Kyoto Filming Locations: The Last Samurai (2003)

Most of this 2003 epic was shot in New Zealand but there were still a few interesting scenes filmed in the Kansai region of Japan. 12 minutes into the film sees the appearance of Chion-in Temple in Kyoto albeit with a bit of CGI. Although the steps lead to a temple it is not directly at the top or as dominating as the one in the picture (below left). Four men including Tom Cruise are seen climbing the steep steps which are on the other side of the main entrance gate which is protected by two guards in the film.


The action moves on to Daikodo (Main Hall) at Engyoji temple on the 41 minute mark which is where Algren (Cruise) meets Katsumoto (Watanabe). This is at the top of Mount Shosha in Himeji (west of Osaka) and provides the hilltop backdrop for Katsumoto’s mountain village. There is even a laminated picture card among the information pamphlets on the little souvenir shop counter in this building and it features five screenshots from ‘The Last Samurai’.


The garden temple is opposite the wooden bit featured above and appears after 1 hr 11 mins as Watanabe and Cruise talk about something or another. The dvd extra’s reveal that it wasn’t filmed during the cherry blossom season and that those flowers were added to the place.


The Buddha seen below also features for a few moments. No photos can be taken inside (I presume) so I settled for a sly zoom-in one from outside.


It’s not all Kansai though as there is a very brief shot of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on 1hr 19mins. Its the typical picture postcard type view of the place which I have seen and photographed many times over the years.


How to get to Engyoji: Take bus #8 at Shinki Bus Terminal East gate of Himeji Kita station (if coming from JR Himeji station then exit the station and turn left and you will see the bus station across the road). Get off at the final stop which is ‘Shosha Ropeway’. A special ticket (1300 yen) gets you return bus and ropeway tickets. The temple entrance is 500 yen payable when you get to the top of the ropeway.

Himeji Filming Locations: James Bond & Kagemusha

The second full-day of my trip saw me go west to Himeji which is famous for its castle. At the moment its not too much to look at though and nor will it be for for the next five years as its under reconstruction and basically has a huge bag covering up the main part (below left) Luckily I saw the castle five years ago in its full glory (below right) so I wasn’t too gutted to see it in its current state. On that previous visit it was closed but I did see the inside of it this time.


If you’ve ever seen James Bond in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) then you may recognise this place as the ninja training school. I had one screenshot with me and was most surprised to see that the stone statue thing behind Sean Connery was still knocking about. It can be found in the West Bailey and needless to say I was the only person in the whole place who took an interest in this piece of concrete!


Despite being made nearly 45 years ago it was still possible to locate some of the shooting scenes which feature below and in the picture above right.


Another film to be shot at Himeji-jo was Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’  (The Shadow Warrior) in 1980 which is set in medieval times. This movie became known to me as it was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox who were convinced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to fund the remainder of the film in exchange for its international distribution rights after Toho Studios couldn’t fulfill the budget demands of the film.


Himeji-jo wasn’t actually my first stop of the day though as I took a 30 minute bus ride to Mount Shosha which needed an additional ropeway to get there. The reason for visiting this mountain was to visit the sacred and peaceful Engyoji temple which is a nice 25 minute walk away. This mountaintop temple complex gets you away from the really big crowds and the wooden auditorium of Daikodo is lovely though not as old as one may think as in true Japanese fashion it was dismantled, repaired and restored in 1959 having originally been constructed at the end of the 15th century.


Kyoto Filming Locations: Memoirs Of A Geisha

The majority of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (2005) was made in the USA but director Rob Marshall did feel it necessary to bring the production to Japan to open up the movie and feel like they were in some very real places rather than on the specially built sets as you can’t replicate the age and beauty of some shrines and temples.

Fushimi-Inari Taisha is undoubtedly the most memorable location (it appears after 40 mins and again on 2hrs 16 mins in a flashback scene at the films climax) used and accompanied by John Williams’ musical score it is one of the most beautiful and visually stunning moments in the film where the young Chiyo finally has hope after meeting The Chairman for the first time. She runs through the mesmerizing red torii gates on her way to give money in prayer.



The Chairman buys Chiyo some ice-shavings and gives her money which was in the specially built L.A. set. She then runs through the Fushimi-Inari gates (above) and then a bit of film trickery is used to blend that with Yoshimine-dera temple which is actually where the young Chiyo gives awy the Chairman’s coins. This temple is a 3o minute bus (#66) ride away from Mukomachi station and the sanmon temple gate (below left) is the first time we see it on screen. Chiyo runs through it (40 mins into the film) and on up to the Kannon-do main temple where she gives her money in prayer before ringing the bell (below right). We see that from inside the temple before the camera pans out and then moves back in over the roof.


The three storey pagoda is at Kiyomizudera temple and features a few times (16 mins, 31 mins, 1hr 32 mins) between scenes in the film; usually just to show that a new day or season has begun.


The bridge below appears briefly in the final moments (2hr 10 mins) of the film. It is in the gardens of Heian-jingu shrine which I had never entered on my two previous visits to the shrine and very beautiful they were.


The real Gion in Kyoto appears (below) for a couple of seconds directly after we see the Heian-Jingu garden bridge at the 2hrs 10 mins mark of the film.


Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘3 Ninja’s Kick Back’ (1994)

I originally thought this was one of those made-for-TV kids movies; the kind of which used to be shown on BBC1 on Friday afternoons when I was a child. However, it seems I was wrong as its actually the second of four films in the franchise. As the title implies the film centres around three ‘ninja’ kids who follow their grandfather to Japan when they hear that he is in trouble and they use their skills to help defend him from his ancient enemy who want to exact revenge for a past incident where the grandfather possesses a dagger from a championship game which they feel is rightfully theirs or something like that.

Quite rare for an international production that it wasn’t filmed in Tokyo (or Osaka) although it did try to make out it was at the start of the Japan journey but in reality Nagoya filled in for the capital. Kanazawa, Koga and Hikone were other Japanese locations with the latter providing the most beautiful and spectacular backdrop for some of the films scenes.

One of the ninja kids is defeated by someone wearing a white robe who is revealed to be a girl called Miyo. This token girl appears to speak almost perfect English but in true stereotypical fashion she has trouble pronouncing certain words (“swing my bat/butt”) all in the name of cheap humour. She also provides some kick-ass love interest which is just what a film geared towards children needs!

Before all that the three ninja’s make quite an entrance at the airport as they catch a robber Crocodile Dundee style albeit with a baseball rather than a tin-can or boomerang. Inevitably there are other hilarious (?) gags involving trousers being pulled down, bowing and headbutting each other, fighting with chopsticks (whilst wearing yukata of course), baseball catch practice with eggs, bags being mixed up in true film fashion and the paper thin walls being broken.

The movie is of course aimed at children and it does a good job where thats concerned. I’m two decades older than the target audience and I still enjoyed most of the film which engages in childish slapstick humour and fart jokes (which is of course all beneath my humour level!) played out with some Home Alone-style villains. 

Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ (2005)

Get beyond the whole Chinese actresses portraying Japanese geisha debacle and what you see in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (called ‘Sayuri’ in Japan) is a beautiful, colourful, gorgeous film showing the spirit of this one girl as she battles against the odds. That may sound cliched and it probably is but I like that kind of film as it requires less thinking on my part! Personally, I didn’t care that most of the actresses weren’t Japanese. They were trained in the art of being a geisha which would no doubt have been the same if local talent was cast. Its a dying art and I don’t expect they know much better just because they are the same nationality. Besides, Chinese can act better and that is a fact so get over it! They were chosen for ability rather but I can understand why Japanese people get upset about a foreigner portraying one of their own. Be that as it may, people often portray different nationalities in the Western world.

I was eagerly anticipating the film release at the end of 2005 having read Arthur Golden’s book during my break from Japan earlier that same year. Unlike the other ‘films set in Japan’ reviewed on here, ‘Memoirs…’ is very high profile so the story is already known to most. Basically, impoverished nine year old girl Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and struggles with her new family and new life, particularly the head geisha Hatsumomo who is jealous of her beauty. Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) becomes Chiyo’s new mentor and renames her Sayuri where she goes on to master the artistic and social skills which are all part of a geisha’s appeal. As WWII looms the story takes a turn which would forever change the world of geisha.

As someone who is intrigued by geisha and read a fair few books about them I still don’t really understand or see their charm like so many others do but thats probably just down to a difference in culture. I have seen ‘Memoirs….’ quite a few times and think the stars of the show are not Ken Watanabe (The Chairman), Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) or Michelle Yeoh (who I prefer in her more combat roles especially the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’) but Gong Li as Hatsumomo who delivers a master performance as the wicked witch of this Cinderella type story. The young Chiyo features for the first hour and that is the part of the story I like the most as it shows her uphill battle which the young Suzuka Ohgo performs very well. My enduring image of the movie is the one of Chiyo running through the many torii gates after she’d just met The Chairman. Together with John Williams’ superb score this is a beautiful, visually stunning moment which changes her life forever. (Watch it here.) Having said that, is it only me who thinks there’s something wrong with the idea that The Chairman set his sights on a young girl and then waits until she grows up before getting her!

Most of the movie was filmed on a specially-built village in Los Angeles but there were a few scenes made in Japan for real and those were done at a few temples in and around Kyoto. At 145 minutes the film is too long for my liking (even though I was enjoying it a lot I do recall getting restless in my seat after two hours when I saw it at the cinema) and having the actors all speaking English makes no sense. Subtitles should have been used but then I guess far fewer people would have bothered to go and watch it. Apart from that I really enjoyed it.