When we think about traveling somewhere, certain questions are obvious. Where should I go, and when? Where should I stay? What should I see?

To these clearly important starting points, we might add: What should I listen to?

For many of us, music and travel are inseparable. But plotting a playlist is, unfortunately, often completely ignored in the travel-planning process.

Listening to a Japan travel playlist with a phone and headphones

Put another way: “sightseeing” is an integral part of travel; but “soundlistening” is unheard of as a key concern of our itineraries.

Every destination has its music, whether it’s music from, about, or inspired by that place.

It might be a country’s signature sound, like Brazil’s bossa nova, or it may manifest in a foreigner’s take on the local music. And some of the richest samples can be found in the film scores of a country’s homegrown cinema.

Musicians playing Japanese taiko drums
Musicians playing Japanese taiko drums

Music inspires us and gets us excited for our trip (and anticipation has been shown to be one of the most enjoyable parts of travel). It provides a pitch-perfect soundtrack during our travels. And, after we’ve returned, it can instantly transport us back, triggering memories of a time and place long ago.

Below are our tips for starting your own Ultimate Japan Travel Playlist. Far from being exhaustive, this list is merely an overture. Half the fun will be finding gems of your own to add to your personal playlist.

Japan Travel Playlist: Jazzy Japan

A reflection of the Tokyo skyline in a wine glass

Pharoah Sanders: “Japan”

No more descriptive name is needed for this 1966 track from Sanders, the tenor sax titan (whose horn is, notably, completely absent during this three-minute mantra).

Instead, Sanders’s meditation is all bells and cymbals, bass and vocalizing, and a pentatonic piano riff – all conjuring up a more mindful state.

Mount Fuji illuminated by a starry night sky

Dave Brubeck Quartet: “Fujiyama”

Brubeck and Co. traveled the world (including on tours as State Department “Jazz Ambassadors”) in the 1950s and 1960s, and Brubeck, ever the music student, returned home each time with gold for his compositional pen.

From the album Jazz Impressions of Japan, “Fujiyama” is contemplative bliss, notable for the trademark counterpoint between Brubeck on piano and Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. (Honorable mentions: “Koto Song”; “Osaka Blues”; “Tokyo Traffic.”)

Kanji characters painted on a wooden board

Toshiko Akiyoshi: “Kisarazu Zinku”

Akiyoshi was discovered by Oscar Peterson during a Ginza nightclub gig in 1952. Peterson’s promotion notwithstanding, Akiyoshi, as an Asian woman, faced multiple barriers to entry into the jazz world.

Which make her accomplishments all the more remarkable: NEA Jazz Master, Down Beat magazine Best Big Band winner (and Best Arranger and Composer, Reader’s Choice), and 14-time Grammy nominee. (Honorable mention: “Hakone Twilight.”)

Japan Travel Playlist: Love and Melancholy

Unkai Terrace, Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, Hokkaido, Japan
Unkai Terrace, Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, Hokkaido (photo by Kentaro Ohno CC BY)

The Bird and the Bee: “Love Letter to Japan”

The title says it all – this is Inara George and Gregg Kurstin’s electropop declaration of infatuation with Japan. “I packed my bag, I’m on my way / I am prepared for any season, I am prepared to stay.” Perhaps you can identify.

Karaoke Kan, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Karaoke Kan, Shibuya, of ‘Lost in Translation’ fame (photo by Dick Thomas Johnson CC BY)

Air: “Alone in Kyoto”

The success of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is in no small part thanks to its phenomenal soundtrack. All of it is “Ultimate Japan Playlist” worthy, but “Alone in Kyoto,” from the French duo Air, is a standout.

True to its title, the song accompanies Charlotte’s solo excursion by bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and her melancholy visits to mostly empty temples and shrines. (Which can you spot?)

Japan Travel Playlist: Anime Essentials

The forgotten robot soldier statue at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan
The forgotten robot soldier statue at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo (photo by Wei-Te Wong CC BY)

Joe Hisaishi

Almost every anime feature from acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has at least one thing in common – a score by composer Joe Hisaishi. Comparisons to Steven Spielberg and John Williams are apt, so where does one start with such a storied collaboration?

Perhaps with the theme from Princess Mononoke (the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, until Titanic surpassed it) or “One Summer’s Day” from the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (which ousted Titanic from the #1 spot, a perch it holds to this day).

Other Hisaishi highlights: from My Neighbor Totoro, the infectious title song and “Sanpo”; “Merry Go-Round of Life” from Howl’s Moving Castle; and the main theme from Ponyo.

Speaking of Joe Hisaishi, see our post on visiting Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum!

A Japanese woman playing the shamisen
A Japanese woman playing the shamisen

Aun J Classic Orchestra

And, to make your Ulimate Japan Playlist even more evocative, listen to all of the above in their renditions by Aun J Classic Orchestra.

Its traditional acoustic instrumentation includes taiko drums, the shamisen (a three-string guitar), the koto (a 13-string harp-like instrument), and various other flutes and percussion.

The Tokyo skyline at night, including Tokyo Tower

Susuma Hirasawa

While you’re picking your favorites from among Hisaishi’s anime songs, also check out another contemporary favorite: Susumu Hirasawa’s score to Paprika.

Hirasawa’s use of Vocaloid (a voice synthesizer) dovetails perfectly with the film’s trippy sci-fi take on technology that allows psychotherapists to enter people’s dreams. Recommended tracks: “Parade” and “The Girl in Byakkoya.”

Mobile phone playing a Japan travel playlist

What’s on Your Japan Playlist?

The above barely skims the surface – consider it a starter kit for a much longer playlist of your own.

Which others will make the cut for you – perhaps Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls,” or The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”? Tom Waits’s “Big in Japan,” or The Band’s “Move to Japan”?

Have fun and start streaming – your Ultimate Japan Playlist awaits!

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About Brian Lonergan

Brian has been traveling to and throughout Japan for more than a decade. He loves the food, the customs, the trains, the temples, gardens and shrines; but most of all, the people and their exquisite hospitality.