5 Netflix shows to understand non-touristy Tokyo

The longer we stay at home, the more we miss travelling around the world. But we can still go for imaginary trips to foreign cities by watching international movies and series, or even learn more about the reality of the city which guide books rarely tell you about. Today, we introduce 5 shows available on Netflix which describe non-touristy Tokyo. 

  • Giri-Haji

On April 17th, the BBC TV series Giri/Haji became available on Netflix Ireland. The assassination of a yakuza boss’s nephew in London kicks off the story as the murder leads to a clash between two Japanese yakuza groups. The detective Kenzo goes to London to collect some clues of the mystery. 

What makes this series non-touristy is its depiction of the essence of traditional yakuza, Japanese gangster groups. Sneaking into the secret yakuza community in the two cities through the eyes of Kenzo is a thrilling introduction. Giri and Haji are the Japanese words which mean duty (Giri) and shame (Haji) — two commonly-used words in Japanese traditional yakuza (gangster) movie. Although the creator Joe Barton commented in the interview with BBC that the team did not do “masses of specific yakuza research”, their screenplay seemed to successfully have imported the essence of Japanese yakuza movie into the BBC ‘s entertainment. 

Kazuo attends a crime course class by himself just after he arrived in London. In the same interview with BBC, Barton commented that he gained inspiration from his girlfriend’s Japanese middle-aged classmate at a crime science course. Being based in two metropoles, London and Tokyo, the thriller does not only describe the contrast between these two cities but also the humanity of each character as an exotic foreigner. 

  • Lost in Translation 

If you have already been to Tokyo, you might have experienced the subconscious gap between you as a foreigner and locals in Tokyo. Knowing that, we would say Lost in Translation is a fantastic work by Sofia Coppola who makes the movie cynical enough to visualise the awkwardness of life as a gaijin (a foreigner in Japanese) in Tokyo.  

If Giri/Haji is a story of a lonely Japanese mid-aged man in a European city, Lost in Translation can be considered the other side of the same coin. Bob comes to Tokyo for his work as an actor. As a gaijin, he oddly stands out in anywhere he goes — in an elevator, in a hospital, or in a studio. He meets another foreigner, Charlotte who is staying at the same hotel to him. 

Wherever he goes, Japanese people happily welcome them, but in their own Japanese ways. These two different cultures are not merged. It looks like these two gaijins are always living in a different world than Japanese locals. The attitude of Japanese people in the film is not aggressive, but somehow exclusive to the two foreigners. 

Through the slightly melancholic atmosphere of the film, the city of 13 million people seems to be transformed into something of an utopia, which makes these two lonely foreigners even more, isolated from the real Tokyo. 

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  • Midnight Diner 

If Lost in Translation is the public face of Tokyo, Midnight Diner shows you Tokyo behind the scenes. The stage of this comic-book-based series is Shinjuku — the same area of the hotel that the two foreigners of Sofia Coppola’s film are staying in. The stage of the series is a diner which only opens from 12 am to 7 am. “The Master”, the main character, only serves a limited menu, but offers to cook what customers want using the ingredients he has at hand. 

Shinjuku Golden Gai, where the diner is located, is an actual street of eclectic bars and restaurants established in the post-war era. The street used to be a mecca of underground culture with various artists, authors, musicians, or journalists. Golden Gai has been popular among tourists year by year but Midnight Diner still captures the non-touristy part of it. 

The unique customers — a taxi driver, a gay bartender, a striper, or a gangster — all come to the diner with different reasons and share their life story with The Master. Whereas the show does not show us the neon-lit Tokyo like the one you would find in a guidebook, the low-key human drama guides you to the duality of Tokyo. 

  • Whisper of the Heart


The three shows above describe the life of adults but Whisper of the Heart teaches you about life as an adolescent in Tokyo. This animation is created by Studio Ghibli — the most well-known animation production studio in Japan. The main character Shizuku is a 15-year-old bookworm who goes to the library almost every day during her summer holiday. One day, she finds the name “Seiji Amasawa” on the rental card of several books and starts to wonder who he is. Along with her excitement on him, she encounters an old antique shop on the top of hills which she has not seen before. She discovers more surprises as time goes on. 

The stage of the film is a suburb of Tokyo. Shizuku and her family live in a small public apartment which is a typical residence for a Tokyo suburbian. Although the movie is an animation, each scene in the house, public library, or train station is well-illustrated by the studio’s exquisite technique. We can imagine how the teenager’s life is in the suburb of Tokyo. 

In the film, Shizuku translates “Take Me Home, Country Roads“, a song by John Denver about West Virginia. With the Japanese version of the song, this non-touristy film will entertain you with the nostalgic landscape of the Tokyo suburb, and make you miss your home country.

  • Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!

The five professional guys from Netflix’s Emmy Award winning show visited Tokyo. The five guys a.k.a the Fab Five picked four Japanese people nominated by their friends or family members, and proceeded to better their lifestyle including their make-up, wardrobes, interior design, and mindsets.  

In Japan, there is a saying of “Kuki wo yomu” which can directly be translated into ”read the air”, meaning that people have to sense the atmosphere of the situation, and reaction from others. When it comes to fashion, behaviour, or belief,  Japanese people tend to prioritise what others think about them, and accustom themselves accordingly. Because this mindset is so strong in our culture, it seemed too late to change it until the Fab Five came to Japan. Especially for people who are familiar with this side of Japanese culture, it will be a touching moment when the four clients finally open themselves up. 

With all that said, the most non-touristy part of the show might be the interior reform part. You might be surprised by how tiny each room is, and even more surprised how fabulously it gets cleaned. 


If you are interested in watching some of these shows, we recommend you to remember some trivia of Japanese culture we explain here. We hope you find non-touristy Tokyo from these shows! 

Callie Hardy
Callie Hardy

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