5 Amazing Studio Ghibli Locations You Can Visit in Japan

Studio Ghibli is a studio who’s movies are beloved around the world, and although it does have it’s own theme park scheduled to open, it’s more than just Japan’s answer to Disney. With many foreigners in love with Anime, many travellers will already have some passing knowledge of Studio Ghibli before they visit Japan.

In 2018 there was an outpour of recognition for the studio and the films Isao Takahata directed, as he passed away at the age of 82. Such films directed by him include 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 theatre run at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo.

If you’re looking to feel the magic of Ghibli on your visit to Japan before the Ghibli theme park opens in 2022, the studio’s museum is certainly a good place to start. However, there are also a number of other real-life locations here with ties to Studio Ghibli that are well worth visiting. Let’s have a look at some of the best spots.

1. Experience magic in the Ghibli Museum

Hidden 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 the box office window. On the roof, the long-armed steampunk robot from the movie Castle in the Sky can be seen standing tall.

This eccentric place is the Ghibli Museum and it’s a necessary pilgrimage for any Ghibli fan. Inside, you can see Ghibli’s animated worlds come to life through hand-cranked animatics, spinning zoetropes and other fascinating exhibits. Beautiful stained glass windows stream light into the central hall as a spiral staircase extends up past a bridge from one side of the building to the other.

Totoro and Catbus displays at the Ghibli exhibition in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, 2016.

As you make your way up the floors and pass through the various rooms, you will also see kids playing on a big, fluffy version of the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. 

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.

2. Get “Spirited Away” to Japan’s many islands

Dogo Onsen in Ehime inspired the bathhouse from Spirited Away. See the resemblance?

In Ehime on Shikoku island is the real-world inspiration, Dogo Onsen, of the public bathhouse where the movie’s main character, Chihiro, becomes an indentured servant of the witch Yubaba.

And if you’d like another scene from Spirited Away to come to life, off the coast of Niigata, on Sado Island, you can ride a tarai bune (traditional washtub boat) as you glide across turquoise water.

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.

And 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.

3. Watch the automaton clock show at Nittele Tower

The Miyazaki-designed automaton clock at Nittele Tower in Shiodome, Tokyo.

Nittele Tower, the headquarters of Nippon TV in Shiodome, Tokyo, hosts a free Star Wars exhibition each December. With Covid however, and a lack of new Star Wars movies, this coming December might mean a break from more Star Wars events. But the building still holds a neat pop culture connection, in that it is adorned with a huge automaton clock designed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki himself.

Located on the tower’s 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. Four or five times daily, this copper, claw-footed landmark comes alive with moving figures, winding mechanical action and clanging metal gongs.

There is 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. Walk the “Whisper of the Heart” trail in Tama

The Whisper of the Heart map and mailbox near Seiseki-Sakuragaoka station in Tama, Tokyo.

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. Sadly, 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.

Konpiragu, a shrine that served as an animation model for a scene in Whisper of the Heart.

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.

more than just Japan’s answer to 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.

5. Enter the world of “My Neighbor Totoro”

Concept art for the Ghibli theme park. Image via Studio Ghibli.

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.

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.

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