My husband is an animator. His favourite animé director is Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿), co-founder of Studio Ghibli (スタジオジブリ). When we first met, he introduced me to the wonders of Spirited Away, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Then I saw Pom Poko and (my personal favourite) Porco Rosso on tv and I was as hooked as him.
One of our honeymoon treats was to go to the Studio Ghibli museum (三鷹の森ジブリ美術館) in Mitaka, just outside Tokyo.
You can’t just rock up to the museum and buy a ticket on the day. The whole experience is marketed as being something special that you have to apply for months in advance. You not only have to specify which day you want to visit, but which time as well. It is possible to buy the vouchers in Japan through the Lawson supermarket chain but, because tickets are released three months in advance, they have usually sold out by the time tourists arrive in the country and want to buy them. Anxious not to miss out, we ordered our Ghibli vouchers through MyBus, as we were using the same company to buy our JR Passes. It was exciting when they arrived in the post, as it made one part of our honeymoon seem real.
We were staying in Kyoto for most of our honeymoon, so our Ghibli Museum trip was pretty much a day trip from there. I know. It’s crazy. Bullet trains are fast and comfortable, but making a three hour journey to Tokyo and then another 15 minute train journey from Shinjuku along the JR Chuo line was not the best way to approach a visit to a museum. Any museum! If you’re going to visit the Ghibli Museum, do it while you’re in Tokyo anyway. I mean, why wouldn’t you?
We’d booked for 2 p.m. at the museum, giving ourselves a couple of hours to look around before we needed to head back to Kyoto. Our plan was to arrive in Kichijoji around noon and have lunch at the DevaDeva Café, which had really good reviews on Happy Cow. Then we would walk to the Ghibli Museum through Inokashira Park. We managed to negotiate the train journey successfully, but it went a bit pear-shaped after that. I’d copied down the directions to the café and marked its location on a map, so we set off confidently from the station. We’d only been in Japan for 3 days at that point. We had no clue about how complicated the address system is. We tried counting blocks of buildings, but that failed miserably, so we tried wandering in a zigzag up and down the streets around the area we thought the café should be. That also failed miserably. Eventually we arrived at a kindergarten where the parents and teachers were all speaking English, so I asked where the address was. Not one person could tell us.
It was starting to rain at this point and we were feeling particularly lost and defeated, so we trudged back towards the station and the covered shopping arcade we had rushed through on our way to hunt down the café. There we found a Shakey’s Pizza where we ordered two approximations of a margharita pizza with added sweetcorn and headed for the station.
On the station platform we committed a sin. We ate pizza straight from the box in a public space. Although, given the nature of bento and onigiri, it seems likely that eating in public is less of a sin these days than it used to be!
It was getting late by this point, and we didn’t want to miss our timed ticket slot, so we gave up on our plan to walk through the park and took the train from Kichijoji to Mitaka. At Mitaka station, we boarded a Cat Bus. Disappointingly, this wasn’t an accurate representation of THE Cat Bus, but a small shuttle bus painted yellow. I see from the official website that this bus is no longer named the Cat Bus. Perhaps too many people were disappointed…
It was raining pretty hard when we arrived and we headed straight for the information desk, where there was some confusion about what we needed to do. It turned out we had entered through the wrong door, and the lady on the desk was trying to politely scold us about it. Never the less, we handed over our vouchers and showed our passports, and were issued with a ticket. Mine was in the form of a three-cel strip from a Howl’s Moving Castle reel. It is exquisitely lovely and now among my treasured possessions. The ticket gains you entry to the Saturn Theatre, where you can watch the short 20 minute film of the day.
We started at the Saturn Theatre, where the short film we watched starred Mei from My Neighbour Totoro having her own personal adventure with a cat bus kitten and some Morinaga milk caramels. After that we wandered happily from room to room, taking in the deliciously cluttered atmosphere of it all, playing on the interactives and looking longingly into the Cat Bus room.
The museum runs higgledy-piggledy over three floors. At the lower level, which is slightly underground, is the Saturn Theatre, the Central Hall and the outdoor Patio area with its covered well. The Central Hall has a glass dome roof and galleries around the staircase that leads up to the other floors. The middle floor has the two exhibition rooms – one is for special exhibitions, the other for the permanent Ghibli exhibition. When we visited, the special exhibition was a little strange – it was reproductions of artworks by major European artists such as Da Vinci, Matisse and Van Gogh. Visitors were showing the same amount of awe and wonder as if they were looking at the real thing. This fits with something I have noticed about the Japanese approach to history and artefacts – while an original artefact, be it building or object, is a wonderful thing, the Japanese don’t let the lack of an original distract them from appreciating the sense of history that a replica can provide. It’s something that we’re more sniffy about in the UK museum world.
Also on the middle floor, accessible from the Patio area, is the Straw Hat Café.
On the top floor is the Cat Bus Room, where pre-school and primary school children can romp around on a giant Cat Bus to their hearts’ content. We were only a little bit jealous. Across the Central Hall on the top floor is the Mama Aiuto shop.
The permanent exhibition is wonderful. It is themed as though you are stumbling upon rooms from Miyazaki’s life while he has popped out for a moment. All available space is used, from pictures filling the walls, to drawers crammed with objects that you recognise as the inspiration for characters and features in the films. There’s also a section where you can explore the techniques used in film making through interactives such as a rostrum camera with a scene from Porco Rosso.
When we had explored the galleries on the middle floor, we went outside and ended up on the roof, where we took the only photos of our visit. Photographs inside the museum are forbidden. Outside was good enough, though, because there was a giant Laputa robot to stand next to in the rain.
A couple of Japanese teenagers were standing nearby watching us, giggling and saying “Gaijin” a lot. I wonder what they made of us. Given that we were at the Ghibli Museum, you wouldn’t have thought that foreigners were that much of a deal!
We went back inside and raided the shop for goodies, missing out on an opportunity to come home with a DVD copy of Ponyo before its official release in the UK, because we didn’t know what it was. Then we headed back to the train station and back to Kyoto.
It was an exhausting day, but I’m glad that we did it. I’d like to go back, to see whether the short film is different now, and to see what special exhibition might be on. Not this time, perhaps, but the next.
Since our visit to the museum, we have discovered a shop in the Gion district of Kyoto that sells more Ghibli merchandise, including a giant Totoro and a giant Jiji.
If you’re not able to visit the Ghibli Museum and are in Kyoto, the shop is off Ninenzaka slope at the Kodaiji temple end.
It’s a tiny alleyway that’s easily missed, but there’s usually a sign pointing the way. We always spend too much money in there, but we haven’t brought a giant Totoro home yet!