His latest film might take place in the history-rich city of Kyoto, but Ken Watanabe has long called the west side of Tokyo home. The actor, who plays the chairman opposite Ziyi Zhang in Sony’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” grew up in the small seaside city of Niigata and later moved to Japan’s capitol to pursue acting. Roles in prominent Japanese TV series eventually led to parts in Warners’ “The Last Samurai” and “Batman Begins.” Since winning over American audiences two years ago in “Samurai,” his English-language debut that scored him an Oscar nom, Watanabe has been splitting time between Tokyo and Venice, Calif., where he shares a loft with Harry, a devoted chocolate lab. He’s spending more nights in Venice lately, thanks to increasing opportunities in Hollywood, but Watanabe’s passion for all things back in his native country hasn’t waned in the least.
Even though my home is in Tokyo, when I am in Japan, I love to go to the Hanshin Koshien Stadium (located near Kobe, about 2 1/2 hours by bullet train from Tokyo). The Hanshin Tigers play there, and I’ve been a big fan for 20 years. It’s crazy baseball, kind of like the Boston Red Sox. Every game is like a championship game. The best part is the seventh-inning stretch. There are about 50,000 people, and everyone has two or three balloons. And then before the seventh inning, boom! Everyone releases the balloons. Every single game this happens, and it’s always, like, wow, so much fun.
Close to my house there is a huge park, Kinuta, where I go walking with my dog. It’s only 10 minutes by bicycle from where I live, so I don’t need to drive; the traffic in Tokyo is really bad. Thirty years ago the park used to be a golf course, so it’s very wide, with beautiful grass and big trees. People go there to see the cherry blossoms. I’ll also go to the Setagaya Art Museum, which is in the park. It’s a very calm and relaxed place that has lovely gardens.
The Tsukiji fish market is another one of my favorites. All of the sushi in the market is so fresh. It’s true, authentic sushi — nigiri, with just the fish pressed onto the rice by hand. There are always many, many people there, especially visitors from other countries. The important thing to remember is to go early in the morning. Everything is the freshest, and the whole place is bright and beautiful. For other food options, the Aoyama and Shibuya neighborhoods are also good. They’re easy for me because both are close to my agent’s office, and there are sushi and ramen places on every corner.
When I’m not busy, I love to play golf. My favorite is the Fuji Zakura golf course. It’s very close to Mount Fuji, about 1½ hours outside of Tokyo, and you can see the mountain in the background while you’re playing. The course is so difficult but very interesting; as a golfer, you try to see what direction the grass is growing, and there, the grass always grows in the direction opposite the mountain. So you always have to know where Fuji is. But some seasons I cannot play there because it gets too cold.
Actually, if people like winter, it could be a good time of year to come to Tokyo. But I never recommend it in the summer. It’s too hot and humid. Personally, I try to get away from Japan when it gets that hot. That’s when I come back to California.