“I do believe in the power of story. I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”
Hayao Miyazaki, Director
During my last trip to Japan, my great passion for the Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (who has been producing beautiful movies for decades and is considered a genius by many of his fellow animators) put me almost subconsciously in the footsteps of the landscapes shown in his main animation stories. The inspiration for Miyazaki’s films is often obscure, and there are many locations in the ancient, rural, and lesser-known Japan that claim a connection with the director. The following spots are among my favourites.
Nagoya, Totoro’s house
I began to recognise the landscape that had struck my imagination riding the train from Kyoto to Nagoya—the big Shinkansen windows are like open screens on the foothills. This is the Miyazaki post-war rural Japan, with the brick-coloured countryside roads, the iridescent green of the forests, and the bright green foliage of the large Camphor trees (which in spring produce masses of small white flowers and clusters of blackberry fruit). The delicate relationship between humans and their environment makes me feel like little Mei (the young female character in My Neighbour Totoro, one of Miyazaki’s greatest successes), ready for a ride on a magical, flying bus.
A full-scale replica of Satuki and Mei’s house is open to visitors. Built for the World’s Fair in 2005, the faithful reproduction was overseen by Gorō Miyazaki (Hayao’s son), with incredible attention to detail that really brings the movie's details to life.
Tomonoura, Ponyo on the Seto Inland Sea
The old-fashioned, quiet fishing town of Tomonoura , at the southern tip of Fukuyama City in Hiroshima Prefecture along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, is thought to have served as the inspiration for the film Ponyo, a tale of a boy and a fish who wants to be a human. Tomonoura is Japan’s only complete, preserved Edo period (1603-1868) port. It’s a ukiyo-e print, but alive with salt air, fish swaying on racks, and slinking cats. The iconic silhouette of Mount Fuji is visible throughout town and for centuries, the positions of the stars and planets in relation to these domes were used as a cosmic calendar.
Walking around the town, you really do get the feeling that you’ve just stepped into Ponyo. The houses, the boats bobbing in the harbor, and the view of the town when looking at it from above on the surrounding mountains make you wonder whether you should start diving and looking for some magical fish.
Princess Monoke on Yakushima Island
Primeval rainforest might not spring to mind when you think of Japan, but visit the little island of Yakushima and that’s exactly what you’ll find. The thousand-year-old cedars and moss-covered floors of this beautiful island were the inspiration for Princess Mononoke. And walking through this moody, temperate rainforest, full of fairytale-like trees, you can easily see why. With spectacular waterfalls, beachside hot springs, and fascinating wildlife, this is one of my favourite destinations in Japan.
Shiratani Unsuikyo (35 minutes from Miyanoura by bus) is a world of mossy-green, babbling streams that inspired Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece.
Dōgo Onsen, Matsuyama, Spirited Away
Many bathhouses claim to have been the inspiration for the bath of the spirits featured in Spirited Away, but the magnificent Dōgo Onsen Honkan is the one that really looks like the bathhouse in Miyazaki's films. With a history of 3,000 years, Dōgo Onsen is said to be the oldest hot spring in Japan; dating from the Meiji period, the wooden bathhouse was visited by the Imperial Royal family on various occasions.
We took a bath here, at Dōgo Onsen Honkan, where the atmospheric, three-storied bathhouse evokes a sense of mystique and nostalgia. Time seems to slow down in the historical bathhouse, as its sights and smells transport guests back to the past. The clock rings three times a day: 6 am, noon, and 6 pm.
Ghibli Museum, Tokyo
The incredibly rich body of animation works produced by Studio Ghibli is celebrated inside this museum, a true monument to the characters, creatures and stories from Miyazaki’s films. This maze-like complex was designed by Miyazaki himself to combine elements of a fine art museum with a children-friendly entertainment space, which stayed true to the eccentric character of the films.
Ghibli Museum is packed with sketches and art from the studio’s feature films, as well as a reconstruction of Miyazaki’s office, various interactive exhibits and sculptures, and an exclusive showing of a Ghibli short animation.
All Aboard! The Cat Bus to the Ghibli Forest: After a long closure, a new annual exhibit (until May 2017) celebrates the freshly renovated museum, consolidating 15 years of artwork into one space.
Feeling inspired? Ready to embark on a similar trip?