Tokyo truly is a mega-city that lends itself to every artistic genre. From whimsical novellas to gruesome crime novels, gritty film noirs and intricate documentaries about the art of sushi making – here is your guide for what to read and watch before visiting Japan's capital city.
The Wild Geese
The Minato-style Akasaka Palace in Tokyo
This story of unrequited love and social change originally appeared as a serial but The Wild Geese the novel’s setting of 1880 Tokyo quickly snagged international attention and today it’s available as a stand-alone book. The ideological and social changes Japan experienced during the Edo and Meiji periods are given new life via author Mori Ōgai’s sparse prose and intricate cast of characters.
The Meiji period brought a Westernising influence to Tokyo’s architecture (along with many other aspect of Japanese society such as the Western style food called Yoshoku), which can still be seen in the Neo-Baroque Akasaka Palace in the Minato ward and the slightly more humble Hotel Chinzanso in Bunkyo-ku ward.
The Guest Cat
Family life in one of Tokyo's suburbs
The Guest Cat was popular poet Takashi Hiraide’s first novel (technically a novella) and a surprise best-seller in international markets. French readers in particular adored this story of a couple in their thirties renting a small cottage in Tokyo’s suburbs. As the couple start to grow apart a small cat appears and helps to reinvigorate their temporary dwelling with a sense of home.
Tokyo is mesmerising on its best days and overwhelming on others, meaning that visitors rarely have the opportunity to venture outside the city centre. The Tokyo suburbs, however, have their own unique charm. Stay at the HIROMAS INN Chitose Karasuyama or the Tokyu Stay Yoga to experience the city’s equally captivating quiet side.
The Glicopia Chiba ice cream factory tour
Just as The Guest Cat provides an insight into the lives of Tokyo’s suburban renters, OUT introduces the reader to another overlooked segment of the city’s population: the factory workers. Natsuo Kirino’s OUT tells the story of four friends, working at a bento factory and gradually being ground down by the repetitiveness of their lives until a gruesome accident thrusts them into Tokyo’s criminal underworld.
Our fascination with mass-production however, doesn’t just extend to crime novels, with many of Tokyo’s factories having embraced ‘industrial tourism’, offering tours of this loud, complex, and endlessly fascinating world. Try the Glicopia Chiba tour (not to be confused with the neighbouring province) and find out how two of Japan’s favourite ice cream brands are produced, then sleep it off at the nearby Hotel Green Core Bando.
Explore Tokyo's busy subway system via 'Norwegian Wood'
It’s practically impossible to talk about Japanese literature (let alone Tokyo-based literature) without talking about Haruki Murakami. The Norwegian Wood author focuses on three young friends: Toru, Naoko and Midori, who meet during the 1960s student protests in Tokyo.
The Tokyo of Norwegian Wood has, already, largely disappeared but there are glimpses of it here and there. Try Hotel Okura for a trip back to the 1960s, where midcentury furniture and traditional Japanese decor meet. And if you’ve got the legs for it, continue living out the novel, and Murakami’s love for Tokyo’s urban infrastructure, courtesy of Tokyo’s fabled subway system. Characters Watanabe and Naoko meet each other by chance on Tokyo’s Chuo Line subway and critical discussions take place on the train to Ueno Station - a perfect place to end the day at, taking in the lake views at the blissful Ueno Park.
A room in the minimalist global cabin Tokyo Suidobashi
Stray Dog is part atmospheric film noir, part historical document. Shot throughout Tokyo by famed director Akira Kurosawa, the story of a police officer hunting a homicidal killer relied heavily on location shooting. This lead to a visual document of the chaotic disrepution in post-war Japan’s urban centres. While the locations no longer exist the close intensity of Stray Dog stays in the mind long after the film ends. For a different, yet equally atmospheric, experience check into minimalist global cabin Tokyo Suidobashi.
Bounce KO Gals
Check out Tokyo's nighlife districts, Harajuku and Shibuya
The Tokyo districts of Harajuku and Shibuya, collectively nicknamed the ‘Town for Young People’, are famous for their shopping and nightlife, having provided inspiration for writers, filmmakers, animators and fashion designers all over the world. However, travellers hoping to delve a little deeper beyond the neon lights of Shibuya crossing and Takeshita street’s sensory overload, should check out Bounce KO Gals.
Masato Harada’s exploration of the dark side to Tokyo’s party district is a disturbing yet completely fascinating story of three friends trying to raise enough money to emigrate to the USA. The film also captures contemporary Japan’s interest in Western culture, a fascination that can be seen in many of the Japo-Western hotels and bars popping up throughout Shibuya. The Millennials Shibuya Hotel, is a perfect encapsulation of this - combining the classic capsule style room popular across Japan, with western favourites including sleek marble surfaces and co-working spaces.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Even if you're not a fan of sushi, this documentary will inform and delight
The only documentary on the list, Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows Michelin Star chef Jiro Ono as he works at his three-star restaurant: Sukiyabashi Jiro. Even viewers with no interest in sushi can appreciate the insight this film offers into the genius and work ethic behind Tokyo’s most-decorated restaurant. Travellers who are already sushi lovers, meanwhile, will find this entire documentary an exquisite, delicious torment. As Sukiyabashi Jiro only has ten seats and can be found in the Chūō ward, stay nearby (your best chance to snap up a cancelled reservation) at the Millennium Mitsui Garden Hotel.