Though it does have its own theme park scheduled to come to life in Aichi Prefecture in four years time, Studio Ghibli is more than just the Japanese equivalent of Disney. With anime being one of the country’s biggest pop cultural exports, many expats and travelers will already have some knowledge of Ghibli before they come to Japan. It’s a studio whose movies are beloved around the world.
Earlier this year, the passing of studio co-founder Isao Takahata at the age of 82 led to an outpouring of recognition for him and the films he directed, such as Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. This came right as a new short film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki — his first animated work since going into retirement five years ago — was beginning its exclusive theater run at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.
If you’re looking for a Ghibli-inspired travel experience in Japan before the Ghibli theme park opens in 2022, the museum is certainly a good place to start. However, there are a number of other real-life locations here with ties to Studio Ghibli that are well worth visiting. Let’s take a quick Catbus tour of some of the best spots.
1. Get lost in the Ghibli Museum
Tucked away in the green suburb of Mitaka, Tokyo, where Inokashira Park is located, there is a colorful building with vines creeping up the side of it. Outside, the mythical forest creature Totoro can be seen manning a box office window. On the roof, the long-armed steampunk robot from the movie Castle in the Sky can be seen standing tall.
The place is the Ghibli Museum and it’s a necessary pilgrimage for Japanophiles. Inside, you can see Ghibli’s animated worlds come to life through spinning zoetropes, hand-cranked animatics and other fascinating exhibits. Light streams into the central hall through beautiful stained glass windows as a spiral staircase extends up past a bridge from one side of the building to the other.
As you ascend the floors and duck into various rooms, you will also see kids playing on a big, fluffy version of the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. From now until November 2018, the Ghibli Museum is recreating kitchens and food from its films as part of a special exhibition called “Delicious! Animating Memorable Meals.”
Getting tickets to the museum requires a bit of pre-planning, with advance tickets going on sale at Lawson on the 10th of every month. For more information, consult the GaijinPot Travel entry on the Ghibli Museum.
2. Follow the “Whisper of the Heart” trail in Tama
Among other things, Ghibli’s 1995 offering Whisper of the Heart is the film that helped make the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” famous in Japan. On the Keio line, outside the west exit of Seiseki-Sakuragaoka station, you will find a map showing a 20-minute walking course with some of the locations animated for the movie.
Next to the map is a mailbox modeled in miniature after the antique shop where the film’s protagonist, Shizuku, encounters the anthropomorphic cat statue, The Baron. Alas, no such antique shop exists in real life. However, if you follow the map, it will take you up the winding slope of Irohazaka-dori, the road where Shizuku flies down the steps and darts through traffic en route to the library.
Along the way, you’ll see Konpiragu, the small Shinto shrine that served as the model for the animated one where Shizuku’s schoolmate, Sugimura, reveals his feelings for her. The course holds a couple spots with an elevated view of the Tama skyline, as seen in the film. It tops out in a traffic roundabout with a tree at the center of it like the one where the fictional antique shop is located.
Studio Ghibli is more than just the Japanese equivalent of Disney.
The Tama Hills also served as the setting for the “Heisei-era raccoon dog war” in Pom Poko (1994). That movie featured a jaunt to Tokushima’s Kincho Shrine, which made headlines this year when it was announced the shrine would be paved over with a parking lot.
3. Watch the automaton clock show at Nittele Tower
Nittele Tower, the headquarters of Nippon TV in Shiodome, Tokyo, hosted a free Star Wars exhibition the last three Decembers. Every winter, it happened like clockwork, so to speak, but the lack of a new Star Wars movie this coming December probably means it will be taking the year off from Star Wars events. The building still holds a neat pop culture connection, however, in that it is adorned with a huge automaton clock designed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki himself.
Located on the second floor, the ornate clock bears a steampunk aesthetic similar to the Ghibli Museum rooftop robot soldier. It looks like something right out of Howl’s Moving Castle or Castle in the Sky (the latter of which has its own Ghibli-inspired destination in the form of Laputa Road). Four to five times daily, this copper, claw-footed landmark comes alive with moving figures, winding mechanical action and clanging metal gongs.
There should be a list of daily showtimes posted near the clock. A small crowd usually assembles as the music begins four minutes before each designated hour. Even if you don’t have time to catch one of the shows, the clock alone is worth seeing.
4. Enter the world of “My Neighbor Totoro”
Even before the upcoming Ghibli theme park was announced, Aichi Prefecture already had a place on the Ghibli travel map. This is because it holds a recreation of Satsuki and Mei’s house from the classic My Neighbor Totoro.
A 2013 survey showed that 96 percent of Japanese moviegoers had watched a Ghibli film. The most widely seen film among respondents was My Neighbor Totoro. So it should come as no surprise that this movie will form the basis of the first themed “land” at the Ghibli theme park, with the local government hoping to find sponsors for attractions and lands themed to other Ghibli films in the future.
Aichi hosted the 2005 World’s Fair in Seto and Nagakute and it’s the site of Expo Park in Nagakute where the Ghibli theme park is being constructed. Plans are to keep it in harmony with nature by using existing clearings and avoiding any deforestation. In the meantime, guests can ride the magnetic levitation (MagLev) train, the Linimo, and see Satsuki and Mei’s house — both of which have been open to visitors since the 2005 Expo.
5. Get “Spirited Away” to other islands
As the location of the Ghibli Museum and future Ghibli theme park, the central island of Honshu — and its Kanto and Chubu regions — provides a good starting point for a Ghibli tour of Japan. Yet there are plenty of other spots on the Japanese archipelago associated with Ghibli films. Fans of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, the studio’s two breakthrough hits in the U.S., will want to check out the following places.
Off the coast of Niigata, on Sado Island, you can ride a tarai bune (traditional washtub boat) on turquoise water in a scene from Spirited Away come to life. Dogo Onsen in Ehime on Shikoku island is a real-world analog to the public bathhouse where the movie’s main character, Chihiro, becomes an indentured servant of the witch Yubaba.
Hikers on the thickly forested island of Yakushima sometimes leave behind tree spirit charms as a nod to the place’s connection to Princess Mononoke. A lush ravine on the island called Shiratani Unsuikyo inspired the film’s animators, just as Ghibli’s films will surely inspire viewers for generations to come.
Are you excited about the Ghibli theme park? Have you visited any Ghibli film settings? Share your own experiences and travel tips in the comments.