It takes a gifted artist, one who is detail-oriented to the point of obsession, to replicate reality so beautifully in fantasy. This credit belongs to Studio Ghibli’s Hiyao Miyazaki, who ‘retired’ three times before actually sealing the deal for good. His legacy stretches to approximately 37 animated films, their roots embedded in Japanese culture and artistic prowess.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the places he visited and the spots he fashioned to life are just as awe-inspiring as his films. This is our surefire catalog of 10 Ghibli spots in Japan that will bring Miyazaki’s movies to life. Plus, adhere to our guide and you’ll discover a mesmerizing way to see the very best of Japan.
10.LOSE YOUR WAY TOGETHER AT THE GHIBLI MUSEUM
The most obvious destination for fans worldwide, The Ghibli Museum is Miyazaki’s storage unit for all things whimsical. Perched on the edge of Tokyo’s Inokashira Park in Mitaka, this multi-storied castle is replete with exhibits, rooftop gardens, interior bridges and surprising dead ends.
It displays both permanent and seasonal exhibitions. From interiors of Laputa’s flying ships to the catbus from My Neighbour Totoro, visitors are free to explore life-sized recreations with a child-like sense of wonder. As an added bonus, the in-built theatre shows short films that are exclusive to the museum.
9.TAKE IN THE GHIBLI CLOCK SHOW
When the wheels on this monster start to turn you’re in for a treat – we won’t spoil it with details; just know the clock springs to life four times a day, with an extra show on the weekends.
8.POKE AROUND SATSUKI & MEI’S LARGER THAN LIFE HOUSE
In My Neighbour Totoro, Satsuki and her sister are moved to the Japanese countryside, where they’re surrounded by nothing but rice paddies and wild forests as far as the eye can see. After discovering the Susuwatari (small soot sprites) dwelling in the depths of their attic, the girls realize there’s more to the house than broken baths and rotten pillars.
Fans will be delighted to know that the Kukasabe residence is real and open to visitors. Located in the Aichi prefecture, this full-scale replica doesn’t skimp on detail. From Professor Tatsuo’s rickety bicycle in the yard, down to Satsuki’s book-strewn desk, the house remains true to Miyazaki’s artistic vision.
The whole place has a definite lived-in vibe as if the Kukusabe family has just stepped out for a walk and Mei’s frenzied footsteps are due back on the gravel path any moment.
7.GET LOST IN TOTORO’S FOREST
Saitama Forest is a lush, vibrant woodland nestled in Sayama Hills, just an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. Dotted with ancient temples and shrines, the forest served as inspiration for Totoro’s hidden home in the film. The forest path where Mei gets lost and meets Totoro for the first time? There are crooks and nannies like this peppered everywhere.
You don’t have to get lost though – the hiking trails are clearly sign-posted, with one that leads directly to a motionless Totoro chilling in a temple. Take a leaf from his book and factor in some downtime.
6.BUTTER UP YOUR FRIENDS IN KIKI’S BAKERY
Located in Yufuin Floral Village, Kiki’s bakery is part of a fairy tale theme park built in Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island. Heavily inspired by the English Cotswolds, this artificial village is made up of snug shops and cobblestoned alleyways, flanked by mossy green hills which add to its ‘out of place’ vibes.
The quaint bakery takes pride of place though. Heavily reminiscent of Osono’s cozy confectionary in the movie; it produces savory fare and sweet goods with similar prowess. If you’re looking to please your palate, try the tomato and cheese tortinis, they come ‘Kiki-recommended’.
5.SOAK UP THE FEELS FROM SPIRITED AWAY
Spirited Away is grounded in the traditional notion of Sentō, a Japanese bathhouse to me and you. But because this is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about, it’s designed for deities who dabble in a little TLC time before re-entering the human world to carry on their spirit business – and who pay top dollar for the privilege. If you’re picturing a modern-day spa open only to those of high standing, you’re not far off.
There are plenty of bathhouses leftover from the Edo era in Japan that was said to inspire Miyazaki for his creation, but one he actually visited while he was in the throes of storyboarding was Kodakara-yu, part of the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. Located in Koganei Park, it’s an architectural stew of styles and eras, each building transported here to mimic the layout of an actual village.
No, you won’t witness Chihiro scraping human waste off a river spirit in exchange for gold, but head down Shitamachi Street and you’ll spot definite similarities between fiction and reality.
4.DIP YOUR TOES IN TOMONOURA’S SHALLOW FISHING WATERS
Ponyo, a small fish who wants to be human, washes ashore an idyllic cove and is rescued by a five-year-old boy. You could call it the Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, only there are less extravagant hairdos, more ramen noodles and it’s set in sleepy port town Tomonoura.
Miyazaki stayed here “for the movie”, a visit which lapsed into months. Hey, it takes a long time to hand-draw nifty little waves. Of course, this extended vacation had nothing to do with the white sand coves, pristine blue waters or excellent seafood (sorry Ponyo, the fish-sticks are divine).
3.DISCOVER THE SECRET WORLD OF SEIBIEN
A national site of scenic beauty, Seibien Garden is a peaceful retreat away from the throngs of people you’d expect in Hirakawa, the city it belongs to.
Lily ponds, gold shrines and yew trees abound, plus if you walk long enough, you’ll come across Seibien, the turret-topped mansion featured in The Secret World of Arrietty. The architecture blends both western and Japanese features, which is ironic, seeing as Miyazaki based this movie on Brit Mary Norton’s The Borrowers.
It’s not the first time he’s married different cultures into his art – but to see this union in person is pretty spectacular.
2.MEET THE BEASTS FROM PRINCESS MONONOKE’S SPIRIT FOREST
When a country known for spectacular islands crowns one as its ‘natural wonder’, you know it’s worth a visit.
We’re talking about Yakushima Island of course, with its towering mountains, ancient cedar trees and crystal clear rivers carving a steady flow through granite rock. It’s no wonder this dense foliage is home to macaque, Yaku deer and the seeds which led Miyazaki to create Princess Mononoke.
Follow the secluded hiking trails or take a well-deserved soak in one of the natural hot springs. It won’t take you long to empathize with San’s plight.
1.GORGE YOURSELF SILLY ON TOTORO THEMED CREAM PUFFS
What else is there to say?
Just that this quaint bakery, located in the suburbs of Tokyo, also serves pasta, profiteroles and other finger-lickin’ pastries – all in the shape of Totoro. It’s been churning out these sweet delicacies since its inception in 2007, but don’t ask for their secret recipe – it stays in the family. Literally.
The owner of Shiro-Hige’s Cream Puff Factory is actually Miyazaki’s sister-in-law. Keep an eye out for Totoro; you’ll spot him and his posse keeping a watchful eye over tourists.