Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands

There have been plenty of TV programmes about Japan over the years but they only really ever focus on Tokyo and Kyoto so it was refreshing that this three-part BBC documentary series exemplified that there is plenty of life beyond those two particular cities.

In the land of noisy, dumbed down terebi it was so nice to see this trio of one hour BBC2 episodes dedicated to showing Japan’s true wild side in it’s most simplistic form. The beautifully shot footage of Japan’s natural environment was left to speak for itself with limited voiceover from Michelle Dockery adding to the pictures. It’s all a far cry from the TV programmes that air in this country!

Originally shown in June 2015 these programmes each week featured on different regions of Japan with the last ten minutes of each episode being a very enjoyable diary feature giving behind the scenes information about how the filming was done which I found to be very interesting.

Here is a rundown and review of what was in each episode:

Episode 1: Honshu – Tokyo may be a concrete jungle stretching as far as the eye can see but the main island of Honshu where it’s located is around 75% mountainous. As explained in the ‘Journeys Into The Ring Of Fire‘ documentary this is why the cities are so crowded as people can’t live so easily in such environments.

Despite living in the most urban of places many of the residents of Honshu yearn for nature and throughout the year they sample it here and there. The seasons are very much celebrated in Japan and this episode starts and finishes with the magic of the brief cherry blossom season which shows the Japanese bond with the natural world runs deep.

About half of Honshu is forested and accordingly it’s a feast of nature here and the viewer gets a good insight into the lives of monkeys, tree frogs, giant carp, fireflies, bees, black bears, squid, tanuki and deer. There is nowhere where the paths of these animals and humans don’t cross and nowhere is that more evident than with the latter two.

However, their interaction with humans is very different. The deer of Nara spend their days hanging out with the many tourists around the temples and shrines of this famous area and are allowed to wander freely as they are believed to be messengers of the gods.Tanuki a.k.a. Japanese racoon dogs are rarely seen (apart from in this series of course!) for they roam the streets at night having been forced to adapt to urban landscapes after forests made way for concrete. They can be a nuisance but are also believed to bring good luck.

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Episode 2: The South-West Islands – As you might expect this episode was more focused on aquatic life but first up was the truly unique sight of the Japanese macaque and deer species both living side by side on Yakushima island with the former riding on the latter’s backs.

Sakurajima is next to feature and this island has the most volatile volcano which has been erupting for 60 years. It could get quite violent at anytime and covers the city in ash every few weeks. I guess the residents are more than used to taking such precautions but seeing the school kids wear protective helmets is not something you see everyday! Believe it or not there are actually some benefits of the eruptions as it means the soil is very fertile and people go here to bury themselves up to their neck in sand to help improve circulation and vitality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this programme was the section on sea-snakes whose greatest nemesis is actually two 70 year old women divers. They have been hunting snakes on the small island of Kudaka (just east of Okinawa’s main island) for 40 years and it’s been in the family of one of them for over 500 years. They brave the cave waters at night without any protection whatsoever to just grab the venomous sea snakes by hand. Inspiring stuff!

The lost world of Yonaguni is Japan’s westernmost island lying fairly close to Taiwan and therefore the first island to feel the force of the frequent typhoons which hit the country. Only as recently as 1986 were colossal terraced sandstone pyramids discovered off the island’s southern coast. There is still debate as to how the submerged monuments originated.

Other Hokkaido highlights included seeing the worlds tiniest wild boar on Iriomote-jima island, how mozuku seaweed is grown, a caterpillar transforming into the largest moth in the world and heavy crabs that can’t swim and have to wade to a safe distance to release their precious eggs without getting swept out to sea.

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Episode 3: Hokkaido – Only 4% of Japan’s population live on Japan’s wildest island which is home to the brown bear. Way back in the past when Russia and Hokkaido were attached, their ancestors could actually walk to Japan’s most northerly island from Siberia. This episode showed a brown bear and it’s two cubs hunting for salmon which was quite possibly the highlight of the whole series for me. In the area they filmed in on the north-east coast, there are around 200 brown bears and the post-show diary part showed how the bears and fishermen integrate into society without too much fear from either species.

Other highlights included seeing two stag’s fighting, cranes doing some kind of ballet having been close to extinction last century and sika deer, the toughest in the world who are prepared for everything that’s thrown at them and have to search  for food buried deep beneath the snow.

It wasn’t just about animals though as once the harsh winter season is over, there’s a dramatic colour change and transformation which sees Hokkaido resemble rural England. The narration tells us that Hokkaido never stands still and it’s seasons rush by which is proved by it’s short Spring and Summer seasons. During July it becomes positively Mediterranean-like whilst the rest of Japan sweats it’s way through extreme hot and humid conditions.

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The landscapes of Japan’s 6000 islands are highly varied and range from volcanic mountainous terrain to subtropical warmth and throughout this wild and mysterious land. This series provided a great insight into the extraordinary relationship that’s developed between the wildlife and the people whose lives are entwined.

Click here for a list of TV shows and documentaries about Japan

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TV Shows And Documentaries About Japan

It seems the idea of a TV station sending some kind of celebrity to the land of Japan is not going to end anytime soon with programme after programme continuing to be churned out by television networks each and every year. As well as the ‘fish out of water’ concept there have also been a wealth of documentaries covering all kinds of subject matter from the land of the rising sun…if I can use that overly used description of this country which no-one actually ever says!

Having made similar lists on ‘Songs about Japan‘ and ‘Music Videos filmed in Japan I thought it was about time to compile as many of the English-language TV shows about Japan. This is by no means an exhaustive list but if you know of something missing then please let me know and I’ll add it to this list. I have only included links for the video’s of episode’s which are on YouTube but please remember that things are taken down from there all the time so some links may not work. Others are available on other search engines (Putlocker, Sockshare etc) so if you really want to see a programme then you’ll have to look around the internet for it.

Globe Trekker (S01E08S10E01, S16E12, S17E05, Channel 4/Travel Channel (1994 – Present) – The long running adventure tourism series has called in to Japan a fair few times over the years. It’s premise is similar to the Lonely Planet guidebooks in that it often tries to go beyond popular tourist destinations in order to give viewers a more authentic look at local culture.

The Simpsons Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo (S10E23), Sky One (1999) – The dysfunctional family take a cheap last-minute flight to Tokyo. The episode references and mocks several aspects of Japanese and American culture, as well as differences between the two. More details here

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A Cook’s Tour (S01E01 & S01E02), Food Network (2001) – Short 20 minute episodes and Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to TV following the acclaim surrounding his memoir, ‘Kitchen Confidential‘.

The Tom Green Subway Monkey Hour, MTV (2002) – The Canadian comedian basically torments the Japanese people with a load of sketches including monkeys, temple tours, slurping noodles, musical performances and so much more.

Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama (3 seasons), BBC Three (2002 – 2007) – 18 episode’s from the TV and radio funny man with each one focusing on a different theme, around which he presents cultural phenomena, films, music, and art that exemplify facets of Japan. More details here

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Adam & Joe Go Tokyo (8 episodes), BBC Three (2003)  – Magazine-style show with a Japanese band, a couple of guests and funny features on each episode. More details here

Geisha GirlDocumentary, BBC1 (2005) – Documentary about a 15-year-old Japanese girl’s arduous training to become an apprentice geisha.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (S02E01/S02E07, S04E16S07E08S08E05), Travel Channel (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012) – Similar format and content to his previous show with the host visiting worldwide cities and countries as well as places within the U.S. with an emphasis on local food and culture. Japan-based episodes didn’t just focus on the capital city but also Hokkaido, Nagano, Ishikawa and Osaka. More details here

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Jack Osbourne Adrenaline Junkie (S02E03), ITV2 (2005) – Not even a full episode was dedicated to Japan but following some white-water rafting in New Zealand, Jack comes this way and embarks on some more spiritual challenges. More details here

Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese (S01E01S01E02S01E03), ITV2 (2006) – Kelly spends five weeks in Japan trying her hand at a number of different jobs; both weird and traditional. More details here

Journey’s Into The Ring Of Fire Japan (S01E04), BBC1 (2006) – Four part documentary series looking at how geology has shaped human history and culture in Pacific Rim regions. More details here

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Top Gear (S11E04), BBC2 (2008) – Jeremy and a Nissan race across Japan against James and Richard, who are on the shinkansen (bullet train). This challenge comes to a climax at Nokogiri-yama mountain in Chiba.

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Japan: In Search Of Wabi SabiDocumentary, BBC4 (2009) – Marcel Theroux sets off across Japan to define the elusive concept of wabi sabi; an idea at the heart of the Japanese psyche but so difficult to define. More details here

Japan: A Story Of Love And HateDocumentary, BBC4 (2009) – About a 56 year old  postal worker who had it all during the bubble era before losing it in the early 1990’s. Thrice-divorced and dating a much younger girl he has long been an outsider in Japan. They share a shoebox room with no windows, he’s a house-husband with only a part time job whilst she has three jobs to support them both. It also focuses on meeting each others families in order to save the relationship. More details here

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Fish! A Japanese Obsession, Documentary, BBC4 (2009) – Investigation into the Japanese love of fish and their need to eat so much with particular reference to whale. It details the emotional attachment to it which Japan just doesn’t have as they continue to hunt these huge specimens which may become extinct. More details here

Great Railway Journeys: Tokyo To Kagoshima, Documentary, BBC4 (2009) – Part of the Japan season on this BBC4, Fergal Keane travels through Japan, starting with the shinkansen (bullet train) in Tokyo and journeying through the countryside where he contemplates the old and the new. More details here 

Justin Lee Collins Turning Japanese (3 episodes), Channel Five (2011) – The comedian throws himself in at the deep end as he travels to Tokyo and Osaka on a cultural trip where he gets involved in a few challenges such as performing as part of a Japanese comedy duo. More details here

An Idiot Abroad (S02E07) Japan: Climbing Mount Fuji, Sky One (2011) – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant monitor the progress of Karl Pilkington who has no interest in global travel. In series two Karl chooses activities from a general (but not his) “bucket list” with one of them being to climb Japan’s iconic mountain. More details here

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World’s Busiest Train Station, Channel 5 (2013) – Documentary detailing 24 hours in the life of the dedicated staff at Shinjuku station in Tokyo. More details here

The Moaning Of Life Kids (S01E03), Sky One (2013) – Karl sets out to learn why people have children and in Japan he attends the Kanamara Matsuri a.k.a. the penis festival where he assists other men in carrying a large portable shrine shaped like a phallus. Karl has no kids or interest in having them but he decides to have his sperm tested to see if he is capable of fathering children.

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Tokyo (S02E08) CNN (2013) – Bourdain is back in Tokyo again and this time his aim is to seek out the city’s dark, extreme, and bizarrely fetishistic underside featuring some unique subcultures. More details here

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Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure (S01E04S01E05), BBC2 (2013) – The British duo travel around Asia on their beloved bikes with two episodes in Japan taking in Tokyo, Fuji, Kyoto and Kobe whilst trying the local cuisine, meeting local people and cooking some native dishes themselves. More details here

Tom Daley Goes Global (S01E02), ITV2 (2014) – The Olympic diver (and his best friend Sophie) takes six weeks off his training to go backpacking around the world to get life-changing experiences and to try some extreme sports to raise money for charity.  More details here

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The Charlotte Crosby Experience – The Furisode-San of Tokyo (S01E02), TLC (2014) – The English reality TV star spends time in different extreme cultures living with some of the world’s unique communities and that of course includes Japan. More detailshere

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Grand Designs (S14E09) The Japanese House: Revisited (Revisited from S13E06), Channel 4 (2014) – Presenter Kevin McCloud revisits a unique Japanese-Welsh fusion home which was completely transformed from a damp old forester’s house.

If you know of any more programmes which could be added to this list (and there are many!!) then let me know in the comments or tweet me using @tokyofox