Best Anime to Watch Before Visiting Japan – Without a doubt, Anime is the greatest pop culture export of modern Japan.
Far more than just cartoons for kids, Anime has long been celebrated for its exploration of a vast spectrum of human experiences, as well as its capability to provide entertainment in practically every storytelling genre.
Since the 1960s, many Anime series and movies were also inspired by Japanese daily life and passions. Vice versa, the enduring popularity of some productions has created some of Japan’s most well-known pop culture icons.
What I’m saying is, Anime is an endlessly entertaining and informative slice of Japan, easily available to anyone nowadays thanks to streaming services. By watching some of the best Anime productions before visiting Japan, you can be sure your trip will be doubly, even triply as memorable.
All Anime screenshots from IMDB.com and YouTube.
Table of Contents
Let’s start with a golden oldie! One featuring a bumbling robotic cat from the future who has entertained millions of children worldwide since the 70s.
Who has also in 2021, partnered Gucci as a brand mascot.
The greatest creation of Fujiko Fujio (real-life partners Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motoo Abiko), Doraemon is practically synonymous with Japan. While most of his TV series and animated movies feature storylines targeted at children, rest assured that even adults will find the shenanigans hilarious. And be fascinated by the many incredible gadgets found within Dora-chan’s 4D pocket.
Because of his fame, the blue robotic cat also graces many a souvenir, with toys and figures of him sold throughout Japan. Lastly, there is even a Fujiko F. Fujio Museum in Kawasaki. You will want to visit it, after enjoying Doraemon’s many colorful adventures.
“The Big Three”
The Big Three is not an Anime series title. Instead, it refers to the three most popular Anime series post-2000. These being One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.
Note: Anime fans will consider it a tragedy if you do not at least know about these series before visiting Japan. And that’s not just because of the numerous shops and attractions associated with them. Attractions such as the One Piece theme park at Tokyo Tower, or the Hidden Leaf Village at Fuji-Q Highland.
The representative names of the ever-popular Shonen genre, the Big Three all feature young male protagonists embarking on high-action quests to save the world. Always while accompanied by loyal friends you’d dream of having.
Consistently one of the best-selling genres of Anime, there is also a massive selection of other thrilling Shonen series throughout the years. The hugely popular Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, of recent years are but two names.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Are you familiar with the term, Mecha? If not, no worries. Japan will ensure you are well familiar before you’re halfway through your visit.
Because while there, you cannot avoid seeing stylized fighting robots; or should I say, collectibles and posters of. In Yokohama, there is even a huge moving statue of Gundam, the most famous of all Mecha Anime robots.
As for the Anime series and movies behind Gundam’s worldwide renown, there are near 50 since the first series in 1979. But no worries, most are self-contained i.e. you don’t have to watch all to properly enjoy Gundam Factory Yokohama.
Gundam itself is also not the only Mecha Anime worthy of binging. From the 70s alone there are Great Mazinger, Grendizer, and so on. If you love the futuristic battles in them, all Japanese cities with their many Mecha memorabilia will be a paradise for you.
The Meiji Revolution, and the years before, was marked by some of the most tumultuous events in Japanese history. Correspondingly, there are many outstanding Anime inspired by this historical period. For example, the evergreen classic Samurai X.
None, however, are as outrageous, as audacious, as hilarious as Hideaki Sorachi’s Gintama. Just consider, instead of Americans, Japan was forced to “open up” by space aliens. Thereafter, samurai walk alongside a medley of extraterrestrial creatures in an Edo (Tokyo) with both skyscrapers and traditional houses. While an embattled Shinsengumi struggles to maintain order with swords and bazookas.
It’s as outrageous as it gets. But yet, it’s also a sly reference to today’s Tokyo?
Hailed as one of the most entertaining Anime ever, there is no better series to put you in a fun mood for Tokyo. Simply, no better laughter therapy too.
Is any introduction necessary for Pokémon? Or should I say, Pikachu?
Well, if you’ve indeed unfamiliar, Pokémon, or Pocket Monster, originated as a series of Nintendo games in which you go about a fictional world capturing monsters. Exotic creatures that range from super-adorable to super-powerful.
A global pop-culture phenomenon, you’d positively be delighted to be in Japan if you love the associated Anime series. Let’s just say, you will find it tough to avoid being tempted by Pokémon goods when there, so make sure you recap on that ultimate Pokémon trivia so can make some informed buying decisions. Pikachu himself often cameos on event posters, banners, and at the most unexpected places too.
Add to which are also the many Pokémon Centers across the country. In short, you’d be going Pika Pika (!) throughout the day.
The animated movies of top Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki require little introduction. Lush and whimsical, Miyazaki’s movies contributed much to Anime’s worldwide popularity. They are also celebrated for their sensitive, non-confrontational treatment of topics like environmentalism.
As for Spirited Away, other than winning the 75th Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, this otherworldly adventure is a superb introduction to Japanese spiritualism and Yokai. Simply put, you cannot travel Japan without encountering Yokai memorabilia, or art, or souvenirs. These quirky supernatural beings, frightening as they might seem, are often used as tourist mascots too.
Not to mention, the scenes in Yubaba’s Bathhouse will give you a good idea of how onsen bathing is like. You will long for a soak in an actual historical Japanese bathhouse, after watching this gorgeous Miyazaki masterpiece.
Kimi no Na wa i.e. Your Name
Speaking of top Anime movies, here’s another one that you probably already heard of.
The 2016 gem of animator Makoto Shinka, Your Name took the world by storm when it was released. Widely praised for its fabulous artwork and emotionally complex plot.
An inventive, ponderous story about two teens inexplicably switching bodies, Your Name was also noted for its incorporation of real-life Gifu Prefecture locations. In other words, after enjoying the movie, you can spend a whole day exploring these rustic sights.
Best of all, if you enjoy Shinka’s style, there is also the equally beautiful Weathering With You from 2019. In this, the stage is changed to Tokyo. Again, you will have an unforgettable time exploring the Tokyo sights featured, after enjoying the poignant movie.
KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World!
Isseikai means “another world.” In today’s Japan, the phrase is both a (huge) cash cow as well as one of the most popular storytelling genres.
Popularized by the legendary Sword Art Online series, Isseikai stories originated from light novels and always feature a hapless, unhappy, or lonely protagonist trapped in a fantasy realm. His or her adventures then involve a self-actualization journey to true awareness.
As for the best Isseikai Anime series to watch before visiting Japan, Sword Art Online would naturally be the foremost choice, if only because of the many merchandise on sale. Should you prefer something lighter though, consider the hilarious KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World! Often referred to just as Konosuba.
The adventures of a NEET transported to a Western RPG-like realm by a bimbo goddess, Konosuba is one hysterical adventure from start to end. Just try not to mind Kazuma’s creepy face too much, whenever he executes his renowned “Steal.”
Tantei i.e. detective stories have long been popular in modern Japanese fiction. Little surprise, therefore, that detective Anime is equally as popular, with the genre itself dominated by one name.
Conan. The bespectacled boy detective extraordinaire. Who was originally a talented teenage detective. Whose perceptiveness is capable of seeing through any crime.
With hundreds of episodes and several movies since the 90s, it could be hard to get through everything Detective Conan story. But the great news is, all episodes are neatly divided into cases. You don’t need to watch everything to know how the Japanese like their detective stories.
Lastly, if prefer traditional whodunnits, consider the older Kindaichi Case Files series instead. Agatha Christie-like with its murders, this is one Anime series that will give you a lot of chills when watched alone.
To share, I dislike basketball. The only times I ever played was when I was forced to do so in school. I absolutely detested every moment.
Despite that, I still watched every episode of Kuroko’s Basketball. Not that I was trying to find something to like, it was because the Anime was just so addictive. Other than a slew of colorful characters, the matches were akin to superhero fights, but without ever being ludicrous. Every single match was such raw excitement to sit through.
Which, incidentally, is how the best Sports Anime are like, series such as Prince of Tennis, Captain Tsubasa, and Haikyuu! It’s never just about the sport, it’s also about character contrast and conflicts.
Needless to say, you’re also going to be highly familiar with Japanese sports competition schedules and terms after watching. If you plan to attend any matches while in Japan, you should definitely watch some associated Sports Anime beforehand to prep yourself.
PS: If you’re heading to Kyushu, you must watch the ice-skating Anime, Yuri on Ice. Other than exhilarating sequences, it’s a homage to the town of Karatsu.
Many Japanese “slice of life” Anime series feature high school students in romantic, comical, or supernatural escapades. Often light-hearted, if not hilarious, such series are a relaxing joy to watch no matter your age. As well as capable of making you into quite the expert on the Japanese academic calendar.
Newer series such as Orange and Hyouka additionally explore Japanese social phenomena that one would hesitate to discuss at dinner. In the case of Orange, a group of adults is given the chance to relive their high school days, which ended with a friend’s suicide. With the benefit of foresight, would they then succeed in changing history?
Celebrated as one of the best and most thoughtful high school Anime series in recent years, but with no shortage of lighter moments, Orange will make you reconsider the social choices you made in school. It will also afford emphatic insight into the darker trends battling Japanese youths.
I’m sure you have noticed that throughout this article, I’ve introduced various Anime genres. To end, here’s another one that’s particularly popular with speculative fiction fans.
Typically set in futuristic, dystopian cities, Cyberpunk Anime targets older viewers with their mature storylines, plots that often lament mankind’s darker side too. As for the representative Cyberpunk name, the honor surely goes to 1988’s Akira, a post-apocalyptic dissertation on disaffected youths that is still regarded as one of the greatest Japanese animated films ever.
A word of warning here. Akira is dark. And violent. But it is also a story you will not soon forget.
For productions slightly lighter in touch, consider Psycho Pass and the famous Ghost in the Shell series. Bold and expansive in concepts, both series forces you to re-examine social notions. They also offer hints of what today’s Japan dreads most.
A devoted solo traveler from Singapore who has loved Japan since young. His first visits to the country were all because of video game and Manga homages. Today, he still visits for the same reasons, in addition to enjoying Japan’s culture, history, and hot springs.