You’re sure to spend plenty of time on your trip to Japan wandering shrines, museums and gardens, as well as queueing up at the latest ramen spot that’s all the rage.
But if you want a quick fix of Japanese culture, particularly between visits to tourist sites, all you need to do is turn on the TV.
There are several Japanese television shows that offer a way to tap into Japanese life and sentiment in an understandable, even relatable way — subtitles included. That’s not to say that holing up in your hotel room with the remote is a viable cultural alternative to visiting museums or wandering the city streets, but it is if you’ve yet to shake off the jet lag or you have some downtime to fill.
Still, if you don’t want to waste a moment of your waking hours in Japan, no problem. You can stream some of these shows before you take flight — and give yourself a taste of the vibrant culture that awaits you on arrival.
In general, Japanese television follows the same schedule and themes you find in the U.S. Expect news programs in the morning, shows geared toward domestic partners during the daytime, and more lively entertainment during prime time, ranging from the high-minded to the highly bizarre.
In truth, you won’t have too difficult a time finding the kooky side of Japanese television, including the game shows that challenge participants’ ability to overcome highly contrived, physically compromising, even painful situations — all for the sake of audience laughs. But there’s plenty of culturally rich fare to take in as well.
From the serious to the silly, here are six programs worth downloading or streaming before your visit to Japan.
Show: “Denjiro—The Science Experiment”
How to watch: Fuji TV
Call it “Bill Nye the Science Guy” with a zany twist, but that’d be an overly simple description of a show that so deftly blends science with comedy. In each episode, science teacher Yonemura Denjiro attempts to reproduce interesting, relatable science experiments with the help of comedy duo Audrey (Toshiaki Kasuga and Masayasu Wakabayashi). Expect visual spectacles, celebrity guests, laughs — and learning something new in each episode.
Show: “Why Did You Come To Japan?”
How to watch: YouTube, TV Tokyo
Hosted by a well-known comedy duo, this show turns the camera on foreigners (often upon their arrival at the airport) to learn more about why they came to Japan. The more interesting the subjects’ pursuits, the longer the cameras follow them. The on-screen and audio commentary can be a bit distracting and might lead you to file this show on the silly side of the spectrum. But the program’s light concept and presentation are a cover for exploring a deeper construct: Japan’s unique culture is at the heart of why the country — and the experience of visiting it — is so special.
Show: “Terrace House Tokyo”
How to watch: Netflix
If you’ve avoided reality television until now, you’re likely to come around after watching “Terrace House Tokyo.” The series places six strangers (three men, three women) from different walks of life into a house in Tokyo together for several weeks. Bonus for curious travelers: The participants go out on the town to places that you’d only hear about — or visit — with advance local knowledge. Just don’t think of this as “Big Brother” or “The Real World.” The show doesn’t rely on contrived situations, nor does it manufacture drama. International critics routinely praise this show for providing a unique, interesting, heartwarming and often heartbreaking view of regular peoples’ lives.
Show: “Samurai Gourmet”
How to watch: Netflix
Japan disrupted the TV cooking genre with “Iron Chef” in the ’90s and is now defying the traditional concept of food TV with “Samurai Gourmet.” It’s a lighthearted comedy featuring a recently retired corporate type with relatively unadventurous tastes, who slowly discovers the power of epicurean delights — smells, flavors and textures — to inspire memories and bring instantaneous joy. The appeal of “Samurai Gourmet” (yes, it also features a samurai character) lies in the notion of savoring food, not necessarily procuring ingredients or cooking. It’s a refreshing take on both food and comedy and is just a joy to watch.
Show: “Junk Sports”
How to watch: Fuji TV
Fuji is one of Japan’s biggest broadcasters of live sports — everything from baseball to horseracing to figure skating to Formula 1. “Junk Sports” is where emerging and star athletes stop in to talk about an array of subjects with host Masatoshi Yamada, (pictured above). However, Yamada doesn’t just want to get inside sports stars’ heads — he puts their skills to the test with in-studio physical challenges created specifically for each guest.
Show: “Invisible Tokyo”
How to watch: Amazon Prime
Tokyo is a bright, busy city, which tends to obscure travelers’ views of what everyday life is like for, say, a teenager. Or a CEO. Or several different types of people in between. The documentary “Invisible Tokyo” gives you a clear sense of the struggles, challenges, joys and small daily successes of getting by in Japan’s fastest-moving city.