Natsuko Toda is Japan’s foremost subtitle translator and friend of Hollywood stars. (photo courtesy of Natsuko Toda)

1. Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?

I was born in Tokyo and lived in Setagaya ward until I was about 20. When Hiroo Garden Hills was developed, it looked like a good place to live. Back then, you could only buy an apartment there if you won a lottery. I was lucky I won the lottery and was able to buy an apartment, probably because it was on the fourth floor. (The number 4 in Japanese is pronounced like the word death.) The land that Garden Hills was built on was owned by The Japan Red Cross Hospital (Nisseki), which was semi-public so they couldn’t put such a high price on the apartments. Back then, the area was like a haunted garden. Some people bought apartments at the original low price and made a lot of money when they re-sold their units.

Garden Hills

The apartments at Hiroo Garden Hills are surrounded by lush greenery.

Hiroo is convenient. You can go almost anywhere by cab for Y1,000 or so. There is a lot of greenery in Garden Hills because the trees they planted have grown really tall since the place was developed about 30 years ago. For someone like me who works, it’s really convenient. There are about 1,500 units and this adds up to a lot of money in management fees so they can afford to pay a gardener almost  365 days a year.

I love eating and Hiroo is a great place for people who love eating. I don’t mind eating out often on my  own.

2. Do you have a local haunt? A café or bar? Somewhere you go for comfort food or just a chat with the proprietor?

There is a Spanish place by the subway  station called Gracia. It’s just a counter and a few tables but the food is very good and it’s not expensive. The Spanish chef trained at Sant Pau Tokyo, in Nihonbashi, which is an outlet of the famous Spanish restaurant in San Pol de Mar, 60kms from Barcelona. It’s very casual but the food is formal and there’s no paella or tapas.


Gracia, a Spanish Restaurant, in a Hiroo food hall.

The Italian counter opposite this Spanish place, Taratatà is also good. You can eat at the Spanish place and order pasta from the Italian place. Nice  arrangement.

The Italian restaurant in the same food hall.

I also like Burgaz Ada in Azabu Juban. It’s authentic imperial Turkish food.

3. What is a favorite pastime and where do you like to pursue it?

For the past 50 years I worked all the time so I never had time for hobbies. Quite often I would be asked to translate  subtitles for a movie in just one week!  But I love to travel so I always took trips twice a year in the spring and autumn, using the Michelin Guide as my bible. I love to eat so I didn’t go to Germany much but I drove around France, Italy and Spain a  lot, often with my mother and some friends.

I am going to Kyoto during the season for cherry blossom viewing (usually late March to early April) but I’m less interested in cherry blossoms than eating. Food there is so exquisite.

Toji Temple

Toji Temple in Kyoto is known for its cherry trees.

I like this casual restaurant called Menami in Shijo, near the City Hall, which serves “obanzai,” (a traditional style of cuisine native to Kyoto using seasonal, local ingredients, particularly vegetables and seafood, that is simply prepared.) It’s best to sit at the counter where you can check out the many dishes lining the counter. Sitting at the tables is not fun there.

There are many more seasonal dishes written up on a blackboard and there is a charcoal grill where they grill meat in front of  your eyes.

4. What do you like to do on a nice day?

Staying still is my way of living. Ever since I was a child I have disliked moving. I hated sports day. So, I’ve never enjoyed playing any sport, exercises, etc. But, thankfully, I am healthy. At 85, there is nothing wrong with me anywhere. In my free time, I usually stay at home, reading or streaming video.

5. Do you have a favorite museum (or any other cultural spot)?

When I go abroad I go to museums, but I find it quite exhausting. The Louvre, for example, is a jewel,  but spending a day there is utterly exhausting. But I do like the Nezu Museum (in Omotesando), which is quite small, and The National Art Center Tokyo, in Roppongi. But I prefer music and concerts, which you can enjoy sitting, to the visual arts. I just love opera!

Nezu Garden

Inside Nezu Museum’s famous garden.

6. What is your favorite Japanese food?

If it’s good I will eat anything, including ramen. But I have to say I really like soba (buckwheat noodles). I think the soba at Sunaba in Kanda is the best and I like it served plain. The temperature of the soba and the texture are perfect. But you have to order three servings because each serving is so small.

Honmura-an in Roppongi is also pretty good. 

7. Where would you go for a special meal?

Shirosaka (in Akasaka). It’s a bit pricey but not bad.

The entrance to Shirosaka, an innovative Japanese restaurant in Akasaka.

8. Do you have a favorite onsen ryokan, resort, etc. in Japan?

My favorite ryokan is Tawaraya in Kyoto. I used to go a lot with people in the movie business. Never on my own money, though. It’s a place where tradition is still alive. The breakfast there is wonderful, particularly the yudofu (tofu hot pot). The staff know how to take care of their guests while keeping their distance. In the winter, they will warm your shoes. That kind of service is why foreigners, who can’t imagine that in their own countries, love Tawaraya.

9. What is a favorite thing you bought recently in Japan (if possible, something related to Japan)?

I bought delicious tomatoes from a farmer called Asahi-san, who had a stall in front of the UN University (in Omotesando). I stopped  buying tomatoes sold in stores some time ago as they  were ridiculously expensive and not  good. But the ones Asahi-san grows in Tosa, on the island of Shikoku, named Momotaro Tomatoes, are as yummy as they should be. This guy is a cucumber farmer so his cucumbers are also super good.

10. What book/film about Japan would you recommend?

I would recommend the early works of (Akira) Kurosawa. His avid fans, like (Steven) Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, revere him like a god.

An Italian friend of mine asked to work for him as an assistant to the assistant director. To do that, he had to be able to read the script so he taught himself Japanese, living in a 4-mat room. He was not your typical ‘Italian guy.’  He was hard-working, serious and quiet. When Kurosawa went to the Venice Film Festival, he invited the maestro to his home, which turned out to be a palace, one of the World Heritages. Imagine how amazed Kurosawa was when he found out who his assistant really was!

11. What would you take to a friend overseas as a gift?

What can you take to Tom Cruise? Nothing! So I’d give him little things you cannot find easily in the States. If they like tea, for example, I would take Japanese tea. Or shichimi (Japanese hot pepper) for people who like hot things. (Francis Ford Coppola likes shichimi, so I send it to him regularly.)

Toda with Tom Cruise. (photo courtesy of Natsuko Toda)

Toda with Francis Ford Coppola. (photo courtesy of Natsuko Toda)

12. What do you like about living in (visiting) Japan?

Japan is the most delicious country in the world, so I am happy living here. It’s also safe and that’s very important.