It is often said that life imitates art. However, if you’re working for Sega, one of Japan’s best-known gaming companies, then the opposite may apply. Sega’s Yakuza series, or Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japanese, takes some of Tokyo and Osaka’s most infamous areas and recreates them in lovingly minute detail.
Beginning in 2005 with the original Yakuza on the PlayStation 2, there have been eight entries in the mainline series to date, as well as numerous spin-offs. The series has spanned three console generations thus far and shows no signs of fading anytime soon.
Our hero for most of the series is Kazuma Kiryu, a man desperate to move on from his past as a gang member but continually pulled back into things whenever his old friends get into trouble. His adventures over the first few games find him mostly dividing his time between the Tokyo district of Kamurocho and the area of Osaka known as Soutenbori.
Kamurocho is modeled after Tokyo’s Kabukicho, the well-known entertainment district of Shinjuku, whereas Soutenbori is based on the main entertainment district of Osaka city called Dotonbori. These are not just mere homages, however, the designers rebuilt these iconic locations building by building in the game engine.
The first time I played Yakuza Kiwami 2, I was actually able to pick out hotels I had stayed at and restaurants where I had eaten in Osaka.
The first time I played Yakuza Kiwami 2 (a recent remake of the second game in the series), I was actually able to pick out hotels I had stayed at and restaurants where I had eaten in Osaka.
So, if you’re a fan of the series and you want to check out some of the real-life locations that inspired the games, where is a good place to start? Well, like any good adventure in Tokyo, let’s start in Kabukicho.
Kabukicho is perhaps best known as a red-light district at night, but there’s so much more to it than that. Funnily enough, the name Kabukicho actually comes from an aborted attempt to build a Kabuki theatre in the area back in the ’40s.
The games feature many of the same iconic locations found in Kabukicho itself, such as the huge gates found at the entrances to the area, the batting center, where a baseball-themed mini-game can be played in the game itself, and the neon-lined streets of Higashi Dori, Chuo Dori, and Ichiban Gai.
Shinjuku Don Quijote
One location that will be instantly recognizable to those who have played the games is the Kabukicho Don Quijote in Shinjuku. This popular chain store selling all manner of fashion, souvenirs, and other curious items, is perfectly recreated in the games.
Indeed, in the real world, too, the store frequently runs promotions and tie ins featuring the series’ two most popular characters, Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro, to coincide with the release of new games.
Golden Gai is a series of alleyways and backstreets in Tokyo with intimate little bars and eateries. In the games, it’s known by the alternate name “The Champion District.” It is a far cry from the nearby bright lights and almost endless streams of nightclubs and bars just down the road.
From my own experience, I found the vibe in Golden Gai to be very similar to that of Kowloon in Hong Kong. That is, it’s busy, a little intimidating at first, but also with plenty of character and lots to explore if you’re feeling adventurous.
The food and drink are also quite a bit cheaper than you will find elsewhere in central Tokyo. Some bars will be designated “regulars only” or “no tourists” so be aware of this before venturing out.
Shinjuku Toho Cinemas… sort of
One noticeable absentee from the later games in the series is the giant Godzilla model who appears to be attacking the building which houses the Toho Cinemas Shinjuku movie theater.
Unfortunately, Sega could not reach a licensing agreement with Toho, so the building is replaced with a generic “movie theater” in the game.
So, with the Kamurocho spots in Tokyo covered, let’s move on to Yakuza’s other famous locale, Soutenbori aka Osaka.
If anything, Soutenbori is an even more faithful recreation of its genuine counterpart. Dotonbori is actually the name of the canal that runs through this area and acts as a dividing line between the two popular shopping districts of Namba and Shinsaibashi.
In the games, you’ll spot Kuidaore Ningyo—a famous statue of a man with Harry Potter-like glasses—in a clown suit, playing drums. This statue has become something of a good luck charm for visitors to the area ever since it was first built in the ’50s
It has been a long-standing tradition for rikishi (up-and-coming young sumo wrestlers) to have their picture taken with Kuidaore Ningyo before the annual Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament each spring.
One iconic sight you may recognize from the games is Kani Doraku, a seafood restaurant with a giant mechanized crab above its entrance. Whether you’ve taken a picture in front of the unmissable crustacean, or eaten at the famous (and expensive) restaurant, you definitely know this place if you’ve been to Osaka.
The entire boardwalk which spans both sides of the Dotonbori canal hosting a number of cafes and bars is perhaps where you’ll best notice just how accurate a recreation of real-life the games are. Again, the waterfront Don Quijote store is recreated in living detail in the game, as are the canal boats that cruise up and down the canal day and night offering tours.
The inside of the video game Don Quijote is virtually identical as the real thing too, right up to the crowded aisles and catchy jingle!
However, unlike in the Yakuza games, stepping aboard one of the canal boats won’t magically transport you to an underground cage-fighting tournament! Still, it is a fun experience that I would recommend you try at least once, especially if you can find one of the boats with a live brass band.
While you may not find the same larger-than-life characters or face the extreme danger of armed gangs just walking around looking for a fight as they do in the Yakuza games, in our real world, both Kabukicho and Dotonbori are great places to visit next time you’re in Tokyo or Osaka.
With bright lights, stunning scenery and plenty of places to see and explore, these places, it could be said, are characters all of their own.