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Japanese Culture Guide: TV, Movies, Books, Manga, Cooking, Fashion, & Home Decor

When you can't go to Japan, bring Japan to you.
Japanese Culture Guide: TV, Movies, Books, Manga, Cooking, Fashion, & Home Decor
Journy Team

Japan exists at the cutting edge of technology, walking the line between tradition and modernity like few other countries do. But since we can't physically be there—marveling at the tea houses and kimono-clad geishas side-by-side with soaring skyscrapers—how do we get a dose of Japanese culture from home?

Whether you had to cancel/delay your trip to Japan or have visited in the past and are feeling especially nostalgic right now, this guide is for you. With a compilation of our team's favorite Japanese TV shows, movies, anime, manga, books, recipes, YouTube cooking channels, clothing/home decor brands, and more, it'll transport you to the bustling streets of Tokyo, ancient shrines of Kyoto, street food markets of Osaka, serene mountains of Hakone, and back again.

TV Shows

Midnight Diner

Midnight Diner is an anthology TV series based on the manga of the same name by Yarō Abe. It centers around "The Master," the chef of a small, 12-seat izakaya called Meshiya in Shinjuku, Tokyo. True to its name, the restaurant operates exclusively from 12AM to 7AM every night, with each episode telling the story of The Master's involvement with his late-night customers.  

How to watch: Netflix

Giri / Haji

Giri / Haji is set in both Tokyo and London, as Kenzo Mori (a Japanese detective) travels to the UK in search of his brother, Yuto, who has been accused of murdering a member of the Yakuza and is himself thought to be dead. The series follows Kenzo's attempts to find his brother and navigate London's corrupt criminal underworld—all while supporting his family back home in Tokyo.

How to watch: Netflix

READ MORE: 10 Foreign TV Shows You Can Watch On Netflix Now

Terrace House

Arguably the most popular reality TV show in Japan, Terrace House follows a group of young strangers in a share house as they forge friendships, fall in love, and navigate the challenges of their personal and professional lives. Members swap out once they feel they have accomplished a degree of personal growth, thus making room for a new member to move in.  

How to watch: Netflix


Movies

Lost In Translation

When Bob Harris—a lonely movie star experiencing mid-life crisis-esque symptoms—travels to Tokyo to star in a Japanese whiskey commercial, he meets Charlotte—a recently married young woman accompanying her photographer husband on a trip. Together, the two explore the bright lights of Tokyo as they develop an unlikely, but heart-warming, friendship.

How to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Adrift In Tokyo

Based on Yoshinaga Fujita’s book of the same name, Adrift In Tokyo follows the journey of two men: Fumiya Takemura, a lonely law student who owes money to loan sharks, and Aiichiro Fukuhara, who agrees to cancel the gambling debt as long as Takemura accompanies him on walks throughout Tokyo. The film is peppered with Japanese humor and cultural references to give you a taste of everyday life in Japan's capital city.

How to watch: Google Play, YouTube

READ MORE: 20 Films You Can Watch Now Which Will Inspire You To Travel Later

Spirited Away

From celebrated director Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro Ogino and her parents, who stumble upon what they think is an abandoned amusement park. It's only when her parents are transformed into giant pigs does Chihiro learn that the park is actually a resort for supernatural beings seeking respite from their time spent in the earthly realm. What follows is a quest to free herself and her parents.

The film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, making it the first hand-drawn, non-English-language animated film to win in that category.

How to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu

Battle Royale

Battle Royale is a Japanese dystopian action thriller based on the eponymous 1999 novel by Koushun Takami. It follows a group of high school students who are forced by the totalitarian government to fight to the death—a plot that drew tremendous controversy causing the 2000 film to be banned and excluded from distribution in several countries. Widely considered one of the most influential films of all time, Battle Royale catapulted its own genre of film into the cultural zeitgeist—where a select group of people are instructed to kill each other until a single survivor remains.

How to watch: Amazon Prime


Manga

One-Punch Man (ONE)

By appearance alone, no one would suspect that Saitama is a superhero, and yet his incredible power enables him to take out any enemy with—you guessed it—a single punch. The series explores Saitama's quest to find an opponent strong enough to truly take him on so he can escape his boredom.

Naruto (Masashi Kishimoto)

Widely considered the best manga in Japan, Naruto tells the story of the eponymous character who, over time, develops impressive skills as he fights to graduate from the Ninja Academy and become the next Hokage, despite repeated setbacks. The sequel to the series follows Naruta's son, Boruto.

Maison Ikkoku (Rumiko Takahashi)

Maison Ikkoku is manga for rom com lovers. The story follows Yusako as he vies for the attention of Kyoko, the widowed manager of the apartment building he lives in, Maison Ikkoku. In 15 volumes, Takahashi explores their relationship and the other residents of the building. Takahashi based the apartment building off of where he lived while writing, and you can find many of the drawn locations in the Tokyo suburb where the building is located.

Tokyo Ghoul (Sui Ishida)

Think of Tokyo Ghoul as Japan's manga-fied answer to Twilight—only even more gripping. University student Ken Kaneki is delighted to land a day with the beguiling Rize, but then he learns she’s more interested in eating him then dating him. Ken gets drawn into the alternate universe of ghouls in a manga series that spans 13 volumes.


Books

Shōgun (James Clavell)

Shogun is the first novel in James Clavell's world-renowned Asian saga. It takes place in the precarious year of 1600, when a man by the name of John Blackthorne, whose dream it is to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, has his ship blown ashore in Japan. It's here where he encounters two pivotal characters: Toranga, a feudal Japanese warlord who is steadfast in his own quest for power, and Lady Mariko, a Catholic convert torn between conflicting loyalties to the Church and her country, who ends up falling in love with Blackthorne. Many of the novel's characters are based on real-life counterparts, and in 2018 FX announced that they'd be releasing a miniseries based off the 1975 novel.

Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions (Ben Mezrich)

When the young-20-something Princeton grad, John Malcom, received a mysterious phone call promising him a shot at a fortune in Asia, he packed his bags and moved halfway across the world to begin his life as an expat trader in the cutthroat Asian underworld. What followed was a Hollywood-worthy (Kevin Spacey's production company, Trigger Street Productions, purchased film rights to the book) saga of sex-and-drug-fueled business deals with billion-dollar portfolios, culminating in a penultimate deal the likes of which had never been seen before.

After Dark (Haruki Murakami)

Set during the menacing hours between midnight and dawn, the novel explores how three different characters experience the night. While it's shorter than most Murakami novels, it has all the psychological acuity, magical realism, and Western references his fans have come to expect.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami)

Murakami's thrilling novel illustrates a more disturbing side to Tokyo than you'll find in guidebooks. Frank is an American tourist who hires local Kenji to show him around the city. But Frank's strange behavior makes Kenji think his new friend is hiding darker secrets than he's letting on...

Sanshiro (Soseki Natsume)

When it was first released in 1908, Natsume's Sanshiro was published as a series of stories in the newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Sanshiro follows the story of the novel's eponymous protagonist as he moves from a rural area of Southern Japan to study at the University of Tokyo. The novel offers a fascinating peek into the Meiji culture of the time and a Tokyo that's a far cry from the hyper-modern city we’re familiar with today.

Out (Natsuo Kirino)

A murder in a staid Tokyo suburb unfurls into a deeper exploration of Tokyo's seedy underbelly in this gripping crime novel by Natsuo Kirino. Kirino focuses on the women who cause crime and renders even the most shocking passages believable.

Tokyo Vice (Jake Adelstein)

Journalist Jake Adelstein takes an inside look into the yakuza. Adelstein is the first and only American to gain entry into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, before stepping down after a death threat. While members of this transnational crime organization based in Japan might be known by their full-bodied tattoos, Adelstein divulges what he learned about the Japanese underbelly in this gripping book.

READ MORE: 15 Books To Read Now Which Will Inspire You To Travel Later

Tabloid Tokyo: 101 Tales of Sex, Crime and the Bizarre from Japan's Wild Weeklies (Geoff Botting)

Anyone who has ever wished they could read Japanese just to figure out what the country's tabloids are actually saying will relish diving into Botting's explorations of some of the more shocking stories. From a story about a housewife who died in a bread eating contest to the news that the yakuza suffered terribly following Japan's 1993 recession, you’ll raise your eyebrows at these zany tales.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)

After female protagonist Aomame heads down a tunnel off the side of the highway to beat traffic, she finds herself ushered into an alternate universe she dubs 1Q84. Tokyo's geographic quirks shape Murakami's epic novel, which is so long it was published in several volumes in Japan.

Fruits (Shoichi Aoki)

Starting in 1994, Fruits captured the zany and wonderful street fashion that characterized Tokyo's unmissable Harajuku neighborhood. Not only do you get a peek into the creative clothes, all the photos are shot on the street, which means an awesome glimpse of Tokyo's streetscape.

Geisha In Rivalry (Nagai Kafu)

First published in 1918, Kafu's novel explores the life of geishas in Tokyo's Shimbashi district. Following a group of geishas, their patrons and the proprietors who make their trade possible, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into old Tokyo.

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto)

Kitchen tells the story of Mikage, an orphan who was raised by her recently deceased grandmother. She moves in with her friend, Yoichi, and his transgender mother, Eriko. Together, the three of them form an unlikely bond that underscores the comfort of the kitchen through times of love and tragedy.

Yoshimoto is one of the more well known contemporary female authors in Japan, who also wrote a companion novella, Moonlight Shadow—a tragedy that also explores themes of loss and love.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (Pico Iyer)

Pico Iyer is a British-born essayist and novelist who relocated to Kyoto to learn about Zen Buddhism and the fundamentals of traditional, time-honored Japanese culture. Along the way, he met Sachiko, the well-educated, eccentric, and vivacious wife of a Japanese businessman. Incredibly well-versed in both traditional and modern Japanese culture (everything from the art of the tea ceremony and classical Japanese literature, to rock music, Goethe, and Vivaldi), Sachiko introduces Iyer to old and new Japan in a captivating tale of cross-cultural infatuation.


Cooking

JunsKitchen YouTube Channel

With a wide selection of basic Japanese cooking tutorials (and a whole lot of cat content), JunsKitchen is a go-to resource for anyone looking to experiment in the kitchen. The videos cover everything from sukiyaki (homemade tofu) to homemade ramen.

Japanese Curry With Rice Recipe

Curry is typically eaten at home in Japan, with many home cooks touting their own special ingredient—or kakushiaji, which literally means "hidden taste." Some of the most common include chocolate, tonkatsu sauce, apple, banana, or honey. It's not uncommon, in fact, to hear someone joking that his/her curry is "better than Mrs. XYZ's next door."

If you're thinking, isn't curry an Indian dish?, you'd be right. Originally from India, curry became popular in the UK in the 18th century and was subsequently introduced to Japan by the British as Western culture spread throughout the 19th century. Today, traditional Japanese curry comes together with a handful of simple ingredients you most likely have lying around your fridge and pantry, with certain vegetable and meat variations dictated by season (summertime brings with it a whole host of peak-season produce) and region (in the northern Japanese region of Hokkaido, octopus and squid are the proteins of choice).

Get our classic recipe here.

The Fundamentals of Shojin Ryori Japanese Buddhist Cuisine

Commonly practiced by Buddhist monks as a way to express devotional discipline and non-violence towards all sentient beings, shojin ryori is a subset of Japanese cuisine that strictly forbids the consumption of meat and fish—a style of eating that you can experiment with at home!

History of shojin ryori

The cuisine’s arrival in Japan coincided with that of Buddhism in the year 552 CE. Because Zen Buddhism, at its core, teaches that all living beings possess the potential to attain enlightenment, Buddhist monks began abstaining from animal products as a way to avoid violence in any form in favor of the virtue of ahimsa, or compassion, and thus progress along the path of enlightenment. In fact, “shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing this enlightened state of mind devoid of attachments.

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes of the two words puts the cuisine’s broader philosophy in context:

  • Sho: to focus
  • Jin: to advance forward along the way
  • Ryori: cooking / cuisine

Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s elegant haute cuisine concept, kaiseki.

Differences between shojin ryori and other vegetarian dishes in Japan

Although there are several similarities between shojin ryori cuisine and broader vegetarian cuisine in Japan, the notable differences lie in the strict guidelines around shojin ryori, along with its broader philosophical ethos.

For one, because simplicity and harmony reign supreme in shojin ryori cuisine, everything is balanced: five colors, flavors, elements and preparation methods—all of which exist in five variations:

Colors: black, green, red, white, yellow

Flavors: bitter, salty, savory, sour, sweet

Elements: earth (moderation, leveling), fire/summer (energy), metal/autumn (harvesting), wood/spring (growth, vitality), water/winter (stillness, retreat)

Preparation Methods: boiled, roasted, steamed, stewed, raw

Additionally, unlike other vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic, onion or other more pungent ingredients typically used to add flavor. Instead, flavor is drawn out naturally throughout the low-waste vegetarian cooking process.

And finally, when it comes to shojin ryori, what you’re eating is equally as important as how you’re eating it: sensibly, and with gratitude.

Common shojin ryori ingredients

  1. Abura-age: fried soybean curd
  2. Goma-dofu: sesame tofu
  3. Koya-dofu: dried tofu
  4. Yuba: tofu skin
  5. Fu: wheat gluten (used in soups, stir-frys and fu-manju confections made with sweet red bean paste)
  6. Konnyaku: jelly substance made from taro-like potato starch (often served in oden, a type of Japanese stew)
  7. Natto: fermented soybeans
  8. Konbu (aka Kombu): edible kelp
  9. Wakame: edible seaweed
  10. Nori: edible seaweed
  11. Hijiki: sea vegetable growing wild on Japan’s coast
  12. Miso: Paste of fermented soybeans with salt and koji

Common shojin ryori dishes

Soup is standard in a shojin ryori meal and is typically accompanied by various vegetable-forward side dishes, plus rice and pickles. Menus vary depending on region, but these are a handful of dishes you can expect to find at a shojin ryori restaurant:

  1. Creamy carrot or pumpkin/kabocha soup made with soy milk, often served cold
  2. Kenchin Jiru: root vegetable soup with a clear vegan dashi broth and tofu
  3. Vegetable tempura: seasonal vegetables deep-fried in a non-egg batter
  4. Tsukemono: pickled vegetables
  5. Namasu: raw salad made with julienned vegetables (i.e. daikon radish and carrot)
  6. Shiro-ae: salad with mashed tofu and sesame-flavored vegetables
  7. Nasu Dengaku: deep-fried eggplants with caramelized miso glaze

Fashion

Tokyo has a well-deserved reputation for unmatched street style. Harajuku is a hub for eclectic, eccentric fashion. The neighborhood is known for spawning Lolita style (think Victorian, doll-like looks) and other theatrical ways of dressing. Locals set their own trends; they make their own rules and then break them in spectacular fashion. Common trends that you can play around with at home include:

  • Playful proportions
    Voluminous skirts, wide-legged pants, and boxy suits sidestep traditional proportions.
  • Striking pops of solid color
    Go for bold blocks of primary colors.
  • Platform sandals
    The single accessory that will give your summer basics a boost? Platforms.
  • Punched-up trench coats
    You’ll reach for these twists on the classic topper come fall.
  • Graphic black and white
    These are neutrals, the Tokyo way.

READ MORE: 5 Tokyo Street Style Trends To Copy

Punyus

Punyus is a plus-size fashion line founded by comedian/actress/fashion designer, Naomi Watanabe—who is affectionally referred to as the "Beyoncé of Japan" after she catapulted to fame in 2008 for lip-syncing "Crazy in Love" and "Dream Girls." (She also happens to be Japan's most-followed person on Instagram.)

Punyus, which is known for its pop aesthetic and sense of humor, made a splash on the Japanese fashion scene (which is otherwise dominated by a one-size-fits-all mentality) and has attracted a loyal fan base around the world—Lena Dunham included.

minä perhonen

This Tokyo-based apparel/textile brand was founded by the designer Akira Minagawa. It's celebrated for its refined, high-quality materials that don't lose their allure over time, along with its imaginative, colorful, hand-drawn prints, artisanal detailing, and ready-to-wear collections.

Momotaro

Momotaro is Japan's finest denim brand, where everything is made by hand and expertly tailored. The pieces are stitched by trained artisans in the small coastal town of Kojimi—the birthplace of Japanese domestic jeans—then washed on the coast of Okayama. The result of this unwavering commitment to the art of dying, weaving, sewing, and washing is some of the highest quality jeans you'll ever find.

Home Decor

Traditional Japanese home decor prioritizes organized, balanced, and uncluttered living. Spaces are decorated with household plants (the most common of which are bonsai, bamboo, and orchids) to reflect an appreciation for nature. Additionally, there's a focus on natural wood—maple, cypress, hemlock, and red pine—as a way to harmonize with nature. Most furniture is low to the ground and sparse, with angular, modern lighting contributing to the minimalist, open feel.

If you're looking to spruce up your space in a Japanese style, MUJI is your best bet. The brand, which translates to "no-brand quality goods" was founded in Japan in 1980 and offers a variety of household goods, as well as apparel and snacks. It's guided by three core principles: selection of materials, streamlining of processes, and simplification of packaging.

The perfect example of this mentality, according to their website, is the omission of bleaching for its paper, with the resulting product being light beige in color. "MUJI used this paper for its packaging and labels. The ensuing products are remarkably pure and fresh in notable contrast to the prevailing over-embellished products in the marketplace."

Their products are not designed to entice responses of strong affinity (think: "I must have this!!"). Instead, the goal is foster a sense of rational satisfaction, conciliatory reasoning, clarity, and confidence upon purchase ("This will do."). Products are "resource-saving, low-priced, simple, anonymous, and nature-oriented."

inspiration
9 June 2020
14 min read

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