It's now been quite a while since the UK first went into lockdown and whilst international travel is currently on hold, thankfully, the likes of the British Film Institute (BFI) Japan Season - celebrating over 100 years of Japanese cinema - have leapt to our rescue and allowed us to explore Japan's timeless natural landscapes and urban neighbourhoods of old from the comfort of our couches.
In fact, follow the instructions here and enter our special Japan fan code 'JNTO21' when you start your BFI Player free trial (before the end of April 2021), and you'll get an added month for free, on top of the two weeks free trial! That's a total of 1 month and half of more anime, more cult classics, more J-horror and more classic Japanese cinema than you can shake a bamboo stick at.
But without further ado, let's explore the locations of just a couple of BFI Japan season's finest films!
Late Spring (1949) - Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture
Set in the coastal town of Kamakura, Yasujiro Ozu's 'Late Spring' (晩春, Banshun) is a prime example of the era's many poignant 'Shomingeki' (庶民劇), a genre that deals with the ordinary daily lives of working class and middle class people of modern times. The film is centred around the notion of filial piety: Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the female protagonist, is determined to stay by her widower father's (Chishu Ryu) side; he meanwhile wants her to live her own life and to in time get married.
Kamakura has long-served as a traditional seaside retreat for the millions of weary Tokyoites who live just an hour away by train, with its beautiful beaches (such as Enoshima's Yuigahama Beach) and impressive views of Mt. Fuji across the sea. The coastal city also served as Japan's capital for 150 years during the aptly-named Kamakura era (1185-1333) and even today its legacy is very much visible in its traditional streets and many temples and shrines. The expansion of Buddhist teachings during this era for one, is typified by the likes of the Great Buddha of Kamakura (鎌倉大仏, Kamakura Daibutsu) of Kotoku-in Temple, arguably the most famous of the city's sights. Others of note include the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Hasedera Temple and Meigetsu-in Temple (also known as 'The Temple of Hydrangeas' - visit in June for eye-popping pinks, blues and purples!), to name but a few.
Hungry? Kamakura is filled with tasty little eateries and food stands, one of the best places for these being the famous Komachi Street. Here you'll find all sorts of delicious sweet treats and savoury snacks, from waffles and mochi to deep-fried mushrooms and piping-hot takoyaki! Ozu himself lived in Kamakura during the latter years of his life and was a regular customer at Kousen, a traditional restaurant famous for its Inari (deep-fried tofu skin) sushi box, just outside of Kita-Kamakura Station - as you can imagine their Inari menu is popular with locals so be sure to get there early before they sell out!
Tokyo Story (1953) - Tokyo & Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture
Arguably the most renowned of Yasujiro Ozu's brilliant Shomingeki is 'Tokyo Story' (東京物語, Tokyo Monogatari). Again featuring the masterful Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu as two of the protagonists, the film tells the story of an aging couple who travel - in the days before the Shinkansen mind you! - all the way from the port town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture to Tokyo to visit their adult children. The film contrasts the behaviour of their children, who are too busy to pay them much attention, with that of their widowed daughter-in-law, who treats them with kindness and feels an intense sense of devotion to them.
Whilst Tokyo Story was filmed in both Tokyo and Onomichi, the vast majority of the film is actually shot within the confines of the home, with few obvious signs of the city. As Tokyo is already a well-documented destination on the JNTO website and beyond, we'll instead focus on introducing coastal Onomichi to you, starting with its status as a key port city wedged between Japan's Seto Inland Sea (known as 'Setouchi') and some seriously steep hills. The city's Mt. Senko-ji ropeway service is an excellent way to zip from the city's top to bottom (and vice versa) without breaking a sweat; if you're willing to brave the hill's winding stone-step streets, you'll be rewarded with sightings of plenty of cute cats! If staying active is your thing, you've come to the right place: Onomichi is in fact the starting point of the 60km-long Shimanami Kaido cycling route which traverses 6 little islands, namely Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima, and ends at Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, on the main island of Shikoku - that's one way to island-hop with ease! Judoji Temple, Fukuzenji Temple and Sumiyoshi Shrine meanwhile are ideal sites for quiet contemplation and, dare we say it, rest!
Eating in Onomichi? Arguably the city's most famous culinary export, Onomichi ramen is everything you want and more from a bowl of steamy noodles in soup: the ramen's heart-warming juiciness lies in the soy-sauce base, its use of fish paste in the broth, the chunks of pork lard and of course the staple ni-tamago (煮卵, soft-boiled egg). There are an abundance of shops serving it so take your pick, or try them all! Combine with a refreshing Setouchi Lemon-flavoured beverage or dessert and you're good to go!
If you're looking for somewhere for the duration of your stay in Onomichi, try Takemuraya, a famous Ryokan (旅館, traditional Japanese inn) which is also registered as Tangible Cultural Property. If you watch towards the end of Tokyo Story you'll see that Takemuraya is the restaurant next to the beach; Ozu and his film crew actually stayed here during filming - a great way to experience the magic of the film next time you're in the region, we think!
Seven Samurai (1954) - Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture
Who can deny the profound success of Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai)? Over 60 years on this cult-classic is still synonymous with the best of Japanese cinema, if not the world, and an excellent looking glass into the tragic, dog-eat-dog world of feudal Japan. The story takes place in 1586 during the Sengoku (戦国, Warring States) period of Japanese history and follows the story of a village of farmers that hire seven ronin (浪人, masterless samurai) to combat bandits who will return after the harvest to steal their crops. If you've not watched it before then be sure to set aside enough time to watch it - just over 3 hours or so!
Contrary to first impressions, many of the village scenes were shot in a studio, and not on location; some of the battle scenes however were shot in Izu, close to Shuzenji Onsen where you can soak in the therapeutic waters of a traditional Onsen (温泉, Japanese hot spring): the southern barricade (flooded fields) scene; and the scene where Kikuchiyo and village defenders are by the bridge. If you're keen to experience a slice of Edo-era life, your best bet is Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, or the samurai city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, in the rural Tohoku region. There you can don traditional garbs and learn all about life under the Tokugawa Shogunate: from the philosophies of the time to the weapons and self-defence skills of ninja and samurai.
Ran (1985) - Handa Kogen, Oita Prefecture
Another Akira Kurosawa masterpiece is 'Ran' (乱, Ran). Inspired by William Shakespeare's 'King Lear', the film tells the tale of aging Sengoku-period warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) who abdicates in favour of his three sons: their loyalty however soon transforms into treachery, resulting in a story of division and conflict. The film is rightly so still today considered one of the all-time greats.
Home to Mt. Aso, Japan's largest active volcano, the Aso-Kuju National Park in Kumamoto and Oita Prefectures was always going to be the perfect setting for a film titled 'Ran' (meaning 'chaos' in Japanese): surrounded by smoky mountains almost as far as the eye can see, Handa Kogen was the natural choice for the great battle scene which featured over 1000 extras and 200 horses. On account of its vastness and, of course, the country's biggest volcano, the area is best traversed by car; if you're feeling up to the challenge, slip on some walking shoes and take to the park's trails for incredible panoramic views at the top, safe in the knowledge that steamy onsen baths await at the bottom! For highlights of the Aso-Kuju National Park, click here.