Japan

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Mixed media for the budding Japanese aficionado.

Japan is a cultural hotbed, where a way of life has been sharpened and honed into an enrapturing curriculum of art, food and custom. To the history buffs amongst us, this is of no surprise, considering from 1603 to 1867 it didn’t let anyone in or out of the country. This has made Japan fascinating to us in the west, as their way is so very different to ours.

The Japanese way is so deeply ingrained that it makes artistic expression unique, and quick to bloom and innovate. Since opening its doors over 150 years ago, Japan has pioneered some of the best art the world has seen.

It’s often the various pieces of media we consume that inspire us to visit somewhere, and Japan is no different. From the beauty of anime to small form documentaries, we’ve put together a list of some of our and our communities’ favourite bits of Japanese content that you can enjoy before, during, or after your holiday to Japan. Think of it as a conversation starter!

Streaming now — Shōgun

How FX's 'Shōgun' Miniseries Made It Through A Decade Of Setbacks

A classic retold — FX’s Shōgun, now streaming on Disney+ (UK) & Hulu (US)

Adapting the classic novel by James Clavell, FX’s new show is currently streaming on Disney +, already to rave reviews. For nearly 50 years, Shōgun, has captivated readers — showcasing Edo-period Japan through the lense of Anjin-san, a shipwrecked Englishman, who became a trusted advisor to Lord Tokugawa.

With vivid descriptions of Japan’s unique customs, cultures, and the psyche that influenced the Tokugawa Shogunate’s formation, Shōgun has fascinated generations of Western readers.

Now the new series hopes to continue the fascination with Japanese culture, and expose a new crop of people to the wonders and intricacies of the era of the Shōgun.

For related trips you can take, more show information, and an interactive map(!) we’ve created a Shogun-hub. If you’re watching the show, you won’t want to miss our take.

The classics

Legendary cultural cornerstones of Japanese history.

The way of the samurai – The Book of the Five Rings.

Miyamoto Mushashi — The Book of the Five Rings — 1645 📚

Transcending art (both martial and calligraphical) and culture, on face value, this book is just about how to wield a sword. But look closer and you find one of the most significant pieces of Japanese canon, written by arguably its greatest ever swordsman.

The story goes that, Miyamoto Musashi (born Shinmen Bennosuke), an undefeated swordsman (61 victorious duels) from the Harima Province, retreated to Reigandō (a cave, west of Kumamoto) to write about his life in great detail. Split into five ‘books’, The Book of the Five Rings is as much a meditation as it is actual guidance.

For many, holding a sword isn’t something they aspire to do, so treat this book as you would an abstract painting. Don’t try to understand it straight away, and you’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you’ve put it down.

You can purchase The Book of the Five Rings on Amazon.

Charming, larger than life characters – My Neighbour Totoro.

My Neighbour Totoro – Studio Ghibli – 🎥

All of Hayao Miyazaki’s work as head of Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli deserves a place on this list. His legacy on the art form is unprecedented. But by far the most charming of all the work, in our view, is 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro.

Quite simply, there hasn’t been a more beautiful portrayal of the innocence of childhood put to screen. It leaves you feeling hopeful and excited for your next adventure. It presents Japan as a mystical and verdant wonderland, ripe for dreaming and play. If you haven’t ever tried a Studio Ghibli film, or aren’t sure what anime is all about, this is where to start.

My Neighbour Totoro is streaming on Netflix (UK). For avid fans, we often take travellers to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. This is a small venue, so tickets are often in high demand and subject to change. If you’re already in the process of booking with us, speak to your travel consultant about availability.

The Tale of Genji — Murasaki Shikibu — eleventh century 📚

Widely regarded as the world’s first ever novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is a snapshot of courtly life in medieval Japan. Following the life of Genji, the shining prince, this book is a true epic. With a storyline you expect from such fare — full of romances, scandals and the politics of stately homes — this is a must for anyone who loves historical fiction.

The Tale of Genji is available for purchase on Amazon.

Cinematic legend — Harakiri.

Harakiri — Masaki Kobayashi – 1962 🎥

The battle of logic and the Bushido Code (Samurai law) intertwined, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri was, and still is, completely ahead of its time. Meditative, brutally human and completely Japanese, this is arguably the best Samurai film ever made. It plays on perspective and the learned art of storytelling to weave a narrative completely unique to the Japanese way of life.

Harakiri is available for purchase on Amazon.

The modern classics

Often referenced in pop culture and influencing the newer generations.

Lost Japan — Alex Kerr — 1993  📚

Vividly casting his insight into what makes Japanese culture so interesting, Alex Kerr’s book tells a story of a life lived in Japan through over 30 years of experiences.

“Alex Kerr brings to life the ritualized world of Kabuki, retraces his initiation into Tokyo’s boardrooms during the heady Bubble Years, and tells the story of the hidden valley that became his home. But the book is not just a love letter. Haunted throughout by nostalgia for the Japan of old, Kerr’s book is part paean to that great country and culture, part epitaph in the face of contemporary Japan’s environmental and cultural destruction.“ — Daunt books review

Kerr won the prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for this book. There aren’t many better at condensing the many facets of Japanese life.

You can buy Lost Japan from Daunt books.

Old enough! — Junji Ōuchi  — 1991 📺

A fascinating short form documentary series, where Japanese children go on errands all by themselves for the very first time. This is a long-running and much-loved show, that has something charming for everyone who watches. It offers insight into Japanese life, with a window into rural and ‘real’ areas that often don’t get the same coverage. Plus, seeing how sweet the toddlers are on this show, as they go about their tasks, is truly heartwarming.

You can watch Old enough! on Netflix.

Lonely in Tokyo — Lost in Translation.

Lost in Translation — Sofia Coppola — 2003 🎥

Celebrating it’s 20-year anniversary last year, Sofia Coppola’s contemplative 2003 film captures a snapshot of two completely different people — Bill Murray’s ‘Bob’ and Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Charlotte’ — who strike a bond, at first through their shared native tongue, but blossoming into something ethereal as they wander through modern day Tokyo.

The impact this film had on tourism to Japan cannot be understated. It signified a landmark change in how the west viewed Japan and — despite the isolation the film portrays — led to a swathe of internet buzz, with budding philosophers visiting Tokyo in their hundreds.

Lost in Translation is available to stream for free on ITVX (UK).

The Western-traveller view

Our famous personalities take on the fascination with Japan.

Monty Don’s Japanese gardens — BBC — 2019 📺

Famous gardener and TV presenter Monty Don, explores the wonders and beauty of Japan’s finest gardens. From early boating gardens, through Buddhist temples and Zen gardens, right up to a modern tea house, Monty Don travels across Japan looking for the ‘why’ behind the fascination with Japanese gardens. A must watch for the green-fingered traveller.

Did you know? — The six ideal qualities of a Japanese garden are spaciousness, seclusion, creativity, antiquity, water, and scenic views. Monty Don visits the origin of this tenet, Kenrokuen (Garden of the six sublimities), which features in one of our most popular Small Group Tours, but you can visit easily on your own if you wish.

Joanna Lumley’s Japan — BBC — 2016 📺

Famous British actress, Joanna Lumley, goes on a 2,000 mile journey across the four main islands of Japan, travelling from north to south, meeting local people and absorbing the culture. This is an engaging insight into Japan; Lumley isn’t afraid to shine a light on the human aspects of travel, journeying and meeting a host of different characters along the way.

A rich and varied culture

This is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, the culture of Japan is so rich, we could have doubled this list and still not got close. It has something for everyone; if you’re interested in a certain artform, chances are they’ve done something unique and interesting.

Here’s our full list of recommendations:


  • Harakiri — Masaki Kobayashi – 1962
  • My Neighbour Totoro – Studio Ghibli – 1988
  • Lost in Translation — Sofia Coppola — 2003


  • Monty Don’s Japanese gardens — BBC — 2019
  • Joanna Lumley’s Japan — BBC — 2016


  • The Tale of Genji — Murasaki Shikibu — eleventh century
  • Miyamoto Mushashi — The Book of the Five Rings — 1645
  • Lost Japan — Alex Kerr — 1993

If you’re interested in living out your Japanese cultural dreams, get in touch with us as soon as you can.


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