Eating vegan (a diet containing no animal products whatsoever) in Japan can be frustrating, given that most Japanese don’t seem to have even have the word “vegetarian,” let alone “vegan,” in their vocabulary. Even in Tokyo, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, dashi (bonito fish flake stock/seasoning) seems to be in almost everything– from miso soup to potato chips. The “Impossible Burger” hasn’t quite made it to Japan.
Oftentimes, even the menus at veggie-forward restaurants (often with names that include the words “farmer” or “yasai,” meaning vegetable) are mostly meat-centric dishes with some organic veggies on the side. While culturally, eating vegan hasn’t hit the mainstream in Japan quite yet due to various reasons, the vegan restaurants that do exist here are high quality and often very cozy and inviting.
Below are four 100% vegan restaurants in or near Tokyo that I encourage you to try, or would encourage anyone to try. They are all quite different in terms of location and type of food, but the one thing that they all have in common is value — and the safety of knowing you are eating in a place that knows what it means to be vegan.
Located in Jiyugaoka, one of my favorite neighborhoods, is known for its trendy vibes and romantic streets, Saido (meaning vegetable street) is truly a hidden gem. After walking through a lush garden, expect to be greeted by a very cheerful and friendly Japanese woman. She will explain the menu to you in detail, giving suggestions (osusume) along the way. At lunch time, for about 2,000 yen you will receive a three-course meal that comes with soup, a gastronomic wonder of a salad that emits smoke when opened, and then the main course. Choose from one of the many noodle dishes (e.g. yakisoba, abura soba, ramen, tsukemen), unagi-don, katsu-don, or curry.
2 Chome-15-10 Jiyugaoka, Meguro City, Tokyo 152-0035
Closest Station: Jiyugaoka
Olu Olu Cafe A somewhat cluttered, homey Hawaii-inspired 100% vegan restaurant in the Sangenjaya neighborhood near Shibuya. Their menu is quite varied, with choices from hot fried (soy-based) chicken to ramen.
The jambalaya there is one to write home about– or write an article about. Flavorful, subtly spicy, quality mock meat, and not too oily. All main course meals are from 900-1,200 yen, and portions are fairly large.
Once you’re done eating, head outside and walk around the area. There are plenty of parks, coffee shops, and clothing stores to be explored.
1 Chome-11-1 Ikejiri, Setagaya City, Tokyo 154-0001
Closest Station: Sangenjaya
Kousaiken Gu Since this restaurant is actually in Kamakura, it’s technically outside of Tokyo. Get on a train and go to the beach when you’re done. Even if you don’t go to the beach, it’s worth the trip thanks to its charm and quality.
It is almost hidden, located just up the street from the crowded beaches of Kamakura in a very quiet and residential neighborhood.
The restaurant has a mix of Japanese and Indian food with very limited seating– one inside and two outside seating area (with covering). The family who owns it originally operated the restaurant out of Nerima-ku in Tokyo, but moved it to Kamakura in 2017 where they have been running it ever since. They are very friendly and love to chat in English, so it’s a great place for tourists looking to take a break from kanji-riddled menus and staff with limited English abilities. For 2,000 JPY, one can get soup, a large vegetable plate, curry, rice + puri, dessert, and tea. I was blown away by the value. My favorite was the vegetable plate, which came with about 10 different types of vegetables, all cooked in different ways.
Conveniently located in Shibuya, it’s a tiny place with only two staff members including the chef.
This is meant to be a traditional Japanese restaurant vegan-ized. They serve up karaage, seasonal veggie dishes, curry, miso soup, and more. If going for dinner, I recommend the couple deli plate for two. It includes a sampling of all of their different dishes for just 4,200 yen.
Julie Yukiko (雪子) Buisson aka Ukico has much in common with Snow-White, other than just her name, which literally means “child of the snow”—she is charming, peaceful, a beautiful woman with alabaster skin and blessed with an ethereal singing voice that calms the spirits of men and animals; she is enchanting. Her first song, Denial, and the surreal mystical music video for it were released on September 11.
She was born to a Japanese mother and French father and grew up in Paris. You could say she has made the best of her bicultural heritage, touching upon her roots to become a successful model and now a songwriter and singer. Her French-Japanese visage and sense of style helped her have a successful international modeling career.However, she has much more depth than her surface appearances, and that is part of her appeal.
Ukico (pronounced You-Key-Koh) was studying at the University La Sorbonne while pursuing her modeling career after high school. What sparked her interest in singing and songwriting was the death of her grandmother.
When she passed away, Ukico, wrote a poem as a eulogy, which she showed to her father—and to her surprise, he wept.
“It moved my father to cry and it showed me how to paint a picture with words. He still reads the poem, sometimes.” She felt the power of words come to life.
She had often thought about becoming a singer/songwriter but lacked confidence in her ability to compose or to voice her emotions musically. But seeing her father’s response stirred something inside of her.
“It was a wake-up call. I had always dreamed of studying and living in New York and pursuing music. I love so many different genres and singers. Everything from Massive Attack, to Little Dragon, to Lana Del Rey.”
The song writing of Fiona Apple was particularly inspirational to her.
To pursue her musical career more seriously she entered a music engineering school in NYC, The Institute of Audio Research. After graduating salutatorian, she interned at the recording studio Strange Weather based in Brooklyn.
She was given an opportunity to work on the production of 36 Seasons by Ghosface Killah. She also put in time at the world famous jazz club Birdland, live mixing for the Grammy Award winning band The Afro Latin Jazz orchestra, and other jazz acts.
While in New York, she experienced the loneliness, alienation and emotional struggles that come with life in the Big Apple.
She sought refuge in spiritual disciplines, yoga and meditation, eventually becoming adept enough to guide others.. Meditation and yoga are still a huge part of her life, and perhaps what gives her an aura of warm serenity—not the chilly vibe you’d expect from a snow woman.
During her time in New York, she was also taken under the wing of Justyn Pilbrow, a respected music producer who has handled major acts such as Halsey and The Neighbourhood.
After leaving New York and coming back to Japan she also became more interested in her own Japanese background and traditional music. It provided her with some solace as
She continued to work with Justyn Pilbrow and was also able to collaborate on musical pieces with Japanese virtuosos of Koto (Japanese lute), Shamisen, Shakuhachi (windpipes) and the Taiko (Japanese drum).
Her first single, Denial, has instrumentation featuring the shakuhachi and taiko. “The shakuhachi is such a beautiful instrument—it can express so much pain and tension.”
The video of the song is based on the story of Japan’s creation, as told in the Kojiki, a classic of ancient Japanese literature. The creation of the world starts with the first two existing Gods Izanagi (male God) and Izanami (female God). After forming Japan’s islands they gave birth to other gods—the god of the wind, seas, and more. But Izanami, after giving birth to the God of Fire dies from the trauma and fatal wounds. Her spirit goes down to the underworld. Izanagi who misses her terribly, decides to descend to the underworld to bring her back—like Japan’s own Orpheus.
The video, using Butoh dancers, brings to life the myth of creation, death and renewal. But what is the song about on a personal level? Fasting? Living without material goods? Denial of French culture, or Japanese culture?
Ukico answers, “It is a song about breaking up and the end of love. But it is a bit more than that. I was protecting my heart, not to fall in love again. I was in denial of closing my heart when I started to write it. But also there was underlying denial that I am mad at somebody.
But the real denial in the song is that I am angry at myself. It is because of myself, because of how I am choosing how to deal with things that the suffering comes. And there is some wisdom and transmutative power in understanding that.”
Japan Subculture Research Center asked Elizaveta to explain why she wrote the song and for the lyrics to the song. Here is what she had to say.
I wrote “Meet Again” not long after finding out about the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation. I had met some people from KyoAni, although just very casually, through a network of animators and visual artists I am occasionally part of, when in Tokyo.…
I was hoping to be able to tour the studio and visit their shop, when visiting Kyoto next. I was also aware of their positive reputation, as they were known for being an employee-friendly company in an industry, which often overworks and underpays animators. They had a lot of women working for them, too, which was unusual, and a breath of fresh air.
In the hours and days following the tragedy, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened, and following the news, which just got more and more grim.
The contrast between the beautiful, hopeful art produced by KyoAni and what happened to them, was very hard to reconcile with. I am not a starry-eyed optimist,
but I do prefer to believe that good things happen to those who put out good things into the world. While I know it’s a naive worldview, it’s better than the alternative. This event, though, was not an accident, but an act of deliberate evil. All circumstances aligned for it to be as awful as could be. It was incredibly hard for me to accept it as reality. There had been no magic hero to save the day, and nothing to soften the blow. Kyoto is a peaceful, mystical city of a few thousand temples. But no deity stepped in to offer protection.
Once you accept that something terrible like this happened and there’s no way to explain it, you must allow for healing to start, or at least attempt to get on the path towards it. I can’t even start to imagine the pain and trauma of those who had gone through this experience and survived are now having to deal, and probably for years to come. My heart also goes out to those who got the call that day to find out their loved ones were no longer with them. Furthermore, the trauma to KyoAni fans around the world may not have been as direct, but it’s real nonetheless. When you make art, those who love and consume it, become believers of the things your art brings into the world. For KyoAni fans, it would have been beauty, hope and harmony. A tragedy such as this one kills faith that the world is in any way fair and a worthwhile place to be part of.
I wrote “Meet Again” the day I went to the recording studio, and the song practically wrote itself. I heard it in my head, and the lyrics came to be just minutes before I walked out to catch the train. This recording is the first take, which we recorded and filmed. It wasn’t quite perfect in a couple of places, and so I did another take, but I had a hard time singing then, because I was too close to tears. And so I made the decision to keep the first take, as it was, and record no more.
I wrote this song as a way to heal myself, even though I was just a bystander of this tragedy. I hope it may serve as a source of healing to others affected by it. I still have hope and faith. There are so many things we do not know, and so much happens every day, which makes it hard to take heart and carry on. But carry on we must, and help those around us do so, too.
I don’t remember when I got the call that day They said you were no more And then the ground gave way
I sat and cried all night Still hoping they’d been wrong A part of me had died How could I carry on
As sunrise painted red Inside my sleepless eyes Still lying on my bed I thought I heard a voice
It sounded like my love A distant precious sound But there was not a soul That I could see around
I know you’re still with me In other shape or form Our union has survived A deadly firestorm
And when I look above I can transcend the pain Soar high with me, my love I know we’ll meet again.
何時のことか 覚えてない もういないと 立ち尽くした
泣き明かした まちがいだと 身を裂かれて 歩みようも
夜明けの赤 腫れ目を染め 伏せたままで 聞こえたのは
君のような 遠くの音 影ひとつも 見えないのに
今も そばに 形を変え つながりだけ 焼け残った
仰ぎ見ては 痛みを超え 君を連れて また会うまで あの高みへ また会うまで
Born in USA, Russian-raised Elizaveta made her debut on Universal Records (US) in 2012. Since then she became the voice of the Tavern Bard in Dragon Age, has toured USA, Russia and Europe, was a repeat guest performer at the main TED stage, and released a number of multi-lingual recordings, heard in multiple films and TV series. She produced and released an all-Japanese language duet album Mezameru Riyuu earlier this year, followed by a 16-city tour of Japan.
Japanese theatres offer a wide variety of performances, but Youth Theatre Japan (YTJ) offers the younger generations a chance to perform on the same stages as the pros that they admire. And, don’t think for a minute that they are simply just kids on stage, these young musically inclined talents spend countless hours honing their skills at YTJ auditioning for a role. Then only best out of hundreds of hopefuls are chosen, and from there they go into intensive dance, acting, and vocal training to be ready for the stage.
YTJ believes that through performing arts youth are able to grow and develop into stronger individuals who are able to clearly communicate their thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. Thus, Members at YTJ are constantly learning new skills, practicing their English during lessons, and getting ready for showcases. By use of Partnership, Project, and Performance YTJ-staff remind members to focus on the whys behind each new skill and task that they are required to learn.
YTJ staff help members understand the importance of setting goals, learning a new skill, trying their best, and moving forward with passion. All while helping members learn to communicate and express themselves through song, dance, and interpersonal skills. As Youth Theatre Japan`s mission to provide innovative, creative and positive youth development through a fusion of “Entertainment” and “Education”. YTJ staff treat each child as an equal partner to help them develop a deeper sense of pride in their roles at YTJ and build up their self-esteem.
Over the past 10 years YTJ has successfully blended “Education” and “Entertainment” into their company and now has 35 studios and over 8,000 members in the Kanto, Kansai and Chubu areas. In addition to producing musicals they also host the Japan Youth Dance Festival.
Their next production will be the YTJ Alice in Wonderland Jukebox Musical! Please check the dates below for a show near you!
YTJ’s talented performers will be performing each song in English. This event is family friendly and please be sure to come dressed in your best Wonderland attire. There will be a special prize for a lucky guest who reads the Queen’s Decrees on the Alice Official Site or English Facebook Page and comes wearing the special item she requested! Tickets are 6,000 per person, be sure to reserve your seat at the tea party of the year.
Then later on this summer come follow Kaito and his friends! Jump and sing along as they embark on an adventure that helps bridge cultural gaps through music. During the journey they will learn more about themselves and the world around them they build up new interest in other cultures and diversity. This musical features popular songs from around the world performed in English. Tickets are on sale now and only cost 6,000 per person. Please follow the link for more information and to see showtimes and location https://show.ytj.gr.jp/info/worldmusic.
I am at the reception counter of Muji Hotel – the much touted and long awaited hotel produced by Muji, Japan’s popular minimalist clothing and household products brand. Muji, as you may know, stands for Mujirushi (無印) which literally means “no seal or stamp”; it’s a brand who’s trademark is no (visible) brand. Which is very Zen-like unless you look at the label inside.
When the hotel first opened in early April, rumor had it that every room was booked solid for the next 2 years. In late May, procuring a room (on a weekday) proved easy. Muji (rhymes with Fuji) has grown into a global label touting Japan-style simplicity and aesthetics but to the average non-minimalist Japanese, it remains inscrutable, even unfathomable. Many see the pared down surfaces and uniform designs of Muji products as a tad too aggressively simple to fit into their own lives.
Aggressive maybe, but never offensive. There’s not the tiniest fragment of offensiveness anywhere in the Muji Hotel, including the young woman who checks me in. She’s an epitome of serenity and calm, her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck and wearing what is clearly a Muji outfit (white shirt and loose black cardigan plus black pants) the uniform of the hotel staff. She speaks almost flawless Japanese along with English and Urdu which she says is her native language. Before handing me the card key to my room, the young woman gives me an ‘omamori’ or talisman, compliments of Muji – and explains that inside the tiny cloth satchel there’s an emergency whistle (“in case of a natural disaster and other unforeseen events”) and a tiny leaflet containing instructions on getting through emergencies great and small. I open this leaflet and on the last page there is this advice: “If you should feel lonely, look up at the stars in the night sky.”
My room which is a single, feels spacious thanks to the high ceiling measuring over 3.5 meters. In Tokyo, high ceilings are a luxury and when it comes to hotel rooms, they’re the exclusive domain of high-end imported brands like the Peninsula, the Park Hyatt and the Ritz Carlton. Muji is distinctive in that it’s a genuine Japanese hotel, located in one of the choicest pieces of real estate in Tokyo, but only charges a fixed rate of 140 USD per single room, per night. Most importantly, it doesn’t suck or resemble a prison cell.
On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone having a tryst here– it’s far too pristine and devoid of emotion. And a hotel without a tryst is like a cupcake without icing. Or am I being offensive? (Editor’s note: Not offensive. ‘A donut without a hole’ might have been an offensive metaphor but then again they eat donut holes in Australia, so who’s to say?)
Back in my room, a faint scent of linen combined with lavender lingers in the air, piped out from a portable aroma diffuser, one of Muji’s most popular items. Actually, everything in the room is made by Muji, from the bed to the packets of shampoo and conditioner precisely laid out in an oak chest (also Muji), to the little bag of complimentary snacks and the bottled water in the mini-fridge (also Muji). The idea is to let the guests get a taste of what it’s like to live a life defined by Muji, by spending some time in a space designed and totally controlled by Muji. And afterwards, we can take the escalator down to any of the five floors of Muji’s flagship store that’s located right below the hotel. The hotel and the shop are in the same building, and some of the tourists check in with empty suitcases, to stock up on Muji products during their stay. It’s a pretty nifty arrangement for Muji and The Minimalists–which could be a great ambient music band name.
The brand has always opted for discretion, restraint, understatement with a whiff of snobbishness. To admit to a love of Muji is to tell the world that as a consumer, you’re very woke. Muji covers all the bases that would gladden the heart of a discerning shopper: recyclable materials, ethical off-shore manufacturing, diversity among the staff, organic cotton in the clothing line and energy efficient appliances. Add to that the flat, unobtrusive, utterly desexualized designs and it all totals up to something that is for many minimalists, a guilty pleasure. Indeed, many Japanese minimalists admit on their blogs that if they have to shop at all, they shop at Muji. Others have taken it several levels higher by buying Muji houses (yes, they will make an entire house from the ground up) and outfitting it with Muji kitchens and bathrooms, after which they proceed to fill it up with Muji furniture and Muji food.
Muji was launched in 1980 by retail giant Seibu Conglomerates, as an alternative brand to what (then) Seibu CEO Seiji Tsutsumi saw as the nation’s misguided and excessive consumerism. Japanese consumers were hurling themselves into the go-go economy, believing that shopping nirvana was the closest thing to paradise. All of a sudden, the cramped living spaces of the average Japanese were overflowing with stuff. Few of it matched or made sense, and perhaps for the first time in Japanese history, people found themselves in possession of with more STUFF than they ever thought possible.
Muji offered an escape hatch from the clueless clutter of it all, with uniform, collapsible shelves and drawers designed to hold the simplest, most non-intrusive products. Now, forty years later, any discussion of Japanese minimalism almost always precludes a discussion of Muji. Konmari may be riding on her big wave at the moment, but Muji had been on the beach long before she was decluttering the ocean.
But as the hotel room shows, Muji has perhaps, gone a bit overboard. They had always walked the fine line between selling their ideals and selling their products but with the opening of the hotel, it seems that boundary has been obliterated. Muji has merged the product with the ideal, and the whole package comes with a price tag.
Consequently, the last thing you’d want to do in this space is to indulge in carnal pleasures, though to be fair, the hotel does encourage it. (Muji Prophylactics are sold on the third floor.) But since I was alone, what else was there to do but open my laptop to work at the Muji desk, lit by a Muji lamp, wearing Muji slippers after taking a shower in the Muji bathroom? Maybe I’ll even follow Muji’s suggestion and look up at the night sky for a few twinkling stars–and then fall into a dreamless Muji sleep.
Note: In a homage to Muji style, none of the photos in this article have been captioned.
Editor’s note: Japan’s most beloved pederast (a male who sexually assaults young men) , Johnny Kitagawa, died last week. He was an idol maker, the brains behind such super male idol bands as SMAP, Kinki Kids, and an entertainment legend. He was also so powerful that the seedy and dark side of his life was swept under the table even after his death.
There were some in the media that dared challenge the sleazy smooth Svengali. Weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun ran a series of well-researched articles in 1999 describing how Kitagawa systematically abused young boys. Kitagawa then sued the publisher for libel but despite the testimony of alleged rape victims interviewed for the piece, the Tokyo District Court ruled in his favor. They ordered the publisher to pay 8.8 million yen in damages to Kitagawa and his company in 2002.
However, The Tokyo High Court overturned this decision in July 2003. They concluded that the allegations were true. “The agency failed to discredit the allegations in the detailed testimony of his young victims,” ruled the presiding Judge Hidekazu Yazaki. The case stood. The story was barely a blip in the Japanese media horizon. In an entertainment world where Johny’s stable of young boys was a prerequisite to ratings success, his ‘indulgences’ weren’t deemed worthy of reporting.
Johny granted few interviews–here is the story of one of them:
My interview with Johnny
By Steve McClure
It was only after I’d interviewed Johnny Kitagawa that I realized I’d scored a bit of a scoop.
“You interviewed Johnny? That’s amazing – he never does interviews,” my Japanese media and music-biz colleagues said. “How on earth did you manage to do that?”
It was 1996 and I was Billboard magazine’s Japan bureau chief. I was hanging out with an American producer/songwriter who had written several hit tunes for acts managed by Kitagawa’s agency, Johnny’s Jimusho.
“Want to hear a funny story about Johnny?” Bob (not his real name) asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, the other day, Johnny told me he’d discovered a promising male vocal duo. I asked him what they were called.
“‘I’m going to call them the Kinki Kids,’ Johnny told me.
“I told him that ‘kinky’ means sexually abnormal in English slang.
“‘Oh, that’s great!,’ Johnny said.
Bob and I laughed.
“Say, Steve, would you like me to set up an interview with Johnny for you?” Bob asked.
I told him that would be swell.
Some days later I was informed that Kitagawa would grant me an audience at his private residence. I was enjoined not to reveal where the great man lived (it was Ark Hills in Akasaka, for the record).
I showed up at the appointed day and hour, and rang the doorbell of the condo high up in one of the Ark Hills towers. A browbeaten middle-aged woman answered the door. Evidently a domestic of some kind, she said I was expected and asked me to come in. She led me into a garishly decorated living room full of Greek statuary, Louis XV-style furniture and sundry examples of rococo frippery. There were no Ganymedean cup-bearers offering libations or any other signs of sybaritic excess.
I was ushered into the presence of the pop panjandrum. Johnny was sitting in an armchair beside a window with a stunning view of Tokyo. He was small, bespectacled and unprepossessing. If you saw him in the street, you’d never imagine he was the notorious and feared Svengali who had a stranglehold on the geinokai (芸能界/Japan’s entertainment world).
After we exchanged pleasantries, I got down to business. I asked Johnny about his early life in Los Angeles. “My dad ran the local church,” he told me without elaboration in a quiet, rather high-pitched voice. I later found out that Kitagawa père had been the head of a Japanese American Buddhist congregation in L.A.
Johnny was equally vague about when he first came to Japan. He reportedly arrived while serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Korean War.
This set the tone for the rest of the interview – it was hard to get a straight answer out of Johnny, at least when it came to his personal history. He was more interested in talking about all the boy bands he’d groomed and propelled to stardom during his long and extraordinarily successful career.
Johnny told me how he got his start in showbiz when he saw some boys playing baseball in a Tokyo park, and later molded them into a pop group called The Johnnies. That set the template for the rest of his career – scouting for boys and using them as raw material as his pop production line churned out an endless succession of unthreatening quasi-androgynous male idol groups.
A classic showman, Johnny said he was more interested in live performances than records. He made his mark with coups de theatre like having ’80s male idol act Hikaru Genji do choreographed routines on roller skates.
“Once you release a record, you have to sell that record,” Johnny said. “You have to push one song only. You can’t think of anything else. It’s not good for the artist.” The Johnny’s stable of acts has nonetheless racked up dozens of No.1 hits over the years.
Johnny’s English, like that of many longterm expats, was quaintly fossilized. I could hear echoes of ’40s and ’50s America when he said things like “gee,” or “gosh” when answering my questions.
Soon after the interview began, the browbeaten obasan put a steaming dish of katsu-curry in front of me. I begged off, explaining that I’d just eaten lunch. This didn’t prevent the arrival of another dish soon after: spaghetti and “hamburg” steak, as I recall. Hearty fare for starving young idol wannabes was my take on the menu chez Johnny.
Having decided that “Are you or have you ever been a pederast?” might be somewhat too direct a question to put to the dear old chap, I lobbed a series of softball queries with the aim of establishing a friendly rapport. But even the most gently tossed questions elicited amiable but frustratingly vague answers from Johnny.
In the silences between his frequent hems and haws, the wind whined like a sotto voce banshee through the slightly opened window.
Johnny did tell me that he received 300 letters a day from guys wanting to sign up with his agency. I wasn’t sure if he was boasting or bored.
The time came to leave, and Johnny accompanied me to the door. “Come back anytime,” he said with a friendly smile as he waved me goodbye.
As I made my way down the hall to the elevators, I saw the finely chiseled profile of a young man peeking from around a corner, looking in my direction. He caught a glimpse of me and retreated. I resisted the temptation to tell him the katsu-curry was getting cold.
Sadly, I didn’t take up Johnny on his kind offer to come up and see him sometime.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
On April 30th, Emperor Akihito became the first sitting Japanese Emperor to abdicate the throne in over 200 years. Then, the following day on May 1st, his son Naruhito ascended the throne, becoming the 125th emperor thus marking the official start of the Reiwa (令和) Era.
In recognition of this momentous occasion, that PM Abe described to Trump as being “100 times bigger [than the Super Bowl],” many stores and companies released new products. Such as Reiwa branded sake and beer, a ¥100,000 truffle wagyu burger, foie gras and gold dust toped 3kg wagyu burger, gold dust seasoned potato chips and cans of Heisei Era air from Heinari in Gifu Prefecture, heisei branded bottles of water costing ¥2000. While many other stores simply opted to hold special time-limited sales.
At the same time, many Japanese consumers enjoyed an extremely long holiday (by Japanese standards) of 10 days and many went on spending sprees with some economists estimating there to be a nationwide spike in spending by tens of billions of Yen.
Meanwhile, many in China reportedly were baffled and disappointed that the new era name wasn’t based off of Chinese classics like many past era names and instead was instead allegedly derived from a collection of classical Japanese poetry from the late 7th to 8th centuries known as The Manyoshu.
One of the most odd effects of the new Reiwa era name, however, is the celebration of many Tibetans living in Japan due to the new era’s name sounding similar to the Tibetan word for “hope”. There are many people who hope and believe that the new era’s name is an auspicious sign for the Tibetan people; May 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
You can’t make blood from a stone but you can make ink with a stone, and beautiful artistic ink. That is, if you’re using as 硯石(suzuri-ishi), a traditional Japanese ink-stone, which in and of itself can be an art object. I went to Daigo-machi in Ibaraki Prefecture to see one be made by a traditional craftsman and try one out for myself. If you’re an amateur calligrapher (書道家）but aspire to greatness, you need one of these in your life.
Daigo-machi located in Ibaraki Prefecture is one of the few places where traditional suzuri are still made. There is a particular kind of stone that is perfect for making suzuri and the town still has a limited supply. The stones are able to grind down the solid materials used for making ink to do calligraphy, but are also resistant to being ground down as well. As far back as the Tokugawa era, the stones from Daigo and the suzuri produced there were considered natural treasures.
The stones were treasured by Japanese artists like Hoan Kosugi, noteable authors such as Saneatsu Mushanokōji (武者小路 実篤) and even Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi (話せばわか) Inukai*.
Taizan Sato became fascinated with the process of making ink stones after attending a workshop conducted by the man who would later become his master, Taiseki Hoshino.
He opened his own workshop in the town in the year 2002. He has learned over time to touch a stone and know immediately whether or not it is suitable to be an ink-stone. It can’t be too hard and it is helpful if it has some claylike qualities, but not to the point of being absorbent.
In an effort to combine the town’s traditional lacquerware with the ink stones, he uses only lacquer painstakingly handscraped from the urushi trees to paint the outside edges of the stone, and ads design, to turn them into works of art on their own. Many of Japan’s living national treasures use his stones in their artwork and calligraphy.
Sato-san has one disciple (弟子) to follow in his footsteps.
As an amateur calligrapher, I can tell you that the feel of the one of his hand-made stones compared to the cheap ones sold in stationary stores is a world apart. The smoothnesss of his hand-made suzuri are extraordinary and yet the part of the stone used to grind down the ink is so subtly raised that you can barely feel it with your finger. The ink has to be ground very slowly, almost as if you were gently rubbing the ink stick against a bare nipple—-a bare nipple with razor stubble. The right amount of water and delicate friction produces a finite level of ink which pools in the “ocean” of the ink-stone (suzuri).
The detailed structure of the ink-stone makes it possible to vary the lightness and thickness of the ink; the results are brush strokes that are not uniform and subtle on the paper. For Sumi-e paintings, it is also a wonderful tool to have. Admittedly, such a majestic tool is slightly wasted on a person like myself who as my calligraphy teacher points out, “Lacks all delicacy and does not follow the proper stroke order” but maybe someday…..
I purchased one of the stones for someone much more qualified than me to make use of it (list price 30,000 yen but I only had 23,000 yen in cash so he generously cut me a deal). I gave it to a curator at the Met who is an expert on calligraphy. In another decade, I may be worthy of owning one myself. Which means another trip to Daigo…..a town with many charms.
As long as you’re in town…..
Japan is a famous for lacquerware known as urushi, and to make it the authentic way, you need organic sap from the urushi tree. Daigo provides much of the quality organic urushi needed for Japan’s traditional crafts.
Due to the cold climate and soil composition Daigo produces what some say is the finest raw urushi in Japan. It is clear, dries quickly, and has a fragrance reminiscent of Japanese cypress. If you make arrangements in advance, you can go to the serene Urushi tree forest and see how the sap is extracted. The master urushikaki (person who scrapes urushi) is Yuzo Tobita, who is 84. There used to be a hundred people doing the work. Now there are, including Tobita, five or six people continuing the tradition. It’s hard work. It takes up to ten years to grow an urushi tree and from one tree, at best you can extract 200 milliliters, basically a small bottle of Shiso Pepsi Cola.
Fortunately for the tradition, there are young apprentices like Yuma Watanabe who is 26 and now learning the art. If he sticks with it, traditional urushi may last another few generations.
After you’ve seen the urushi drawn from the sap, and maybe tried your hand at the work yourself—take a visit to Kijian, where you can see lacquerware being made and buy some souvenirs. The master , Toru Tsuji, has his own style of creating lacquerware, Yamizonuri, which results in elegant and zen-like austere utensils.
*Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated on May 15, 1932 starting the dark age of Japanese Imperialism
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.