Iconic Mt. Fuji, Tokyo’s skyscrapers looming above the seemingly chaotic yet surprisingly civil “scramble intersections,” food and fun in Osaka’s Dotonbori neighborhood, and the temples, shrines, and priceless cultural artifacts of Kyoto — we’ve all seen countless photos and videos. Japan is one of the most photogenic places on the planet, and these well-known destinations are certainly stunning, but there’s so much more.
Tourism is booming in Japan, and while it’s great that so many people visit the aforementioned destinations, among the locals and long-term expatriates there’s a giant secret that’s…really not much of a secret: beyond the big names, there are countless destinations of equal and sometimes greater beauty.
In this two-part article, we introduce a total of nine movies that offer a window into the unique locales awaiting adventurous travelers. Part I guides you from northern to central Japan, while Part II sets you on a journey from central to southern Japan. Let’s explore!
1.10 Promises to My Dog(犬と私の10の約束) 2008-Hokkaido: Hakodate
We begin our journey-by-film in Hakodate, 856 km north of Tokyo, in a small city by the sea. With her mother hospitalized in failing health and an overly career-focused father, Akari finds companionship and purpose in raising Socks, a golden retriever puppy that one day appears at her home. With Socks by her side, and away for a time when she’s relocated to Sapporo with her father, Akari goes through all the struggles one might expect of a young woman in her situation. Eventually, she and her father happily return home to Hakodate, and as she moves into adulthood, forced to face her childhood pet’s mortality, she does so with the support of hometown friends and family.
Hakodate, the film’s primary setting, is situated near the southernmost point of Japan’s northernmost island, and it has a long and interesting history — including being host to the first Japanese seaport officially opened to foreign trade. Hakodate’s weather, punctuated by four distinct seasons, is relatively mild by northern Japanese standards; winters are snowy, but not too cold, and summers are warm, but not too hot. In addition to the reasonable climate, visitors can enjoy attractions like the star-shaped Goryokaku park, countless restaurants serving local seafood specialties, and quick access to mountains, rivers, and the rest of Hokkaido’s celebrated natural beauty.
Main Cast: Rena Tanaka, Etsushi Toyokawa; Director: Katsuhide Motoki
2.Kiseki no Ringo (奇跡のリンゴ)2013-Tohoku: Hirosaki
Moving approximately 150 km south of Hakodate, just across the ribbon of sea separating the northern island of Hokkaido from Honshu Island, we arrive at our second location and the setting for Kiseki no Ringo: Aomori Prefecture’s Hirosaki City. The film’s title translates as “miracle apples,” and the story is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Hirosaki apple farmers Akinori and Mieko Kimura. The Kimuras’ story, set in the much more rural 1970s-era Hirosaki, is a simple one: due to his wife’s severe allergy to chemical pesticides used in growing apples, Akinori attempts to raise his fruit through entirely organic means. A seemingly endless stream of setbacks unfolds across the narrative, and Akinori is met with ridicule by family and the community at large. The Kimura family endures years of dire financial setbacks, until one day a miracle occurs.
Aomori Prefecture, a largely rural section of Japan, produces more apples than anywhere else in the country. The region is home to expansive natural environs, beautiful coastlines, great food, and one of the most incredibly creative yearly events in all of Japan: the Nebuta Festival. If you’ve never heard of this festival, just imagine a giant, week-long party where the locals parade massive floats carrying meticulously detailed, vividly colored, superbly illuminated paper sculptures featuring characters from Japanese mythology! Check online images for “Nebuta Festival” and start making plans for next August!
Main Cast: Sadao Abe, Miho Kanno Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
3.Tokyo Oasis (東京オアシス) 2011- Tokyo
Next we take a larger geographical leap, traveling 682 km south to Tokyo, and appropriately so, we’ll jump directly into something much more abstract than our first two entries. In Tokyo Oasis, actress Touko seems to be losing a firm grip on reality, and upon leaving the set of her latest production, she begins something of a surreal journey across the metropolitan landscape. Along the way, she gives a stranger a ride, meets a screenwriter in a theater, and, at a zoo, a young woman applying for a position there while studying for a college entrance exam. Although the film has four primary human characters, most regard the real star of Tokyo Oasis to be its namesake, the city itself.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Area is the largest agglomeration of human beings in the history of our species, and for any first-time traveler to Japan, even one intent to see beyond the standard travel destinations, a few days in the big, big city is a must. As a place, Tokyo truly is something to hold in awe, but visitors would also do well to see beyond the monolithic concept that is “Tokyo” and remember that, at the end of the day, we are talking about the sum of 38 million human beings’ day to day experience, each with something to do, places to be, and people to see. Tokyo Oasis is a visual love letter to the city, but it is one delivered with a certain dose of melancholy, and something of a plea: in celebrating the metropolis as a whole, remember to also appreciate the constituent human elements.
Main Cast: Satomi Kobayashi, Ryo Kase Directors: Kana Matsumoto, Nakamura Kayo
4.Village of Dreams (絵の中のぼくの村) 1996-Chubu: Aichi
We’re now taking a big turn to the west, leaving the cities, and landing more than 300 km from Tokyo in Aichi Prefecture. Village of Dreams, set in a remote Aichi village, revolves around the lives of Seizo and Yukihiko, nine-year-old twins immersed in the profoundly unique experience that was 20th-century post-war Japan. Village of Dreams offers a look into truly rural Japanese life, its rhythms, and its insular nature.
Aichi is a very important industrial and economic hub for Japan, but for travelers leaving the Tokyo region for Osaka, Kyoto, and beyond, Aichi is often relegated to a mere waypoint. It’s unfortunate, because wonderful hot springs, castles, beaches, hundreds of yearly festivals, and the relics (and celebrations) of samurai culture are all to be found in Aichi. The region is also home to Japan’s third largest city, Nagoya, and it offers no shortage of reasons to avoid the urban areas and instead embrace the simplicity of rural life, enjoy a closeness to nature, and take advantage of opportunities to learn more about the ways and practices of traditional Japanese society.
Main Cast: Mieko Harada, Keigo Matsuyama Director: Yoichi Higashi
5.Hankyu Densha (阪急電車) 2011- Kansai
We now travel some 230 km across the Kansai region to Hyogo Prefecture. Our narrative in this location revolves around a handful of characters who gradually come to know each other during their regular 15-minute commute aboard the Hankyu Densha (Hankyu Railway). Hankyu Densha’s narrative is an amalgamation of the lives and stories of several main characters, including a newly single woman in her 30s, a college student with an abusive boyfriend, a grandmother and granddaughter, and a few high-school students.
In real-life, the Hankyu Densha’s Imazu Line functions exactly as it does in the film, connecting the flashy, more cosmopolitan city of Nishinomiya with the more pedestrian, bedroom town of Takarazuka. Although both cities are independently incorporated, they are contiguous with the larger Osaka urban area; Nishinomiya is famous for luxury neighborhoods, a baseball stadium, and stunning views of Osaka Bay, while Takarazuka is the kind of place to which businessmen commute and grandparents live — Japan’s version of suburbs. If you enjoy this film, it might be something of a novelty to visit the Kansai region, ride the Imazu Line, put yourself into the mindset of a local, and perhaps achieve a greater understanding and empathy for those who call these places home.
Main Cast: Miki Nakatani, Erika Toda Director: Yoshishige Miyake
As the number of visitors to Japan grows each year, the country is gradually embracing a mission to welcome tourists to its more remote and still unknown areas, which, as we see in our list so far, have so much to offer. Before you start making your plans for a trip to Japan, continue reading Part II of our film journey through Japan, in which we move down south, from central Japan to Okinawa.