As this wonderfully wry clip from Chris Broad (of Abroad In Japan YouTube fame) shows, when western TV presenters go to Japan they tend to hit the same beats. Blah blah blah…Shibuya crossing…blah blah blah. But, if you click that link you will also see that James May: Our Man In Japan is given a pass because, well, it’s just really good.
James May is an English TV presenter best known for being part of the Top Gear team alongside Jeremy Clarkson (Clarkson's Farm), often seen driving supercars and giving sardonic comments. In Our Man In Japan he journeys the length of the Japanese island chains starting at Hokkaido (the northernmost point), travelling through Honshu (which contains all the major cities you’ve heard of), Shikoku (which you haven’t) and ending in the southern island of Kyushu. Each of the six episodes spends a satisfyingly long time exploring the sights and sounds that each very different locale has to offer.
As alluded to earlier, Our Man In Japan stands out from the usual travel log shows about the land of the rising sun by, well, not leaning heavily on such tropes as ‘the land of the rising sun’. Sure there are always interesting things to see in Tokyo and Kyoto and these are covered nicely (don’t worry, there is Pachinko, Geishas, and Mount Fuji, etc…) but the witty and self aware narration from James makes it clear that he and the crew are treating the country as more than just an exercise in displaying the same old boggle-eyed wonder.
Joining James along the way are the occasional guides who give the show extra flavour by displaying, it must be said, quite un-Japanese like traits. His failure to be a worthwhile team member in the world’s only official team snowball fighting competition (‘Yukigassen’) draws the ire of Massayo (“What are you doing? They lost because of you.”), whilst one has to wonder if exuberant guide Yujiro is more used to geeing up willing American visitors rather than reserved ‘don’t get too excited’ English types. It is a little irritating that May will at times fall back on a sarcastic unwillingness to engage in joviality, but then that’s the reality of his personality.
That’s not to say he doesn’t enthuse. A visit to a tiny Yatai (a covered street food stall) that can only seat less than a dozen people shoulder to shoulder, and thus leave you with no choice but to make conversation, is something that brings out a more daily social side of Japan not often covered and with May referring back to this in later episodes as a particular highlight. A sensory digital art installation at Mori Art Museum, in which projectors make it appear like you are enveloped in an ever-shifting forest, leave him speechless. And who wouldn’t want to visit technically the most listened to composer and have him write a bespoke train station jingle in your honour?
Our Man in Japan, takes a long meander through the length of Japan and in doing so affords the time to give you a real sense of a country that in many ways still lives in its own bubble. Sure, it’s hard to imagine the Kanamara Matsuri fertility festival and its many many phallic adornments getting through council planning in other first world countries. Yet with time spent in the rarely covered rural north such as the city of Sendai in the Tohoku region, coverage of the art of kyūdō (Zen Archery), and even just trying to operate a food ticket machine restaurant to get noodles, May and the production team create a balanced, fun, and interesting show that ticks a box for everyone.
James often apologises throughout the show (sometimes with good need) with a frequently deployed すみません (sumimasen = I’m sorry / Excuse me) but for us, the viewer, a hearty いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase = Please come in!) is far more appropriate.
Words by Mike Record