Tokyo Daytripper: The 47 Rōnin At Sengakuji Temple

With a big Hollywood actor now starring in the forthcoming ‘47 Rōnin‘ movie the story of these 47 loyal samurai will be taken to an all-new and much bigger audience. Unbelievably, its one of those rare films which gets its worldwide release here in Japan whilst the UK and USA have to wait till Christmas time for its release. Keanu Reeves has top billing and he’s ably supported by Rinko Kikuchi of ‘Babel‘ (2004) and ‘Pacific Rim‘ (2013) fame. Hiroyuki Sanada from ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003) is also cast.

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For anyone wanting to get a real feel for this story they really ought to make their way down to Sengakuji Temple which possesses the burial ground of the 47 loyal samurai who  (WARNING: plot spoiler coming up for anyone who doesn’t know the story!) set out to avenge the death and dishonour of their leader by raiding the chief instigators castle where they ruthlessly and violently beheaded him. Their following collective action was to commit suicide which was seen as an honour.

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Arriving at Sengakuji you encounter the outer gate (above left) and then the inner gate (above right) and just to the right of that is the statue of Ōishi Yoshio (below); the real leader of the 47 rōnin.

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To be honest I’d never really had too much affection for Sengakuji Temple despite having been there three or four times! However, that was before I begun to realise its deep history rather than just checking it off a list of sights to get round as part of some of my Tokyo cycling challenges. These have included cycling Tokyo’s Top 25 Sights in one daywhere I didn’t even go inside, and last year I learned a bit more about the place as I cycled there on a themed tour of Tokyo’s most haunted sights.

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Once you’ve gone through the inner gate there is a path on the left which will take you towards the graves of the 47 rōnin. There is a tiny hut selling postcards, candles and incense sticks and just beyond that is the map which indicates where each warrior, who was willing to die for their lord, is buried though sadly its only in Japanese.

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No less than six films have already been made about the forty-seven Rōnin. I haven’t seen any of them and I can’t say that the trailer really got me too excited. It all looks a bit like a coming together of ‘Gladiator‘ (2000), ‘Lord Of The Rings‘ (2001), ‘Attack Of The Clones‘ (2002) and ‘The Last Samurai‘ (2003) but who can really tell from just two minutes of fast paced and cleverly edited footage.

This fantasy adventure and martial arts story of the 47 warriors who seized eternity was filmed in Budapest, London and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. We were originally told that it was not shot in Japan at all but sources are now saying that filming did indeed conclude here. We will find out very soon for sure!

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Sengakuji Temple is at 2-11-1 Takanawa in Minato-ku and ‘47 Rōnin’ is released in Japan on the 6th December 2013

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On Screen #3 – Myanmar (Burma)

What I like about doing the research for this On Screen series is finding out how scenes in certain countries are faked and filmed elsewhere or in the studio. Myanmar, or Burma as it was formerly known, is one such country where other countries have almost always had to fill in for this south-east asian country which has long suffered from internal conflict.

These struggles completely dominate almost all TV and films set in Myanmar and due to the slight relaxation of control by their government the country is relatively calm these days but watching these films still doesn’t do too much to put one’s mind at ease!!

Between 1926 and 1962 well over a dozen films were set in Burma as it was called back then. Many of these were set around the time of WWII and whilst I’m not gonna talk about them in this entry I will provide you with the following list:

The Road To Mandalay (1926); Mandalay (1934); The Girl From Mandalay (1936); Burma Convoy (1941); Moon Over Burma (1940); A Yank On The Burma Road (1942); Bombs Over Burma (1942); Rookies In Burma (1943); Burma Victory (1945); Objective Burma (1945); The Purple Rain (1954); Escape To Burma (1955); The Burmese Harp (1956); Never So Few (1959); Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and Merrills Marauders (1962).

Beyond Rangoon‘ (1995) was watched on YouTube a while back and it depicts events during the 8888 Uprising in 1988. (You can see it here). Its main star Patricia Arquette loses her passport at a political rally and, left to her own devices, she gets caught up in a fight for democracy as she and leader U Aung Ko travel through Burma as they try to escape to Thailand. The film, which has an emotional score by Hans Zimmer, was mostly shot in Malaysia with some scenes captured in Thailand.

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American sci-fi action flop ‘Stealth‘ (2005) absolutely bombed at the cinema’s. This poor-mans ‘Top Gun‘ shows one scene quite early on in the film involving an aircraft bombing of a high-rise building in nighttime Rangoon. IMDb (which is never too reliable for its vague filming locations section) says that Zetland in Sydney, Australia was used as Burma in the film but I really wonder if thats true for it was surely Thailand. In fact the very same site also mentions that the building was actually added by CGI to the west side of the highway leading from downtown Bangkok to Don Muang Airport. Whilst vehicles are driven on the left in Thailand they drive on the other side in Burma after it was changed in a statement of independence in 1970. However, in the aforementioned scene you can see cars being driven on the left!

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In 2008 Sly Stallone mumbled his way through ‘Rambo‘ and indeed through war torn Burma to rescue a group of Christian aid workers in the long awaited (20 years!) follow up to ‘Rambo III.’ Burma is even more of a bloodbath than generalisations purvey as Rambo and a few cronies rampage their way through the whole country taking out the lot of them almost single handedly. Among his victims are a group of pirates and an entire squad of Burmese army soldiers whom he shoots with a jeep-mounted machine gun. Stallone justified this in a press conference by saying the violence in the film was to draw attention to the ongoing problems in the country.

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Largo Winch II‘ (2011) was the original title for what became more commonly known as ‘The Burma Conspiracy‘ starring Tomer Sisley back as the title character alongside a much under-used Sharon Stone. Burma is only really seen in flashback scenes from a few years before and naturally its not very nice stuff. I haven’t seen the original Largo Winch film so sadly can’t compare them in any way but this one, though a bit disjointed at times, was quite an entertaining watch and Largo’s scenes with Malunaï (played by a Thai actress) were particularly moving at times.

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Personally, I didn’t know too much about Aung San Suu Kyi until her release from house arrest back in November 2010 which was at a time when director Luc Besson was actually working on ‘The Lady‘ starring Michelle Yeoh in the biopic about the icon. They were filming in Bangkok on a six week shoot at the time which was where most of the Myanmar scenes were filmed. Suu Kyi’s lakeside mansion outside Rangoon was recreated to exact dimensions in Thailand in a setting identical to the real house.

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Besson scouted locations himself in Myanmar and even filmed in disguise at landmarks such as the golden pagoda (Uppatasanti) and the aerial shots of the river were done on the sly via a rented helicopter crossing the border from Thailand to Burma.

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It Ain’t Half Hot Mum‘ was a BBC TV comedy which ran for 8 series between 1974 and 1981 following the comic adventures of a group of misfits who formed an extremely bad Royal Artillery concert party touring the hot and steamy jungles of Burma entertaining the troops during WWII. It was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft; the same duo responsible for ‘Dad’s Army‘ (1968-1977) which was also a sitcom set in WWII. It attracted audiences of around 15 million at its peak, but it controversially made jokes about the cultural differences between the Indian, Burmese and Japanese. It attracted audiences of around 15 million at its peak, but it controversially made jokes about the cultural differences between the Indian, Burmese and Japanese. At its peak it managed to attract an audience of 15 million and was very much “of its time” as it controversially made jokes about the cultural differences between Indian, Burmese and Japanese people. It made the news last year when it was announced that it would never be repeated on our screens again as the BBC deemed it too racist for modern society.

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The British Television Location Guide‘ book (2011) by Steve Clark and Shoba Vazirani has a short half page piece about where it was filmed and how it was (quite obviously) faked to look like Burma. Not surprisingly, the majority of filming was confined to the BBC studios but they did venture a bit further south on occasion. Indeed, they went all of about 40 miles south to the tropical climate that is Farnham in Surrey!! A good mix of clever make-up, heavy lighting, rubber plants and fake sweat made it slightly resemble the hot sticky climate of Burma. The first four series were set in India but from series 5 the concert party were posted “up the jungle” to Tin Min in Burma close to the front line.

His shows have featured in both ‘On Screen #1‘ and ‘On Screen #2‘ so far and this will be no exception either for Anthony Bourdain who, having moved to CNN, started off his new TV series in Myanmar. Season 1 episode 1 of ‘Parts Unknown‘ debuted on CNN back in April of this year with the witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality exploring one of the most fabled areas of Asia with Yangon and Bagan being the places he visited. Finally…. a bit of on screen time devoted to showing the country in a positive light after fifty years of nightmare.

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I Did A Presentation At An English Club In Tokyo

The Kiyose International Club is a volunteer group that hosts events and parties for foreigners and neighbouring guests as well as also having Japanese classes, a choir and conferences for foreigners. One of my students is in charge of organising these events and often asks me in class to check posters and speeches for English mistakes. Inevitably, she got round to asking me to be a presenter at one of these events such is their desperation for native English speakers at these things!! Though not so keen at first I eventually agreed to do it as I was happy with the topic and having bored her this last year with tales  from my trips she knew I was a seasoned traveller with a few anecdotes up my sleeve to keep an audience awake!

Furthermore, I saw it as a challenge and an opportunity to do something different and see if I could actually entertain to any level beyond doing farting noises with a few five year olds!! It’s been a while since I did any kind of presentation. Ages in fact, as the last time was at University over 15 years ago when I had to regularly do them as part of my course.

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My Travel Memories‘ was the theme for the one today (17th November) with the “My” referring to each attendee as well as the guest speakers. Having informed the organiser  that I wanted to do it about my trip to Tunisia in 2009 she thankfully gave it the green light and so my plan began to tell the story of travelling around a country in what was at the time for me an untouched continent. Oh and of course it gave me the chance to incorporate a bit of Star Wars stuff into the proceedings too!

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This was certainly not a Star Wars convention so I had to keep that part to a minimum and so instead focused on the other parts of the country (above) which often get forgotten about (especially by me!). My presentation was supposed to last about seven minutes but was more like 11 minutes with the first segment focusing on the nightmare of my birthday travelling between Tunis in the north and Tozeur in the south.

In the days preceding this event I spent a fair bit of time putting together some notes, remarks and photos together into a flashy Google Drive document but once I’d realised I would need wi-fi to go ahead with that I changed it to a more simplified iPhoto slide show. I needn’t have bothered though as on my arrival at the Naka-Kiyoto Area Civic Center we soon realised that there wasn’t the right cable to connect my laptop to the giant projector screen. I was a bit peeved with that not that I was ever really confident of such a thing ever working smoothly. Time for plan B!!

The event started at 2pm with my student giving the opening remarks followed by a few more speeches before the session leader David introduced us presenters and the foreigners present including people from Afghanistan, Korea, Philippines, Zambia and  Thailand. Following a short discussion on our tables an elderly Japanese guy Matsumoto-san (below left) kicked things off with his presentation about his time in Egypt with the main focus being the tipping culture differences.

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A summary of my speech was given in Japanese beforehand (above right) which I thought a bit strange as it’s kind of a spoiler but I guess it has to be done to prepare the non-native speakers for what was about to come. Despite not being able to use the big screen for my presentation I decided to use my computer still though many would have needed binoculars to see what was on screen! I did have some larger copies of some of my pictures which I could hand to my student to show to the watching audience of fairly well-travelled people.

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The speech seemed to go on for far longer than in my rehearsals but that didn’t matter. My voice just about managed to hold up for the duration and I got through everything I wanted to. The set-up wasn’t quite how I envisaged it but I muddled through and was just about able to juggle holding the mic in one hand, cue cards in the other whilst also having to do some technical wizardry on the computer (hit a button a dozen times or so!) which was facing the audience rather than me.

It was a shame I couldn’t use the big screen to display stuff as that meant I had to rely more than ever on my scripted “ad-libs” working better than they should have had to. I soldiered on though and thankfully there were a few questions at the end (about tipping, food & health, misunderstandings and something else which I forget) rather than silence!

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Once I had done my presentation I could relax far more and really enjoyed talking in our groups about our own travels not that I added any further by way of my other experiences. The final presentation was by a Filipino lady called Rosevel (below) who gave a very entertaining and passionate speech on the cultural gap between her homeland and Japan. She put me to shame in terms of not showing her nerves so much but I guess she was performing on home turf whilst I was in unknown waters.

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Overall, I had a lovely afternoon and it was nice to do something a bit different for once and I left with a very positive image of all those present who were very nice and welcoming to me and, though I thought I was a bit nervous at times, the feedback I got was all positive…not that you’d expect anyone to come up and say it was rubbish!!

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Review: Films Set In Japan – Mastermind (1976)

No, this is nothing to do with the long running British quiz show and its challenging questions. Quite the opposite actually as this is anything but serious and is a light parody  about how Asian culture is perceived in the west. Most people have probably stopped reading this review already but I’ve started so I’ll finish!

This was actually filmed in 1969 and scheduled for release the following year but for whatever reason never saw the light of day until the mid seventies and lets be honest the world would have easily survived had it never come out!

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The whole movie was made and set in Japan albeit completely done in the film studios of Kyoto and it features some thinly veiled plot about stolen robot dolls and the bumbling Inspector Hoku Ichikawa (Zero Mostel) is on the case….kind of! Well, he is when he’s not having fantasies (shown in sort of flashbacks) about being a great Japanese samurai warrior and having a love interest who adhere’s to the stereotypical traits of a Japanese woman. These dream sequences are a throwback to the days of silent movies and subtitles are even shown to read their thoughts in a number of bizarre scenes.

A quite rapid 82 minutes of film passes by without too much of a plot and a bit of slapstick humour featuring some well-worn ideas (were they original back then?!) like Ichikawa being stood behind a buddha statue as the praying one believes he’s actually conversing with someone of greater power! Later on, there’s a classic old-school car chase although the transport Ichikawa uses is not exactly conventional. Charging into a room and the momentum taking the police through the Japanese paper walls did make me chuckle a bit as it was akin to something Homer Simpson would do many decades later in ‘The Simpsons‘ episode where the dysfunctional family come to Japan.

Mastermind‘ is a little Benny Hill-esque at times with the fast forward style of shooting used and the overall humour even seems a little out of place at times. Furthermore, what could have been a more suspenseful ending was dealt with a bit too quickly. The film is supposedly a spoof of western perceptions of Asian culture as presented by Hollywood not that I could really identify too much with this myself.

Tokyo Fox Rating 3/10

Summer Bay & Meeting A Soapstar! (2002)

Long before I got into tracking down movie locations on a regular basis I very much enjoyed visiting some of the principle shooting scenes for a couple of Australian soaps which were hugely popular back in Britain in the late 80′s and early 90′s….and still continue to this day.

On my arrival in Australia on a years working holiday in 2001 I first visited the street in Melbourne where ‘Neighbours‘ is filmed which I returned to last year for my fourth visit. Returning to Sydney at the very end of the Australian leg of my journey I finally went to the beach used as the fictional seaside town of Summer Bay in ‘Home & Away‘.

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Palm Beach is a northern beachside suburb about 40 kilometres north of Sydney and has been used as the exterior shots in ‘Home & Away‘ since it first aired in 1988. Together with friends Kevin and Robbie, the three of us left our base in Manly for a day trip to what was (and still is) an amazing beach. You don’t have to have even seen the soap opera  to recognise and appreciate the beauty of the place but the ‘Home & Away‘ connection certainly played a huge role in us going there.

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The first place to see was not the beach but the Summer Bay Surf Lifesaving Club more commonly referred to as the Surf Club which is not only a centre for sea rescues but also a place for the young people of the Bay to hang out in and usually just help themselves to a drink which we rarely see them pay for! Furthermore, it is the place where easy pool shots are done at the start of a scene or where town meetings are held. Presumably, they are all done in the Channel 7 studios but the exterior does have a sign with the words ‘Club Official: A Stewart’ written on it referring to the legendary character Alf Stewart who is the only remaining original cast member.

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Getting to walk in the footsteps of some ‘Home & Away‘ greats was fantastic but even more awesome was meeting actress Rebekah Elmaloglou a few days before. Now, this “accidental” meeting was borderline stalking as my friend Lisa had informed me many months before that she was working in a clothing shop just off Oxford Street in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. Richard Richard and I ventured on up the hill fully expecting it to be a wild goose chase but when I approached the shop I suddenly saw her and to my surprise I was star-struck and went all shy like a young boy meeting a girl he fancies. Oh thats right I actually was meeting a girl I had a teenage crush on over ten years earlier!!

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No such problems for Richard Richard who just marched in and started talking nonsense to her. I think he even enquired about a job in the place first and then asked her if she was who he thought she was. I then finally plucked up the courage to come in to the store and blurted out that we had been tipped off to her presence here thus blowing Richard Richard’s laid-back story out of the water completely!

We got our photos taken with her and she was very nice and we chatted complete inane rubbish with her before walking cooly away. As soon as we got round the corner we let it all out and gave each other a high-five or something like that! Since our “chance encounter”, Rebekah has returned for a few guest appearances as her character Sophie Simpson but I guess that’s very unlikely to happen anytime soon since she joined rival soap ‘Neighbours‘ back in February of this year as regular character Terese Willis.

How To Get To Palm Beach: Just hop on the L90 bus from Wynyard Station and it takes just over an hour from there. ‘Home & Away‘ filming is done in the mornings on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays but of course there’s no guarantee that it’ll take place when you’re in town!

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown – Japan

Japan has featured a fair few times now in Anthony Bourdain’s previous TV work (‘A Cook’s Tour‘ and ‘No Reservations‘) but this was the first time to visit here since he joined CNN. The seventh episode of the second season of this travel and food show aired this Sunday just gone with Tokyo, the penultimate episode in a series that has taken the  witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality to Israel, Spain, New Mexico, Copenhagen, Sicilly and South Africa thus far.

You can watch the episode here

Much is known about the dedication, conformity and daytime life of the city’s salarymen but this show, as ever, tried to do something different and saw Bourdain going in search of the city’s dark, extreme and bizarrely fetishistic underside. It starts with quite an intense intro featuring him talking about his early experiences in Tokyo whilst sat in the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel; the very same bar which featured quite famously in ‘Lost In Translation‘ (2003). The programme then picks up pace with loads of footage in a montage thrown together in a quick moving package of highlights.

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First up is the Robot Restaurant (below) in Shinjuku’s kabukicho nightlife district which first came to my attention when I saw it in Muse’s ‘Panic Station‘ video a few months back. Bourdain went to see one of the evening show’s at this place and was thoroughly impressed calling it afterwards ”the greatest show in the history of entertainment.” I’ve been fairly indecisive recently about whether to cough up the 5000 yen entrance fee for this or not but after recent glowing reviews from friends…. and Bourdain I may just have to give it a go soon.

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Some of the weird and perverse acts which happen in the underbelly of Shinjuku’s darkest district are described as being more about a field of dreams and fantasies rather than the act of sex. Bourdain talks to his Japanese accomplice about the host clubs where middle-aged women go to be entertained by these very feminine-looking young guys. Bourdain brings up the irony of such a thing in an area where there are many guys hoping to get laid but his sidekick tells him that people don’t like getting rejected so they pay lots of money to go to these host clubs where they’re made to feel like a princess or whatever.

Nearby is the Golden-gai district (below left) of Shinjuku; a few narrow passageways possessing many shanty-style micr0-bars, clubs and eateries which I have never been to as they don’t seem to foreigner-friendly and to be honest I really don’t have any real urge to go to one just to tick that box to say I’ve done it. However, Bourdain visits a bar called Albatross to find out about such places and the code of confiding in the bartender.

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Both martial arts and making sushi are two things which most people know about when it comes to Japan but perhaps they don’t know how the techniques for each are so similar. This is shown when he visits his old friend and mentor Yasuda-san (above right) at Sushi bar Yasuda. The guy is an ex-karate expert who lived in New York for over a quarter of century and he said a couple of things which the average punter may be unaware of. Firstly, he said that rice is the most important part of sushi and that fresh sushi is not the be-all and end-all of fine raw fish dining. I always watch these shows on Tokyo and Japan hoping to see something new about the city I reside in and so it was nice to learn something I didn’t know about sushi.

Daitoryo is a street bar in Taito-ku where Bourdain and some other mavericks of Japanese culture (below left) eat grilled fermented fish and yakitori (skewers of meat) and some motsu nabe (intestine stew with miso) and talk about bondage, fetishes and all other parts of popular Japanese fantasy culture. We find out (if you can really believe these sources!) that all men like to tie up women and also be tied up!

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Bourdain later meets up with the creator of tentacle porn (above) at Mie no Umi restaurant where he samples a particular nabe (hot pot of meat and veg) and talks about the violence, murder, rape and incredible sexual fetsishes that feature in Japanese porn.

You can’t deny Bourdain has a strong affection for this country and he doesn’t judge or laugh at the way things are done in Japan such as when discussing otaku culture which is of course different from his homeland where people are taught to put away the likes of comics and figures as they get older.

Merging Moon‘ is the Japanese metal band (below) featured in this episode. They have self released their previous albums and have no record deal but no doubt that will change given such promotion on the might of CNN as well as the programmes Facebook page…..oh and of course Tokyo Fox!!

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Since his move to CNN I sometimes feel the food part of his programmes have taken a bit of a back-step so it was quite a relief to see it still included here although it did seem to be of secondary importance most of the time. One final trip to a tiny place in Naka Meguro saw him hook up with Yasuda again to sample some shrimp, basel, octopus, quail eggs and the place’s take on okonomiyaki (above) braised with worcester sauce.

Yet again Bourdain chooses to mention Lawson convenience stores (albeit vert briefly) as indeed he did on his last show in this country; ‘No Reservations – Japan: Cook It Raw‘ which makes me wonder if he’s being paid to promote such a place!

I’ve been watching Bourdain’s shows for many years now and have always enjoyed them but I’ve always been a bit wary that the stuff he does may not actually be that unknown and I guess it probably isn’t to most locals but with the programme geared towards the millions of CNN viewers in the USA and around the world I guess it really doesn’t matter. I did think that ‘Parts Unknown’ may have not offered anything too new for me and whilst I’m far from being a Tokyo specialist I was more than happy that it delivered a few things I didn’t know too much about.

 

Top 5……Italy Filming Locations

The promised land of Italy is a magnet for attracting hordes of tourists from all over the world who of course head for the wonderful landscapes in Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan and so on but the country also delivers big time when it comes to being shown on the silver screen. Of course there have been countless number of movies shot in Italy and whilst many have been shot in and around major sights like the Colosseum, Pantheon and  Fontana di Trevi this Tokyo Fox top 5 list includes slightly less famous sights which have almost become more famous for the movies filmed on location.

1. Villa del Balbianello, Como – A double-dose of movies were made at this villa in the last decade. First, ‘Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones‘ (2002) used the place as the Naboo lakeside retreat and then ‘Casino Royale‘ (2006) gave the 007 franchise a kick up the ass with Bond resting-up here at the end of the film. More details here

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2. Caserta Palace, Caserta – Located just north of Naples this palace has featured in a few movies now. These include ‘Mission Impossible III‘ (2006), ‘Angels & Demons‘ (2009) and ‘Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace‘ (1999) with the main staircase being seen in the latter two. It portrayed the Vatican City in the former two and was the setting for Queen Amidala’s Royal Palace on Naboo in Star Wars. More details here

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3. Hotel Danielli, Venice – This hotel first came to prominence (movie-wise!) in the 1979 007 film ‘Moonraker’ starring Roger Moore as the secret agent. It would be featured 31 years later in the less memorable ‘The Tourist‘ starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and also featuring Moore’s successor Timothy Dalton. How’s that for a slightly tenuous link! More details here

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4. Bocca della Verita, Rome – Providing the most famous scene in ‘Roman Holiday‘ (1954) where Joe pulled his hand out of the ‘mouth of truth’ with his hand up his sleeve astonishing Ann. Be aware that the line’s for the photo opportunity can be very long so it’s worth getting there early. More details here

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5. Chiesa di San Barnaba, Venice – Located in the midst of the maze that is Venice streets and canal’s you may get lost trying to locate this one but if you’re a fan of  ’Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade‘ (1989) then it’s worth it. Indy and co walk across a nearby bridge and then enter the church which is a library in the film. Indy goes inside (probably not paying the expensive entrance fee!) and finds an important clue relating to the numeral ‘X’. More details here

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