After traveling from Hokkaido to Aichi in central Japan in Part I of our film journey throughout Japan, we’re now heading down south from Shimane to Okinawa. Push play and join us on this visual — and cultural — journey!
1.A Gentle Breeze in the Village (天然コケッコー) 2007-Chugoku: Shimane
Izumo Shrine, Shimane
West from the Kansai area is Shimane Prefecture, our first location on the west coast, off the Sea of Japan. A Gentle Breeze in the Village focuses primarily on the experiences of 8th-grader Soyo Migita, her rural home and school life, and how the arrival of a new boy from Tokyo changes and excites the dynamic amongst the only six children of various ages enrolled in her school. The film is the epitome of Japanese “slice of life” filmmaking, offering a bit of insight into the differences between the lives of city kids and country kids.
Shimane is Japan’s second least populous prefecture. This is both bad and good news — bad because it means that the stunning sights of this area still remain largely unexplored, and good, because the rich nature of the prefecture has stayed untouched. One thing you need to know about this small prefecture is that Shimane is a place of great natural beauty. Home to Daisen-Oki National Park, numerous nature preserves, and Izumo Taisha, one of the Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, a trip to Shimane would definitely be off the beaten path, but certainly rewarding for anyone who made the effort to spend a few days away from the bustling city centers to the east (Osaka) and south (Hiroshima). As you can see in the movie, this rural area gives you a real sense of peace and serenity, a sense of a step back in time where many things were simpler and pristine.
Main Cast: Kaho, Masaki Okada Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
2.Bizan (眉山) 2007- Shikoku: Tokushima
Our next destination leads us sharply to the south, slightly to the east to Tokushima City, the capital of Tokushima Prefecture, located on the northeast end of Shikoku Island. Bizan tells the somewhat tragic yet ultimately redeeming story of Sakiko and Ryuko, her terminally ill single mother. Upon hearing the news of her mother’s illness and grim prognosis, Sakiko leaves her job in Tokyo, returning to Tokushima to care for Ryuko, for whom she has very little affection. Yet, over time, she comes to understand and appreciate Ryuko and eventually helps her attend one of Tokushima’s most important cultural events, the yearly Awa Odori dance festival.
Shikoku Island, Japan’s fourth largest land mass, is probably the least visited region of the country, but as we see in Bizan, it has much to offer. Bizan’s namesake, Mount Bizan, is located in roughly the center of Tokushima city and offers amazing day and nighttime views of the surrounding area, including the sea and the city itself. Although small by Japanese standards, Tokushima City is home to a very rich cultural heritage, most prominently the yearly Awa Odori, Japan’s largest dance festival. Celebrated citywide every year during the Obon holidays, the Awa Odori has been held in Tokushima City for hundreds of years. The chance to be surrounded by a beautiful natural landscape and immersed in deep cultural traditions should put Tokushima on any discerning traveler’s list.
Main Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Takao Osawa Director: Isshin Inudo
3.I Wish (奇跡) 2011-Kyushu
Our next film leads us to two very different destinations on Kyushu Island: Fukuoka City, 560 km west and slightly south of Tokushima City, and Kagoshima Prefecture, 654 km south-southeast. I Wish is a rather unique film, with a script partially allowed to develop naturally based on input and improvisation from the cast (including the child actors). Saddened by their parents’ divorce, brothers Koichi and Ryunosuke long to reunite their family. Separated and living on the opposite ends of the Kyushu Island, one with their father and one with their mother and grandparents, the boys concoct a plan to make a wish at the time two bullet trains pass each other at full speed on the newly opened line connecting their cities.
Geographically, I Wish provides both the greatest number and the most diverse array of travel destinations on our list. Fukuoka City, near the northernmost point of Kyushu Island, is Japan’s fifth largest metropolis and bustles with industry and activity. Kagoshima City, located very near the southernmost point of Kyushu Island, is Japan’s 24th largest city, and though it is not exactly a small city, it is comparatively rural and geographically remote. Amongst these two cities, there is a practically endless number of destinations awaiting travelers willing to make their way a bit farther south. Fukuoka is home to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, a professional baseball team; one of Asia’s top-rated shopping districts; fantastic nightlife, and the delicious, wildly popular Hakata ramen. Kagoshima City in the south is famous for its rich food history, for being the home of the natively Japanese alcoholic beverage shochu, and for a large number of well-attended yearly festivals. The two very different cities are connected by the Kyushu bullet train, which allows travelers to speed from one end of the island to the the other in less than two hours. Between the two cities, the best destination is probably Kumamoto Prefecture, home to one of Japan’s most beautiful castles and breathtaking nature, including the famous Mt. Aso, an active volcano surrounded by dozens of well-developed, welcoming hot springs resorts. Kyushu alone could easily suffice as a one-stop Japan travel destination.
Main Cast: Koki Maeda, Ohshiro Maeda, Joe Odagiri Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
4.Nabbie’s Love (ナビィの恋) 1999-Okinawa
Departing Japan’s mainland entirely, we now take the final and longest leg of our journey, which, from Kagoshima City, requires 827 km of southwesterly travel to Aguni Island, the primary setting for Nabbie’s Love. Once again, we see here the theme of ‘returning home from Tokyo’ and ‘getting back to one’s roots’ storytelling that’s quite common in Japanese cinema. In this case, young Nanako quits her job in Tokyo and returns to her home island of Aguni, Okinawa Prefecture, where her grandparents still live. She witnesses her grandmother, Nabbie, in an act of infidelity, but she also learns that there is a tragic story at the root of the indiscretion, and Nanako gradually becomes a much more sympathetic character than what we see at first blush.
This film’s setting is the village of Aguni, located on the real-life island of Aguni. An entire island populated by only 750 people, being a single, self-contained village does seem a bit fantastical, but given that Okinawa is comprised of hundreds of individual islands in the Ryukyu archipelago, it’s not a surprise. For this reason alone, Aguni is the most geographically exotic location on our list, and a visitor whose hometown is landlocked or far from the sea would marvel at place only about four kilometres across at its widest. While most visitors to Okinawa tend to focus on the Okinawa capital, Naha, travelers with a bit of adventure in their hearts, willing to get away from the urbanization a bit, will undoubtedly have a truly unique experience amidst a mix of similar but distinct local cultures, traditions, and profound natural beauty.
Main Cast: Naomi Nishida, Jun Murakami Director: Yuji Nakae
As we complete our journey from Hokkaido to Okinawa, we witness that while the traditionally prerequisite destinations of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto will certainly make one’s trip rewarding and exciting, there is a certain element of curiosity of learning what’s behind the beaten tracks — the unexplored, the local, the mysterious Japan we rarely see in travel guidebooks. If you are a traveler who is willing to surround yourself in a culture entirely foreign from your own; is brave enough to dance with Aomori locals in the Nebuta Festival; relish the simple charm of walking a dirt road in Aichi to the nearest restaurant or market, or listen and think very carefully about what Okinawans mean when explaining that they are part of Japan, but not exclusively “Japanese,” don’t be afraid to explore further. A new destination is always a new chance.