Whether your plans to visit Japan are postponed due to the pandemic or you’re simply still saving up money to afford it, traveling abroad to the Land of the Rising Sun isn’t always an easy task to do. Thankfully, there are games that can instantly “teleport” you to Japan, adequately acting as some sort of virtual tour of the country, so to speak.
But just because there are a lot of games that took place in Japan, does not mean that every single one of them really nails that feeling of walking among a sea of people in the middle of Tokyo or just taking in the scenery of smaller Japanese towns. For that reason, I divided this list into two categories: games that copied real-world locations but maybe have to rename some icons for licensing issues and series that took inspirations from actual places but still provide an experience that is no less authentic than the real deal.
Games That Feature Real Locations in Japan
1. Akiba’s Trip – PS3, PS4, PSP, PS Vita, PC
If we’re talking about Japan and video games, we have to mention Akihabara. Not just because it is Tokyo’s geekdom mecca, but also because the districts have been featured in several games. One of them is the aptly named Akiba’s Trip series.
As you can expect from the title, this beat-em-up game lets you wander around and explore the nook and cranny of Akihabara Electronic Town. To make the experience feel more authentic, developer Acquire has painstakingly recreated all major outdoor locations from streets layouts, landmarks, and even real-life advertisements. From the Club SEGA building, flyers promoting local maid cafes and chains like Sofmap in loading screens, to commercials of popular games such as Trails of Cold Steel blaring from in-game TVs, the game boasts accurate representation of “over 130 real-life shops.“
But, as Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed was originally released back in November 2013 in Japan, Acquire stated that the depiction of the Akihabara district is based solely on its condition from fall 2012 through the summer of 2013. You could say that this game is both a virtual tour and a time capsule to early 2010s Tokyo. There are three different games in the Akiba’s Trip series to play if you want to go on a virtual pilgrimage: Undead & Undressed, the 2011 PSP remaster Hellbound & Debriefed, and the turn-based RPG spin-off Akiba’s Beat. The games also spawned an animated spin-off: Akiba’s Trip: The Animation.
2. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth – PS4, PS Vita, Switch, PC
Besides the legendary Akihabara districts, you can also take a virtual tour of the other otaku hotspot, the Nakano Broadway and its surrounding areas, in a video game. In the first Cyber Sleuth, your home base, Kuremi Detective Agency, is located inside the shopping mall. And once you step inside, it’s clear that developer Media.Vision has worked hard to cram both the interior and exterior details of Nakano Broadway into the game.
Although it doesn’t feature as many real-life product placements as Akiba’s Trip (mostly Tekken and other Bandai Namco properties considering the publisher), the game still faithfully replicated Nakano Broadway. Apart from the fictional private detective office, iconic stores like Mandarake and Nakano TRF arcade center can be found in the same spot. Flooring, elevator decals, and lines of vending machines have been recreated to near-identical looks as well. It really feels as if you’re window shopping inside the building.
3. The World Ends with You – NDS, Switch, PC, Mobile
Outside of otaku and nerd culture, striking fashion choices is a huge part of Japan’s pop culture. And Shibuya is in the center of it. One game that I think manages to capture that particular essence is Square Enix’s The World Ends With You. Despite the first game adopting side-scrolling 2D graphics, owing to punkish character design, catchy tunes, and strong visual direction that’s incorporated well into the game, you can definitely feel parts of the soul of Japan’s underground culture basically oozing through your dual-screen.
But because of licensing issues, Square Enix had to rework other parts of Shibuya’s identity: its landmarks. Tower Records to Towa Records, Seibu Department Store to Shibu Department Store, the 109 Building to 104, for example.
However, the anime adaptation and the sequel, NEO: The World Ends with You, actually ended up using all the actual names. A glimpse of Tower Records and its “No Music, No Life” sign, Shibuya Modi, all can be seen in the short comparison video below. Barring the 104 Building, though, which was retained because it became iconic in the in-game world itself. NEO also ditched the 2D graphics for heavily stylized 3D visuals, making your battles through the Reaper’s Game feel more genuine.
4. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore – WiiU, Switch
For another take on Shibuya, you can try out the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei collaboration title. Taking pop idol, acting, and entertainment industries as its central theme, it incorporates two of Japanese youth culture and fashion centers, in particular Shibuya and Harajuku, along with musical numbers produced by famous entertainment company Avex Group. Even so, all real buildings and stores featured in the game are changed like Starbucks to Cafe Seiren, Lawson minimart to Hee Hoo Mart, and here the 109 Building is named 106.
5. Densha de Go! – Too Many to List
It’s an understatement to simply say that there are a lot of train enthusiasts in Japan. Considering their commute revolve around taking jam-packed trains, I’d expect the opposite — or maybe that is the reason why. Nevertheless, if you want a bonafide simulation across Japan, playing one of the country’s most beloved simulation series is your best bet.
Debuted a long way back in 1996, the Densha de Go (roughly translated to Go by Train!) train simulator series has appeared on many popular gaming platforms amongst Japanese gamers. Arcade, PS2, PSP, Switch, even mobile and Gameboy, you name it. Having released 18 titles in its pocket, the series covered from the busiest lines like Yamanote and Tokaido to Osaka Loop Line and even shinkansen (bullet train) lines. Taito, the developer, often produced accompanying peripherals with buttons, levers, and pedals just like genuine train controllers too. Unfortunately, as you can expect, Taito and its now-parent company Square Enix have never brought any of the games to the west.
6. Microsoft Flight Simulator – PC
Thanks to the free World Update I: Japan content update released back in September 2020, taking flight across the archipelago now feels more authentic than before. The Microsoft Flight Simulator update features 3D photogrammetry for six prominent Japanese cities: Sendai, Takamatsu, Tokushima, Tokyo, Utsunomiya, and Yokohama, improved elevation data for the whole country, 14 new landmarks like Mount Fuji and Horyu-ji Temple, as well as six handcrafted airports to ensure the authenticity of the locations.
However, three out of them are reserved for remote islands: the Hachijojima, Kerama, Suwanosejima. So if you were expecting popular destinations like Tokyo or Narita International Airport, you might be disappointed. But it does give you more reason to check lesser-known places.
7. Gran Turismo – PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4, PSP
Although the racing simulator series mostly features racing tracks and complexes, it had city circuits based on real-life locations in Tokyo. Gran Turismo Sport introduced the fictional, but still authentic, Tokyo Expressway tracks. Meanwhile, since Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec the series includes the Tokyo R246 circuit. It is an actual city race track, using roads such as R246 and Expressway #4 around Shibuya. In Gran Turismo 5 you can get a hidden Trophy “Take Your Honda Home” when you take a photo of a Honda car passing in front of the Honda office. Some K-Pop fans even identified a TWICE girl band billboard on the 109 Building showing up in the game.
8. Explore Fushimi Inari – PC
Some of you might’ve never heard of the name, but maybe have seen pictures or photos of layers of bright red, traditional Japanese pillars nesting inside a forest. That’s Fushimi Inari. Located in Kyoto, it is a famous Shinto shrine and tourist attraction for, you guessed it, its thousands of red torii gates. In Japanese, it’s called Senbon Torii. These trails of gates are made from donations either by individuals and companies, and you can find the donator’s name inscribed on each gate.
Explore Fushimi Inari the game (that you can download for free on Steam) itself is actually less of a game and more of an actual virtual tour. But considering the (non-)price and this letting you enjoy a very realistic recreation of the shrine areas without getting disturbed by other tourists, I’d say it’s worth a try. You’ll need to cough up extra for VR support, though.
Games That Feature Authentic, Japanese-Inspired Locales
1. Persona 5 – PS3, PS4
The game’s protagonist, Joker, lives in a neighborhood in Tokyo called Yongen-Jaya. If you type it to Google though, all you can find will be about Persona 5. Not surprising because it is a fictional location — but it is heavily based on a real place named Sangen-Jaya. Well-known for its nightlife, it is home to many izakaya bars and cafes, hidden away in the network of alleyways. It’s often visited by salarymen who wanted to catch a break after work and before heading back to each respective dwelling.
— Alpha Gamboa (@blackbookalpha) April 7, 2017
Most specific in-game spots are ripped straight from the area, from the supermarket, batting cage, to the dingy bathhouse. Meanwhile, Cafe LeBlanc seems to have been inspired by Cafe de L’ambre, located in the upscale area of Ginza, far from Sangen-Jaya. As the last game directed by series director Katsura Hashino, he wanted to focus on modern Japanese society, thus making the dense and crowded Sangen-Jaya a perfect inspiration for where the protagonist will be spending his time the most.
2. Yakuza – PS2, PS3, PS4, PS5, PSP, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Wii U, PC, Mobile
Kamuro-cho is the primary location where the events of the Yakuza series unravel. It is based on an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo, named Kabuki-cho. It’s not only famous for clubs and love hotels but also all the crime and villainy that are associated with such businesses. Everything that’s synonymous with people’s idea of yakuza, from blinding neon lights of shabby bars, drunks, to all-out gangs fights and more, all can be experienced in this free-roaming beat-em-up.
Each game then added new locations that also replicate other real-life places. Dotonbori and Shinsekai in Osaka were made into Sotenbori and Shinseicho; Downtown Ryukyu was based on the Makishi district of Naha, Okinawa; Nakasu in Fukuoka became Nagasugai; Susukino, Hokkaido, depicted as Tsukimino; the Nishiki district of Sakae in Nagoya is redesigned as Kineicho; and Isezaki-cho, Yokohama, became Isezaki Ijin-cho. Despite using fictional settings, several actual brands exist in the game world. Including Don Quixote discount chains, Asahi and Suntory drinks, restaurants Sushi Zanmai, Ringer Hut, among others
Going strong since 2005, there are a lot of titles that also take quite a while to digest in the series. If you’re looking for the one with the most content, you can try out Yakuza 5. Still, I suggest you play the series in chronological order and check out this definitive guide to the series. Aside from the mainline Yakuza games, you can also explore Kamuro-cho through two spin-offs, Judgment on modern platforms and Kurohyou on the PSP.
4. Persona 4 – PS Vita, PC
For you who’re tired of the hustle and bustle of big cities and looking for rural settings, don’t worry. There are a handful of games you can play to satisfy your needs.
It is said the idyllic town of Inaba is based on Fuefuki, a town in the Yamanashi prefecture. Aside from being the largest producer of grapes and peaches in Japan, Fuefuki is also known for tourists destination like Kamui Misaka Ski Area, Tougenkyo festivals, and Ishigura and Nigore wine of Lumiere winery. No decades-old tofu shop operated by a popular pop idol here. The Yasoinaba Station is inspired by a part of the local Isawa Onsen Station that was demolished in 2016. However, the station itself remains. Meanwhile, JUNES’ exterior bears a striking resemblance to the town’s AEON Mall.
5. Kenka Bancho – PS2, PSP, 3DS
The only title from the beat-em-up series that was translated into English was Kenka Bancho 3 on the PSP, released in the west as Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble. It takes place in the fictional city of Kyouto, where bancho (leader of a group of delinquents) Takashi Sakamoto learns that 47 banchos from all over Japan are coming to the town, fighting in a contest to dictates who is the toughest guy in all of the country.
Don’t hope much in terms of visuals since it is a handheld game after all, but developers Bullets and Spike have modeled a pretty convincing small Japanese town lookalike, disregarding the minimum amount of NPCs and limited draw distance. Still, the game is packed with additional content that lets you dress up Takashi with cool or goofy outfits, change his fighting style, fight and recruit banchos or henchmen, and going on dates with classmates.
6. Shenmue – Dreamcast, Xbox One, PS4, PC
The first game of the series is set in Yokosuka, a city in Kanagawa Prefecture. Although it’s not a 1:1 replica of the town, some of the more recognizable spots such as a motorcycle shop, Tom & Jack restaurant, and other stores along Dobuita Streets are kept intact, which the Phantom River Stone blog has extensively documented. To make it a bit more realistic, Yu Suzuki and his team at SEGA took the extra mile by giving each NPC a daily scripted schedule with algorithmically generated weather and day-night cycles based on Japan’s meteorological forecasts in 1986.
In an interview with EGMNow, YouTuber Adam Koralik points out that the rural port town feels like a “Westerner’s idea of what a Japanese town” is; small houses with sliding doors, cramped but orderly neighborhood, grayish blocky buildings overlooking the sea; apparently thanks to heavy U.S. navy activity in the area. Maybe that’s why Shenmue manage to invoke that particular nostalgic feeling to both local and foreign fans.
7. Chulip – PS2
From the people who brought you the cult classic Moon, Chulip is no less unique and eccentric. Here, you play a young middle/high school student who has just moved to a small town called Long Life Town with his down-on-his-luck father. He instantly fell for a girl, but she rejects him due to his poor family status. He then decides to kiss the town’s citizens to strengthen his heart and improve his reputation.
It’s not clear what the inspiration behind Long Life Town was. In the 2012 interview with 1Up, director Yoshirou Kimura himself only stated that he wanted to portray Japan from “40 years ago.” But the Showa-era inspiration is quite noticeable, judging from the militaristic students’ uniforms and traditional wooden houses. Today, though, in light of the resurgence of retro nostalgia, you can easily find a similar atmosphere in real-world Japan in places like Ome, Ota Ward, Kirakira Tachibana Shotengai, and a few others.
8. Boku no Natsuyasumi – PS2, PS3, PSP
Lastly, there’s the appropriately named Boku no Natsuyasumi, or My Summer Vacation in English. As you can expect, you are invited to a Japanese village in the countryside to relax and enjoy the 30 days of summer with family and friends. Catching bugs, swimming in the river, walking around speaking to village folks, you name it. Series designer Kaz Ayabe said that the game’s location took inspiration from a town that goes by Tsukiyono.
However, there are two Tsukiyono in Japan, in Yamanashi and Gunma Prefecture, and no one knows for sure. The developer also made a Crayon Shin-chan tie-in, called Ora to Hakase no Natsuyasumi (Me and Professor’s Summer Vacation) that takes place somewhere in Kyushu. Unfortunately, the series isn’t available stateside or worldwide.
That’s pretty much all my own recommendations. For you who have been to Japan, do these games give you a sense of nostalgia? Do you know of other games that should’ve been on this list? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.