Wait, so Wolverine killed Bill, then Hawkeye came to avenge him, before he was confronted by Black Widow who stayed and got lost in translation? Or am I just furiously drifting between movies too fast?
[Pause… Record scratch…]
Let’s back up a bit, in a classic comedy movie fashion after a confusing opening.
Tokyo Survival Channel knows I love to get lost in make-believe, and I’ve been known to dart around Tokyo on an over-packed itinerary, and go the extra mile in general. This time they challenged me to go to as many iconic popular movie locations around Tokyo as I could in two days, and subtly pretend like I’m in the movie.
I embraced this challenge as a celebration of movie magic, rediscovering Tokyo, and an escape from the reality of a lonely New Year. This challenge will take me to bars, live music shows, karaoke, cafes, restaurants, and fancy hotels. In sync with Japanese New Year traditions, I’ll also go to temples and eat noodles — a nod to hatsumode and toshikoshi soba. I’ll swing between fact and fiction, determine what’s real on the film reel, and bust some myths along the way. Let’s get rolling!
My Tokyo Cinematic Itinerary
The Wolverine (2013)
I stepped right in a superhero’s shoes to start my challenge, following the steps of X-Men’s Wolverine during his stint in Japan. Both of us with a mission: running around Tokyo.
Not unlike other Hollywood movies, The Wolverine, too, wallows in Japan clichés — the obligatory yakuza fights and Logan even being scolded for mishandling chopsticks. In all that though, it shows many real-life Tokyo locations making this city even more famous than it already is.
The funeral scene in the movie is a major turning point, and it takes place in Zojoji Temple with Tokyo Tower rising behind it. The main temple building, which is being renovated, instantly shattered my fledgling film fantasy.
Luckily, I realized most fighting scenes were actually shot to the left, in front of the adjacent temple buildings. Wearing a funeral-appropriate black button up shirt, and some low-cost cosplay in the form of cutlery, I was back in my film fantasy!
Fantasy vs. Reality: As all hell breaks loose in the movie, action spreads to a temple garden-like area, but you won’t find one in Zojoji as these scenes were filmed in the Chinese Garden in Sydney, Australia. In fact, most of the movie was shot in Australia.
Disorienting for Tokyoites, the action then spills from Zojoji Temple to Akihabara in a heartbeat, despite these areas being far away from each other. The characters then run from Akihabara to Ueno Station, which brings us back to reality as the two places are a 20-minute walk from each other.
How to visit: Zojoji Temple is open and free to everyone. Just walk through the main gate, and you’ll see the temple (hopefully renovated).
Nakagin Capsule Tower
Running from Ueno, Wolverine and Mariko look for a place to hide when they pass a unique stacked building. “What is this?” our hero asks, and a reluctant Mariko explains it’s a love hotel. Real-life spoiler alert — it’s not. I went directly to Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza after Zojoji Temple, feeling more like Mariko, as I know this building well.
Fantasy vs. Reality: You’ll notice above it says “tower,” not “hotel.” The Wolverine‘s fiction that this is a love hotel is so pervasive, it has clouded the fact that it’s private property and an architectural landmark in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most affluent areas. Changing it to a dirty hotel in a poor part of town borders on the offensive. The building’s capsules are actually small apartments, not like the sleeping pods of capsule hotels.
All the colorful signs have been added in post production, and the love hotel room scenes are shot elsewhere entirely. One last bone to pick with this movie — themed rooms are not the norm in love hotels, but a special case.
How to visit: Nakagin Capsule Tower is private property, so you can’t simply walk in. However, there are guided architecture tours you can book with Showcase Tokyo. Here’s their usual tour, and their newly launched online tour.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Claws retracting in favor of a katana, it’s time for Beatrix Kiddo to dress in yellow and kick ass in the “House of Blue Leaves.” The real location is called Gonpachi, a traditional Japanese restaurant near Roppongi. My friend Phoebe was wearing a blazer to hint at the Japanese schoolgirl uniform of Gogo Yubari from the movie, and we fought with katana-shaped chopsticks for the last piece of pork. It was a draw, no blood spilled, no Bill killed today. However, maximum Tarantino vibes achieved.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Looking at how they trash the place in Kill Bill: Volume 1, it shouldn’t be surprising that it wasn’t filmed in the real restaurant. Tarantino, having visited Gonpachi, built an almost exact replica of it in a Beijing film studio. Only the Japanese garden is added in the movie, Gonpachi not having one. I thought the rock band in the movie playing in a traditional izakaya would be an incongruity, but Gonpachi blasts trendy pop hits, so that checks out.
All City Streets Lead to Shinjuku
Next, the main movie mecca for this challenge — Shinjuku. I start in Kabukicho, in east Shinjuku, which seems to be where most movie characters enter Tokyo for the first time.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Popping back into the MCU, we find one very angry Avenger looking for trouble in the seedy backstreets of Kabukicho. Hawkeye, hooded in black, opens the movie by fighting yakuza. An experienced Tokyoite eye will notice a lattice of blue neon in the scene that can only be found on Godzilla road. I put on a hoodie (not really in character mentally since I can’t be Hawkeye-like angry) and have some more fun living in the Tokyo of the movies.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Although the street seems dark and derelict in the movie, this is probably the brightest, most colorful plot of land in all of Japan. The blue neon sign is very high in reality, not just behind Hawkeye’s head as it seems. Of course, movie magic was at play, as Tokyo was recreated over shots filmed on Broad Street SW in the U.S. city of Atlanta.
How to visit: Here’s the exact spot’s location, but do explore the area to get the same feel from the movie. You’ll find plenty of seedy places in the red-light district, just don’t pick any fights — you’re not an Avenger!
Lost in Translation (2003)
Black Widow came all the way to Tokyo to bring Hawkeye home, but that’s not the first or the last time Scarlet Johansson has played a character in Tokyo. She plays Charlotte in Lost in Translation, a rare film that completely and realistically submerges the viewer in Tokyo.
Leaving all action behind, it’s time to dive into the everyday Tokyo and get lost in cinematography.
Meeting at Park Hyatt Hotel’s New York Bar
The New York Bar is where the main characters meet — two foreigners experiencing excruciating loneliness catalyzed by being in Tokyo. They sit at the counter as strangers and end up chatting.
Entering together, we were seated at the table just in front of that counter. My “Bob” ordered whiskey just like Bob in the movie, but instead of ordering Charlotte’s drink, I ordered the original L.I.T. (Lost in Translation) cocktail. Soaking up the mellow jazz in the background and sparkling metropolitan views in front, it’s hard to not be in awe of this amazing city. Just before we left, the jazz band singer came up to chat, an unplanned similarity from the movie!
How to visit: The bar is open to non-staying guests, too, and you only need to show up, no reservations. It’s located on the 52nd floor of Park Hyatt Tokyo, open from 5 p.m. Beware of the music charge when there’s a live jazz performance, as well as the extra tax and service charge fees.
Alternatively, there’s The Peak Lounge on the 41st floor of the same hotel, open from noon and without a music charge. That’s where the characters say an initial cold goodbye in the end.
Probably the most iconic scene of the film, Charlotte and Bob end up in a karaoke room after a wild night out. The scene is shot in Karaoke Kan in Shibuya, but that’s not the only karaoke with a view in Tokyo. Since we were already in Shinjuku, we simply walked over to Karaoke Kan in Kabukicho and got a premium room with a view on the 7th floor.
How to visit: Both Karaoke Kan locations are open 24 hours (with some exceptions), so you just walk in and ask for a room with a view. There are several Karaoke Kan with city views, but these two are the most famous.
Hotel Room Scenes
The director of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola, had this film in mind ever since she visited Tokyo and stayed in Park Hyatt. It had to be filmed there, and she got Park Hyatt to say yes to filming if they didn’t bother guests, hence many scenes are late night or early morning. The sweeping views of Shinjuku’s buildings high and low, stacked together in the urban jungle and jumble that is Tokyo, paired with quiet musings, are the film’s signature scenes.
How to visit: Anyone can book a room in Park Hyatt Tokyo, though popularity has driven prices sky-high (no pun intended). For this challenge, I aimed to live in the Tokyo of the movies, between fact and fiction, not necessarily following those movies to a T. West Shinjuku is a conglomerate of skyscrapers with great views, so I chose to stay in Hilton Tokyo instead, for a third of the price of Park Hyatt. There’s also Keio Plaza, Washington Hotel, and many more. What matters is the amazing views of the metropolis we love.
Shinjuku Daytime Goodbye Scene
Time to say goodbye to this film by visiting the location of the closing scene. Bob stops the taxi taking him to the airport, and goes out to chase after Charlotte for a warmer goodbye, infamously whispering something into her ear that is never revealed to the viewer.
How to visit: This scene was filmed in West Shinjuku, near Yodobashi camera, where the skyscraper district starts merging with the busy streets leading to the station. This is the approximate location.
Lost in Translation: Fantasy vs. Reality
One of the most realistic Hollywood depictions of Tokyo, Lost in Translation was shot on location entirely, despite the hurdles to do so. Some things may have become different with time, like the bar becoming non-smoking, or Karaoke Kan changing the design of the walls. The karaoke offers free costumes, but not wigs.
Some movie goers may entertain some criticism of the film for not fully developing the Japanese characters. But, you can also see that this is indicative of the main characters feeling lost, detached, and alienated from everyone else. Watching this film with a burning wish to visit Tokyo might make you jealous of these characters wasting their days in the city moping around, but hopefully you can look past that.
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
And now for something completely different! The whole city becomes part of the challenge when it comes to the Godzilla franchise — no need to pretend you’re in a movie universe alone. Godzilla road in Kabukicho leads straight to TOHO cinemas where the legendary lizard pokes his giant head through the roof, occasionally roaring and spewing fumes. After the King of Monsters bit me, I had to go up there for a final showdown, and plot twist — I ate him!
How to visit: The head is visible from outside in front of Toho Cinemas. If you want to get closer, go to the 8th floor of Hotel Gracery’s cafe terrace. Super fans can book a stay in a special Godzilla themed room. There’s also an official Godzilla merchandise shop that’s within a 10-minute walk.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
The internet joke is that no one knows how many Fast and Furious movies are out there, but one of them truly stands out — Tokyo Drift. I found a car resembling the Mazda RX-7 driven by Han and tried to drift in Tokyo, with the help of classic movie magic.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Knowing Japan’s strict rules, there’s no way you can do illegal car races in the middle of the city. Even Mario cart street tours were banned recently. However, that’s what movie fantasy is here for — showing the rare and improbable. A great touch of reality was the scene with the rotating car garage, an ingenious Japanese automated parking system.
Resident Evil (2010–2012)
Shibuya Crossing is also a darling of the movies and recently TV shows, too. It features in Lost in Translation, Tokyo Drift, Babel, and it opens the Resident Evil: Afterlife movie which is what brought me there. In the Afterlife movie, Shibuya Crossing is the ground zero of a zombie virus spreading all over Tokyo, and in Resident Evil: Retribution the same scene is played in a simulation with the main hero Alice.
On the day of the challenge, I ventured to this spot with a real virus fear — me and other masked Tokyoites crossing and trying not to catch the novel coronavirus. I also remembered the new Netflix hit show Alice in Borderland, where another Alice (Arisu) starts an adventure at this crossing, when instead of the usual crowds, everyone disappears — just like during Tokyo’s state of emergency in April 2020.
Resident Evil scene: the whole scene is a masterpiece
Alice in Borderland scene: from 0:25
Fantasy vs. Reality: The portrayals of the busy crossing are usually faithful to reality. Since 2020 there’s also a full replica of Shibuya Crossing built in Ashikaga to be used as a movie set, and most Alice in Borderland scenes were shot there. Due to this location’s popularity and notorious difficulty to get permission to film, we might see more of the Ashikaga set in the future.
The Ramen Girl (2008)
I wouldn’t wish to be stuck in the zombie apocalypse or a sadistic game in Shibuya, so shaking those glimpses of dark universes off, I looked for solace in a warm bowl of ramen. Just like Abby, the protagonist in The Ramen Girl, who stumbles sobbing into a closed ramen shop and leaves comforted and determined to achieve something.
This movie was mostly shot in Shinsen, a quieter Shibuya neighborhood. The ramen shop has closed down and reopened as an unrecognizable fancy restaurant. However, in honor of the film and to end this challenge triumphantly, I found a nearby ramen shop that I think reflects Abby’s ramen-making philosophy. An outsider both to ramen-making and Japan, she embraces her foreignness and reflects it in her ramen recipes. In the crucial tasting scene she serves a ramen with corn and tomato, puzzling the ramen master who nevertheless enjoys eating it. I went to Samurai Noodles and ordered vegetarian miso ramen with corn topping.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Quite realistic and shot on location, The Ramen Girl manages to convey the importance of ramen as soul food in Japan. Both chefs and customers really are that passionate about this bowl of delights. What’s not so realistic is that Abby can learn without speaking the language or having an interpreter. Then there’s the cost of her ex-boyfriend just leaving her in his apartment for months and not coming back. Not to dwell on details, but I’m also not sure what visa can be granted for unofficially learning how to cook ramen from a cantankerous local sensei.
How to visit: This is the location of the now-closed ramen shop in Shinsen, and this is the location of the ramen shop I visited. However, going into any ramen shop, even without knowing anything about it just like Abby, will make you feel like you’re in the movie. Ramen fans can level up and go to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, which is also featured in the movie.
Roll the Post-credit Scene
After 48 hours of Hollywood whirlwind enveloping Tokyo in a new light, it was almost a culture shock to go back to my daily life. That’s until I realized, even if I’m not living in an exact movie scene, I do live in Tokyo, the city from the movies. And within that city, I live in Kichijoji, one of the anime darlings with most anime studios in quiet buildings on the other side of my street. And I am the main character in my own unwritten story. We all are, wherever we are.