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The Island That Inspired The Setting of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke
Anyone who is familiar with the delightful animations of Japan’s Studio Ghibli will that know that its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, created very distinctive locations for the settings of their films. Princess Mononoke was one of the first Ghibli films really to break into public consciousness, albeit largely with animation fans, in western countries in 1998 (the smash hit Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001 ensured that the studio’s fame was assured). Princess Mononoke’s setting was inspired by the island of Yakushima, located around 60km from the southernmost point of Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, which is part of the Osumi chain of islands. The island is almost perfectly round and mountainous. It’s also very beautiful indeed. And even if you aren’t familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli there are all sorts of things to do if you visit Yakushima.
GETTING TO YAKUSHIMA
Being big fans of Studio Ghibli and, having visited the fabulous Studio Ghibli museum on previous visits to Japan, we decided that we definitely wanted to visit Yakushima for a couple of days. On this trip we had decided explore Kyushu. We flew into Osaka and then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagasaki and then across to the southern city of Kagoshima. Kagoshima is a lovely laid-back city set in the shadow of the active volcano Sakurajima, which regularly emits rumblings of ash and smoke. It’s possible to visit the volcano by crossing the picturesque bay on a ferry.
In Kagoshima we chose a business hotel that was close to the port. The staff were happy to look after our luggage for a couple of days, so we just packed a small bag, which meant that we could travel light. The excellent YesYakushima company helped us to visit Yakushima – they booked ferry tickets, car hire and accommodation for us. (This isn’t an affiliate link but we’ll happily recommend their free booking service which was absolutely excellent.) We were happy to explore for the island for ourselves but YesYakushima do offer guided tours if desired.
We caught the mid-morning Toppy/Rocket hydro-foil from Kagoshima port. It’s a picturesque journey as you sail across the bay. There are other options, such as a car ferry, but this was the quickest means of transport and it took around 2.5 hours.
Our boat stopped off at Tanegashima island before arriving at Yakushima. (Some boats go direct, so check the timetable.) When we arrived at Anbo port our hire car was waiting for us, so we picked it up and were on our way. Driving was mainly very easy but if you don’t fancy getting behind the wheel buses are available.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – STAYING ON THE ISLAND
We treated ourselves to a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Usually when we plan our trips to Japan we use a combination of cheap business hotels and then splash out on a few nights at a ryokan or two, which is more expensive but definitely worth the extra cost. The traditional inns usually have tatami (reed mat) flooring and you sleep on a futon, which is usually laid out for you while you eat dinner. We stayed at Tashiro Bekkan at Miyanoura.
The ryokan had a large tatami room, private bathroom and balcony with a view across the crystal clear Miyanoura river.
We chose to stay on a half-board basis, so ate the most exquisite food which included local ingredients such as seafood, mountain vegetables and, of course, kuro buta (black/Berkshire pork), a speciality of the region. The staff were delightful and we managed to have a few conversations with them in bad Japanese (our Japanese was bad, theirs was fine!)
The ryokan was also able to offer us a bento lunch box – we simply placed an order the night before – and then picked it up before we went hiking the following morning.
HIKING IN THE SHIRATANI UNSUIKYO PARK
This park was the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke and it is very clear to see how the artist Oga Kazuo used the stunningly beautiful landscape for the setting of the animation. It has ancient cedar trees and mossy paths as well as streams and waterfalls running through it. There are multiple trails from the car park and the walking is generally easy, although you need to take care of large tree roots that have grown across the path.
VISIT YAKUSHIMA – CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE ISLAND
On our final day we decided to circumnavigate the island in the car before heading back to the hydrofoil. It’s largely a very easy drive but on the Seibu Rindo Forest path on the western part of the island the road narrows through the forest and becomes single track in some places, so you have to take care. We narrowly avoided a minor collision with a coach coming the other way.
From Miyanoura we drove north, stopping at the Shitoko Banyan Tree Park. Banyan trees are a complete contrast to the cedars of Shiratani Unsuikyo. These trees grow by dropping roots from the branches which eventually reach the ground and embed themselves in the soil creating additional roots to support the tree. They can also form around other types of tree and can eventually kill them as they choke the existing root system.
Isso Beach and Isso lighthouse on the peninsular.
Swimming is only possible on the beach in the summer months when lifeguards are available. Also, turtles nest here during May and June, so care must be taken so as not to disturb them.
Then it’s a beautiful drive through the Seibu Rindo Forest. The road can be narrow and very winding as it wends its way through the mountain forest.
There’s an excellent chance of seeing Yakushika (native deer) and Yakuzaru (the Yakushima macaque) – and indeed we did.
Yakushima has a number of waterfalls to explore. The falls are usually well signposted from the main road and there is usually a car park close by.
At 88m high, Ohko no Taki waterfall in the south west corner of Yakushima is one of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls. Sadly we didn’t have time to hike to the falls but even from a distance, it’s an impressive drop.
There are a number of outdoor onsen (hot springs) by the coast, which are worth a visit. Some of these are tidal, so are only accessible at low tide. There are a couple of neighbouring villages on the south cosast, Yudomari and Hirauchi, accessible by single track roads off the main circular route on Yakushima. It’s important to note that tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangsters, so is it worth covering any with sticking plaster. We enjoyed a warm footbath whilst looking out across the sea. (There are other onsen resorts at some hotels on the island if hot spring bathing is your thing.)
There’s an honesty box for payment (N.B. the price has increased to 200 yen since we visited).
Sempiro-no-taki is another impressive waterfall which falls across an extensive granite gorge.
Toroki falls are just downriver from Sempiro and can be seen after walking a short distance from the road. You can see the vermillion bridge in the background.
Then it was time to head north towards Anbo port. There was a convenient petrol station right by the turn off to the port’s car park so we filled up the car and experienced the best in Japanese service – a full tank of fuel, windscreen cleaned and, best of all, the attendants running out to the road to stop the traffic so that we could exit the petrol station. Then it was a hop onto the boat to return to Kagoshima.
Yakushima is a destination that is off the beaten track but it is a beautiful island with plenty of walking, terrific food and delightful people. It’s a bit of a journey to get there but if you manage to visit you will not be disappointed.
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A Place of Awe and Wonder
The animations of Studio Ghibli, by founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and their protegees, are amongst the very best in the world. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli film we can’t emphasise enough quite how magical they are. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and films in general, the Studio Ghibli Museum is top of the list of places to see when visiting Tokyo.
A teenage witch, her hair ruffled by the wind, rides her mother’s broom through the open skies. A giant robot unleashes molten destruction on the soldiers who have awakened him from centuries of slumber. A city worker recalls her childhood growing up in the 1960s. The skies above Kōbe are filled with buzzing agents of death, raining down fire upon a terrified population. A burgeoning writer seeks inspiration from a quaint antiques shop. A travelling warrior becomes infatuated with a feral wolf-child in a land scarred by war. A group of young people discover love and loss during their turbulent high-school years. A girl’s parents are turned into slobbering pigs. A father turns superhero, if only for a moment, when he stands up to a local biker gang. Two elated girls soar through the air inside a grinning cat bus, its headlight eyes tracing yellow streaks in the sky above the forest.
Gods and monsters. Love and loss. Jubilation and despair. The horrors of war. Childhood wonder. The passion of life. Welcome to the heart-soaring, euphoric, whimsical, terrifying, compassionate and, above all else, emotional world of Studio Ghibli. The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the terms ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli makes films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Studio Ghibli Kamera Book.
It’s not possible to visit the studio itself. That’s just basically an office building. But Miyazaki and Takahata commissioned a museum dedicated to the art and technology of the animated form in 2001 and it is one of the most delightful museums we’ve ever visited.
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Getting Tickets
If you’re planning on visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you can’t just turn up. The museum is so popular that you have to pre-book your tickets and also arrive at a specified time. The process for getting tickets is a bit convoluted especially if you don’t live in Japan or have contacts there. So (deep breath)…
If you are Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson konbini (convenience stores). The tickets go on sale from 10:00am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month. So really you have to be in Japan for several weeks to stand a chance of getting any for yourself and they WILL sell quickly.
If you can’t get tickets via the link there are other options. A number of travel agencies can get tourist tickets which you can purchase directly from them in your home country. The Ghibli Museum – Ticket System (jtbgmt.com) describes how to get tickets, you need to click on the link to select your country of origin.
Other travel agencies often have staff in Japan who may be able to go to Lawson to get tickets on your behalf. But book early! We’ve used services such as these in the past and it has worked very well. However, over the years, demand has increased and many travel agencies may also want you to buy other services, for example, they may request that you purchase your Japan Rail Pass from them, or book a couple of nights’ accommodation in Tokyo. This is frustrating, especially if you have already made your plans or can purchase these items more cheaply elsewhere. For example, we always search for the best deal for our JR Passes and usually stay in Japanese Business Hotels which are cheap and comfortable (if small), especially in Tokyo because, frankly, when you’re in Tokyo you don’t really care too much about your accommodation as there’s so much fun to be had in the city.
The tickets state a specified date and time of entry and, as a result, you will need to arrive on time. The face value of the tickets is an extremely reasonable ¥1000 for those over 19 years of age, with lower costs for children. But there is likely to be a handling fee if you purchase your ticket from an agent.
On Arrival At The Ghibli Museum
The museum is located in Mitaka, on the Chūō Line. There are direct trains from central Tokyo and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one. It’s a short walk from the JR station. There is, however, a bus service which, for around ¥300 return, will take you directly to the museum. It’s easy to spot the bus stop.
On arrival, walking along Kichijoji Avenue, which is adjacent to Inokashira Park, at the entrance of the delightfully colourful building you are greeted by a giant Totoro, which is the best possible welcome anyone could want, before you walk around the building to the real entrance.
On arrival you exchange your voucher for a real ticket which has a film strip from a Ghibli animation inside. There is no time limit on your visit and the policy of limiting admissions means that the museum never feels crowded. You can wander freely through the building but you are requested not to take photos. This is actually a really good idea – it ensures that you enjoy the experience rather than try to record everything that you see. It also means that there are no (or at least minimal) spoilers from zillions of photos of the museum on the internet. If you wish, you can buy a book or a set of postcards of the museum from the shop – so that you have a memento.
Miyazaki’s principle for designing the museum was ‘Let’s lose our way, together’. It’s a brilliant philosophy. There is no set route around the building and there are all sorts of spiral staircases, internal bridges and nooks and crannies to explore – some at a low level, suited to children… or adult sized children who are prepared to crouch and wiggle into small spaces. Just go wherever your curiosity takes you.
The first room after the entrance contains a Ghibli-inspired history of cinema technology. Periodically the lights are dimmed and a flashing Totoro zoetrope starts up – it’s a magical display as characters from the film rotate around a central point illustrating about how animation can create the illusion of movement. (Be aware that this is a stroboscope effect if you are sensitive to flashing lights.) Amongst the other exhibits in the room is a delightful display of the Laputa robot surrounded by doves. It truly is a room of wonders.
Upstairs there are further rooms to explore. Some of these have permanent exhibitions – such as the life-sized cat bus (from My Neighbour Totoro). Adults be aware that you are only allowed to play inside cat bus if you are under eight years of age, something that we feel is most unfair. There are a couple of rooms which represents an animation studio so that you can understand the technicalities and process of animation from start to finish.
The studio also has a number of temporary exhibitions which often showcase the work of animators from around the world. Isao Takahata, in particular, did a lot to promote the work of film-makers from around the world. We have enjoyed exhibitions showing the works of Pixar studios (themselves huge Ghibli fans) and Michel Ocelot’s remarkable animations.
Don’t forget to follow the steps to the roof – there you will find the gentle giant robot and mysterious control cube from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. (It’s okay to take photos outside the museum’s main building.)
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Exclusive Ghibli Films!
One of the biggest attractions about the museum is the opportunity to attend the screening of a short Ghibli film. You cannot see these anywhere else in the world and they are not available on DVD or on streaming services, they are totally exclusive to the museum. The films are around 20 minutes in length and there is a board outside the Saturn Theatre on the ground floor, indicating screening times. It’s worth getting to the waiting area a bit earlier than the start time to make sure you can get into the screening you wish to attend. (If you miss a screening there is plenty to keep you occupied until the next one.) We have been lucky to have visited the museum five times and have never seen the same film twice. You can buy picture books of the films as a memento.
Shop Till You Drop
When you’re visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you’ll be delighted to discover that there is a bookshop where you can buy books and DVDs related to the films
And there’s also a souvenir shop where all sorts of gorgeous and tempting merchandise can be purchased. If you are a fan of the films, pack an extra suitcase for all the goodies. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of souvenirs.
The bags are from the film Porco Rosso and are a souvenir in themselves.
It’s worth noting that Ghibli merchandise is also available throughout Japan. We managed to buy the biggest Totoro soft toy that we felt we could get onto a plane without having to buy an extra seat – bought at the very end of a long trip (which had involved lots of travelling on the shinkansen and it really wouldn’t have been practical to transport him all over Japan, gorgeous as he is) at a department store in Tokyo just before we headed out for the airport. And yes, we did get lots of funny looks from security guards at the airport, but Totoro has pride of place in our living room.
The design of the museum is so intricate and detailed, even outside the main building.
There is a café, The Straw Hat Cafe (featuring Mei’s hat from My Neighbour Totoro), adjacent to the museum which sells ice-cream, drinks and snacks.
It’s become something of a tradition for us to enjoy a hot-dog and a cold beer – yes, you can even enjoy a bottle of Nausicaä beer! – at the end of the exploration.
The Ghibli museum is emphatically one of the most wonderful places we have visited. It’s a triumph of imagination and design and is genuinely a place of wonders. Even if the process of obtaining tickets is somewhat convoluted, we can’t recommend this museum highly enough. We’d go again in an instant.
If you are interested in the films of Studio Ghibli – and they are all amazing – here are some links:
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