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Zusetsu's Favourite Japanese TV Shows

Have you ever been told that an effective way to learn a new language is by watching a lot of TV and films? My Japanese teacher tells me this all the time and to be honest, I think she's right! Not only is it exciting when you start picking up on the words and phrases, but it's a really fun and immersive way to learn more about Japanese culture. Yukki also introduced me to a few Japanese TV shows and we now have a regular routine of watching one episode together after dinner :) So, if you're looking to find some recommendations on Japanese TV programmes, here are our current top five! We're also constantly on a look-out for new shows to watch, so do let us know your favourites too! x


1. Natsuzora (2019, 1 season 156 episodes)

Cathy's comment: Natsuzora was recommended to me by Yukki's mum! Not only has it been good for practising my Japanese language listening skills, but the story is very engaging and interesting. It centres around Natsu, who as a child was orphaned during the Tokyo bombing raids during WWII, and was later separated from her brother and her sister. Her father's wartime friend honours his battlefield promise, and invites Natsu back to the countryside idyll of his Hokkaido farm, where she grows up.

What is even more interesting about Natsu's story, is that she is loosely modelled on the pioneering animator, Reiko Okuyama, who was the first female animation director in Japan. Toyo Animation studios, where Natsu learns her craft, is loosely based on Toei Animation (who later created popular animated shows Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Digimon). Her colleagues include Kazuhisa Sakaba and artist genius Koya Kamiji, who are based on Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, who eventually left Toei to found the renowned Ghibli Studios. (Yukki and I discuss our favourite Ghibli movies by both Miyazaki and Takahata in our blog here!)

The art studio scenes are wonderful. We see a lot of the original hand-drawn and painted animation process; from the germination of an idea, through the characterisation of the protagonists; we see linking sketches connecting images drawn by senior artists, and we see voice actors dramatizing the characters. We watch Natsu become more and more accomplished as an artist. Of course this fascinates me - it's rare to see any drama given over to the imaginative world of an illustrator - and as a children's book illustrator, this is the drama I've been waiting for!

Incidentally, NHK have a 4-part documentary called Ten Years with Hayao Miyazaki, available to watch here. The animation process and beautiful art work is wonderfully interesting, and is at times reminiscent of studio scenes in Natsuzora!


2. Kyoto Love Story (2016, 1 season 12 episodes)

Cathy's comment: Kyoto Love Story is a beautifully filmed rom-com on Amazon, about the three daughters of the owner of a traditional, 450-year-old wagashi shop, in a pretty area of Kyoto. Not only are we treated to wonderful views of the city, some beautiful kimono, and interesting scenes of tea ceremony sweet-making; but we follow the engaging story of a modern young woman who is inevitably expected to fulfill familial duty, and become the 18th generation to manage the shop, which is called Fukuyadou Honpo.

Traditional wagashi and the sweet shop where they are created, are held in high regard, and are an important part of the ritual and ceremony of Kyoto.

O-kashi are often filled with sweetened, mashed azuki bean paste (anko), are very delicious, and their sweetness complements the green, astringent hint of bitterness in the matcha! This is Kagizen, near Gion - a traditional tea house that I love very much!

In the drama, Kyoto is described as, ‘An ancient, refined, traditional city. Even though 1200 years have passed, it sits quietly amid this wavering world. Protecting traditions as customary practices - handing them down from generation to generation; the city hasn’t lost its splendour, even today.’

Note the elegant furoshiki-wrapped gift!

It is this sense of tradition, and the honoured way that artisan skills are passed down from generation to generation, that is a big part of what we love so much about Kyoto!


3. Core Kyoto (2013-present, 8 seasons)

Cathy's comment: Japanese broadcaster NHK have some very interesting programmes about different aspects of Japan to watch. Our favourite is Core Kyoto, where many cultural aspects of the city are presented. Through watching this programme, we've discovered many beautiful areas of the city, and have learned a little about its beating heart. I loved the episode on folding fans (sensu) so much, that when I arrived in Kyoto last October I went straight to the store featured that is called Onishi Tsune Shoten - here is a photo of the incredibly lovely plum blossom fan that I bought there (with our gorgeous Nishijin-ori wallet in lilac)!

The first fan shop featured in this episode is Yamatake Sanpo, and it is a few doors away from Suzuki Shofudo in the back lanes of Kyoto. It's the shop that we mentioned in last week's blog about washi. (I bought a pale pink dragonfly sensu there - they are so beautiful, I couldn't help it!)

Core Kyoto programmes explain about the culture of incense; Heian-era kyokusui-no-utage poetry; the matsuri; and many more aspects of this fascinating city. This link will take you to the episode called The Custom of Wrapping: Conveying Hidden Sentiments, which is all about the beautiful Kyoto tradition of wrapping, which of course includes wrapping gifts with furoshiki.

A gift is wrapped with care in a square piece of cloth…Wrapping things given to others has long been a Kyoto custom imbued with sensibilities meant to stimulate the imagination. Rather than conveying their feelings with words, Kyotoites let the wrapping do the talking. ‘I believe that not being direct is related to the culture of wrapping. Maybe Kyoto has more people who find this obliqueness beautiful.’ The sentiments thus communicated are varied, and often profound... By taking care, you show how important recipients are to you. The aesthetics of wrapping are tangible reminders of these encounters.

Do take a look, I think you'll love it too!

Our other favourite NHK programmes include Journeys in Japan, and J-Trip!


4. Terrace House (2012-present, 5 series)

Yukki's comment: I love this show! My boyfriend Cally (Cathy's son) and I started to watch it when we just started dating nearly 4 years ago and we've been hooked ever since. We actually went to visit Mizuki (the girl sitting in the middle in the above photo) at her coffee shop in Omotesando - she made us our latte! We're currently re-watching the Girls and Boys in the City (Tokyo series) with Cathy too. The concept is: three girls and three boys live together in a really nice share house environment. Nothing is scripted and they're allowed to leave the house at any time. There's no cash price at the end. We just watch six regular people live their daily lives and watch the drama that naturally enfolds. You may wonder how a plain concept like this can be "TV material", but you do get addicted. You get an authentic view of how young people in Japan interact as well as how the dating scene is like in Japan. Also, there's a regular group of TV celebrities who savagely comment on the six residents, and it's absolutely hilarious!


5. Rilakkuma and Kaoru (2019, 1 season 13 episodes)

Yukki's comment: If you are looking for a cute, heartfelt show that just makes you want to go "awww", this is it! This show is based off a popular Japanese character Rilakkuma (the relaxing bear) and Kaoru, an ordinary young working woman. There isn't too much dialogue, so it's a very good series for people just starting to learn Japanese. That said, the story is also very touching because you go through the happiness and sadness of Kaoru's daily life, which is quite relatable and thought-provoking.

Kaoru is wrapping her bento in furoshiki to go to a picnic under cherry trees!

Isn't this angry yellow bird just the cutest?


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We hope you enjoyed this list! We would love to learn about your favourite Japanese shows, so do let us know! :)

For further reading about Natsuzora and Reiko Okuyama:


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