Exploring Tokyo – Lost in Translation

Released in 2003, the movie Lost in Translation moved me and inspired me a lot, and it contributed to make me want to explore Japan. But it became even more special for me when I re-watched it again after I had travelled around the country. Suddenly, all theses images that had always fascinate me became almost familiar. I recognised some places, I saw my own reflection in the characters’ reactions, I almost felt like I was back in Japan. But one specific emotion also came to my mind at that moment: the memory of a last melancholic day in Tokyo… Here’s the story of it!

This article is an introduction to a series of articles about Tokyo. Here are the other ones:


Lost in Translation, poster

Lost in Translation has always been one of my favourite movies. I loved the unaffected poetry of its scenario, the emotions in the eyes of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and her naïve beauty, the charisma and the irony of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), the melancholia of the soundtrack… and Tokyo. I was fascinated by how Sofia Coppola filmed the city, by the panoramic views from the hotel, the neon lights and the crowds everywhere, the oases of peace of the temples… But it’s only when I watched the movie again a few months after I had travelled around Japan that I realised how she perfectly captured the essence of Tokyo in a series of gorgeous shots, sometimes slow and contemplative, sometimes swaying and blurry, with a constant kind of distance between the tumult of the city and us spectators observing it from the perspective of her characters, enhanced by the talent of her actors.

I think that this movie contributed to make me want to go to Japan, which I did at the end of March 2018. Between my first adventure in Australia in June 2016 and my journey home to France in the beginning of 2019, it’s the only trip that I haven’t done alone. I was met in Tokyo by Jeff, a former colleague from when I lived Switzerland. His plane landed there a few hours after mine, and we explored the country together for about a dozen of days.

He eventually flew back home at the end of his holidays, leaving me on my own for 24 hours in Tokyo before heading to the United States. We had an amazing trip together and we probably often had that same astounded look on our faces as Charlotte and Bob in the movie, but these last 24 hours alone in Japan had a different and unique taste for me, and they still remain among my best memories of the country.

During the entire time Jeff and I spent together, we always spoke French to each other, we shared our thoughts about the places we were visiting, we helped each other with directions or to order food at restaurants, just like random tourists exploring a foreign country. We were both amazed by how different the Japanese culture was compared to what we were used to in Europe, but it’s only after I found myself completely on my own that I realised how far away I was from home.

I did a long walk around Tokyo that day, in various suburbs that we didn’t visit together, until I eventually reached quite randomly the temple of Zozo-ji, at the foot of the huge Tokyo Tower and its red silhouette reminding of the Eiffer Tower. This is where I discovered a poignant place that I’ll never forget. To the right of the temple, partly hidden behind the vegetation, there were rows of hundreds of littles statues of stone, with a round and childish face, eyes closed. They all wore a red hat, some also had clothes, and next to all of them was a colourful little windmill. When the wind was blowing, their blades started to murmur in rythm, which added the peculiar atmoshpere of the place. A sign nearby tought me that this was a memorial for children: these statuettes represented care guardian deities, dedicated for the safe growth of children as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children. The windmills were supposed to protect them, and the hats were keaping their heads warm. This way of paying tribute to innocent children deeply moved me and as I was walking between the rows of statues, I could feel the emotion grow in me, almost bringing me tears. It took me a while before I could eventually leave the place.

Tokyo, Shinjuku, night, Japan

Later that day, I went back to the buzzing streets of Harajuku or Shibuya, and finally to the district of Shinjuku at nightfall. It’s the biggest district of Tokyo, with its boulevards illuminated by hundreds of giant billboards brighter than Times Square and with its forest of skyscrapers, including the Park Hyatt Hotel where Lost In Translation was shot. Suddenly, the feeling that I was a complete stranger in a country I knew so little about hit me with an extraordinary intensity. I didn’t understand anything from the conversations around me, I had no idea about what these billboards said, I was incapable to communicate with the people surrounding me. I kind of felt like standing perfectly still in the middle of a flowing crowd, and I had the impression of being inside of a bubble, observing the world through the lens of a camera.

I was a little bit of Charlotte walking alone in Kyoto, I was a little bit of Bob staring at the window from his taxi, I was a little bit of both of them trying to figure out what they were doing in Tokyo and looking for the meaning of their lives. I was a little bit lost in this giant city on the other side of the world, but I loved it so much.

Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? Did you like it? Let me know in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Exploring Tokyo – Lost in Translation

  1. >Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? Did you like it?

    Well, since you asked….I hated that movie! I found it unbearably boring.

    But I’m glad you enjoyed Tokyo.

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  2. Haha no worries, I can totally understand why! But as someone who lives in Tokyo, do you still think though that it captures pretty well the “essence of the city” as I wrote, or does it seem cliché to you? I’d be curious to have your “inside” opinion!

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  3. >do you still think though that it captures pretty well the “essence of the city”

    I understand how this movie could feel like the “essence of Tokyo” to visitors…but to me Japan isn’t strange or quirky, so I don’t think it gives an accurate representation of Japan.

    (Please check out my Instagram, BTW: https://www.instagram.com/five_in_tokyo/ )

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