Anthony Bourdain — who was found dead in his hotel room Friday in France — had a knack for discovering the best of each country he visited over the course of his colorful career, but always seemed to have a special place in his heart for Japan.
“The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience, a powerful and violent experience,” Bourdain said of Tokyo in his CNN TV series “Parts Unknown.” “It was just like taking acid for the first time, meaning, ‘What do I do now that I see the whole world in a different way?'”
As a child, Bourdain grew up watching classic Japanese films such as “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Sanjuro” (1962). Those early experiences matured into a deep relationship with Japan that went beyond food and extended to its music, cinema, lifestyle and culture. A “Parts Unknown” trip to Japan in the series’ first season included visits to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku and a death metal show, as well as a meal with a woman involved in Tokyo’s sadomasochistic community.
Bourdain also examined social issues during his visits, focusing on such things as Japan’s declining birthrate and the growing problem of hikikomori (social withdrawal) and karōshi (death by overwork). “Pity the salaryman,” he opined in an opening monologue for “Parts Unknown.” “Tokyo’s willing cog in an enormous machine requiring long hours, low pay, total dedication … and sometimes what’s called karōshi — death by overwork.”
Yet despite this brutal, honest indictment of the culture, Bourdain retained a deep respect for Tokyo and went on to repeatedly declare it his favorite city in the world.
“If I had to agree to live in one country, or even one city, for the rest of my life, never leaving it, I’d pick Tokyo in a second,” Bourdain wrote in 2013 for the blog that accompanied “Parts Unknown.” “Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.”
It’s a vision that will now unfortunately never come true, but one that was born out of Bourdain’s undying passion and curiosity for the country, and a vision we can all hope to aspire to.