After months of being locked up at home, we recently got the opportunity to travel to Japan. Early Monday morning, we began from Tokyo city and followed the flight of the birds on Kushiro Marsh way up north on Hokkaido Island, and then went flying down south to Yaku Island, to revel in nature’s bounty.
For about an hour, we are in a foreign land, a prospect that our present world forbids. We made pit stops at the speed of light which would surely not have been possible without some magic (all right, internet connection if you want to remain unimaginative). For a fleeting few seconds, we almost make a mental itinerary of a travel plan. Sigh!
Are you wondering how we did it?
An online tour hosted by Fumi, Yu, Tatsuya, Yukiko, Kazu, Mamiko as part of Airbnb Online Experiences lets you sign-up for a one-hour virtual guided-exploration of some of the popular spots that inspired Studio Ghibli (pronounced Ji-bli in Japan and Gi-bli in other parts of the world) films. For the uninitiated, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, Isao Takahata and Yasuyoshi Tokuma in 1985. So far, there are 23 Studio Ghibli feature films made, of which 21 are available on Netflix to stream. Studio Ghibli films stand out for their excellent production and heartwarming tales told with endearing characters.
Screenshot Google Earth
For the virtual tour, three other participants log in from Australia and the United States of America and together with our host Yoshi from Tokyo, Japan, we plunge into an experience that momentarily takes our mind off the pandemic. For a brief while, we feel the anticipation that comes before we are about to experience something new. The excitement that surges in when one is about to indulge in something of personal interest.
Before the session begins, Yoshi and this writer briefly bond over their shared love for Studio Ghibli films. We tell her about the city, Chennai, from where we’ve joined, and Yoshi immediately looks excited. She talks about the unfortunate timing of her plans to travel to India in 2020, and then stands up to point to the skirt she’s wearing that day. A self-confessed sewing addict, she says, “I love fabrics and was planning to travel to India this year.” We quickly brush away the blues and gear up for what’s lying in wait as the other participants join in.
For many, the introduction to the production house was with the popular Spirited Away, a film that turned heads internationally. Yoshi too has set Yubaba’s (a character from Spirited Away) face in the background that day. Studio Ghibli has recently made artwork from their films available on their website that can be used for such virtual meets.
Yubaba from Spirited Away | photo courtesy Studio Ghibli
Spirited Away is tucked in last on our virtual tour itinerary but for this piece we’ll begin here first. As Chihiro (Spirited Away’s main character) reluctantly steps across the narrow stream and walks into an abandoned theme park with her parents, there was something about its setting that immediately drew us into the picture. The mysterious looking bathhouse that features prominently in the film was partly inspired by Dogo Onsen, in Shikoku Island that is Japan’s oldest hot spring bath house. It became a National Important Cultural Property in 1994. And then from here, we're also taken to Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum and then to the bath house located inside the complex which served as another inspiration for the film.
Bathhouse from Spirited Away | photo courtesy Studio Ghibli
Dogo Onsen in Japan's Ehime prefecture (photograph courtesy: www.dogo.jp)
Studio Ghibli films are unique for their hand drawn animations and therefore it leaves an impact on the viewers. These films are unlike regular animated films from the West and their stories too are different. Take My Neighbour Totoro for instance. This is the story of two sisters who move into an old house located close to a forest and stumble across a giant forest spirit - Totoro. Totoro is also Studio Ghibli’s mascot, the giant furry creature you see in their logo. The story of the film is quite simple but Totoro has a cult following with fans thronging to ride the cat bus at the Studio Ghibli museum, and cafes in Japan having Totoro shaped cream puffs.
The forest that inspired the film is at Sayama Hills, about 35 kilometres from downtown Tokyo. For any Studio Ghibli fan this is a must-visit spot with scenic hiking trails. We then skip to Satsuki and Mei’s house that comes with an East-West fusion architecture, complete with the peeking vent where Mei first spots the forest spirits.
A scene from Ponyo | photo courtesy Studio Ghibli
Tomonura port in Hiroshima | Screenshot Google Earth
Over the course of our virtual tour we fly and zoom in to 12 different spots spread across Japan. Our guide Yoshi covers Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, When Marnie Was There, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro during the tour.
We get to know about the oldest soy sauce brewery with its 200-year-old barrels on Shodo Island. This is also where the best udon noodles can be had and the only place in Japan where olives have been successfully grown. “This is also the only place that looks a bit Mediterranean. Kiki’s Delivery Service was actually inspired by Portugal. So on a regular day, you’d find young Japanese girls with the red bow pinned to their hair, queueing up with borrowed broomsticks to pose here for photographs,” Yoshi says while showing a photograph of a group of young women befitting Yoshi’s description, kicking their feet off the ground to imitate flying. From here we kick off to a different location to discuss a different film. There’s plenty more to see and we’ve saved the best ones for you to experience first hand.
Those wishing to sign up can do so here.