The nail-biting wait is over. We have secured precious tickets to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo and it's a "punch the air" moment. Acclaimed film director, animator and screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki does not want crowds at his museum. You can't rock up and buy a ticket to his magical world.
In Japan, Miyazaki is a national treasure. His most famous film, Spirited Away, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003 and is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. In 2014, along with Stanley Kubrick, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, joining filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron in the Frank Gehry-designed, EMP Museum in Seattle. That's enough to entice the most casual traveller to Tokyo to get an advance ticket to see the museum Miyazaki designed himself.
Studio Ghibli, pronounced "Jiburi", is in Mitaka, an outer suburb of Tokyo far from our futon-sized apartment in Akihabara, the neon bright centre of anime culture. We catch a couple of early trains so we are not late for the obligatory queue and our allotted entry time. At Mitaka, at my son's insistence, we take the yellow "Catbus", for the short ride to the studio. The bus is full of Japanese fans and tourists. Catbus is a character from the 1988 film, My Neighbour Totoro. He has a Cheshire-cat-like grin, eyes that become headlights and numerous legs like a caterpillar. He hops and flies over the countryside. He's a nod to the bakeneko, which in Japanese folklore is an older cat with shape-shifting powers.
Other 1980s Ghibli hits include Laputa, Castle in the Sky,Kiki's Delivery Service and the lesser-known Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, set in an apocalyptic landscape. Later classics include Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki's films work on a number of levels, hence the intergenerational and timeless appeal. Shintoism, spirits and respect for the environment are intertwined.
Their magic is often found in the mundane and the disruption of daily life – a child gets lost, a mother is sick, a teenage witch opens a business in the suburbs, a boy finds a goldfish princess on the beach and a giant soldier robot is also a gardener. Magic is found in a postwar Japan landscape: woodlands, suburban and grand houses, a haunted bathhouse and a bakery. There are lots of flying machines, broomsticks, blimps and a flying castle. The films are often about rites of passage with strong female characters and few villains or heroes.
The Ghibli museum is perched on the edge of the Inokashira Park. It is a crisp autumn day with bright blue skies. We are early and the gated museum looks like a cross between a large adobe mud house and a hobbity European castle with gabled, shuttered windows, stained glass portholes and ivy-covered walls, anchored in a magical garden.
The side entrance has a mock ticket office with a giant Totoro, one of the most loved and enduring characters of Studio Ghibli. He's also on the studio's crest. The film of his namesake, My Neighbour Totoro, is set in postwar Japan in the mid 1950s. Totoro, like the incredible creatures from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, is an instantly recognisable creature who can be directly attributed to his creator, rather than an animation giant such as Disney. Totoro is unique, unlike those Olympic mascots seemingly designed by committee. He's egg-shaped and apparently part tanuki – a Japanese raccoon dog. He's also owl-like with a bit of cat, has elongated mushroom-shaped ears, chevron markings, whiskers, a stumpy tail, and is a forest spirit who loves acorns. I reckon there's wombat DNA in there somewhere. And there are three variations of his "species" – big, medium and small. The star, at least three metres tall, is big Totoro with grey fur and a white tummy. In Japan he's as popular as Winnie the Pooh is in the West and even makes an appearance in Pixar's Toy Story 3. His fame extends from outer space to the subterranean, with an asteroid and a worm named after him.
The main gates open and we are instructed to queue, waiting for half an hour. There is a sense of anticipation in the quiet. We are politely reminded no photos or video allowed inside. "The Ghibli museum is a portal to a storybook world where you, the visitor, are the main character. Use your eyes not the viewfinder." A frenzy of selfies and family snaps with the museum as background follows. Then a staff member ceremoniously rings a bell on the roof of the museum and the door opens.
Inside we are given a ticket made of a frame of 35-millimetre film. Our attention is drawn to the ceiling fresco, with garlands of fruits and flowers and a stripey sun. In the Central Hall there is a plane propeller like a fan and a stained glass dome with images from the films. We watch a short film, Koro's Big Day Out, in the colourful Saturn Theatre. It is one of a number of shorts produced only for the museum.
The theme of the museum is "Let's lose our way together" and we soon become directionless. It's a bit of a maze with bridging across the large atrium and odd staircases. An internal balcony rings the room. There are small doorways designed for kids and flexible adults. Rooms do not necessarily have right angles. There's a touch of Alice in Wonderland meets steampunk, with ironwork encasing spiral stairs, handcrafted metal fixtures and contraptions. Music especially written for Miyazaki's birthday by his long-time, film composer, Joe Hisaishi, fills the Central Hall. Called Prayer, it is very mediative: we have crossed over.
We stoop through a low doorway and climb a narrow spiral stair to the roof garden. There are gasps of delight as visitors emerge to see a five-metre giant robot soldier, from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. Visitors have a genuine affection for him and hug his leg or pat his metal arms. Here you can take photos and visitors queue for their snap with him. You can also glimpse that other symbol of Japan, a snow-capped Mount Fuji. Back inside, a room filled with a giant, plush catbus has kids spilling out of the windows and jumping all over him – or her.
We've been warned to go to the museum shop early to avoid the crush. It seems everyone else has the same advice. The shop is called "Mamma Aiuto", from the film Porco Rosso, which means "Help me, Mum" in Italian. But after 10 minutes my son is on his own with "mum bucks" as I retreat to the garden. The shop is crowded but orderly, with mainly young Japanese and a sprinkling of Western tourists buying character pins, straps to hang off their phones and backpacks, plushies, key chains, ink stamps, figurines and more. It seems the smaller the item, the bigger the attraction. Presumably it is about kawaii – how cute it is. I have to admit the Susuwatari, aka "soot sprites" or "dust bunnies", are particularly appealing. My son emerges with a model of the rust-coloured Laputa robot to build – he's not kawaii.
Miyazaki, who retired in 2014, has said he's the last of his generation to use paper, pen and film for animation. He hopes visitors get an insight into the artist's spirit and animation techniques in a recreated studio to show the collaborative process. There are storyboards with images of flying machines and steam power, concept art and an ashtray full of butts – a nod to a time when puffing on a ciggie was part of the creative process. It would not be out of place to imagine a paper plane sail by.
Our favourite attraction is a large zoetrope with rings of characters from My Neighbour Totoro. As it spins faster and faster it gives the illusion of motion and is mesmerising. There are old projection technologies – an installation of old spools, reels and flickering film.
The museum is a delightful and immersive experience, where kids can touch, run around and "getting lost" does not induce a panic attack. Adults can reconnect with that childlike sense of wonder we easily lose in the drama of everyday life.
We bypass the museum's busy Straw Hat cafe and have a picnic table in the Inogashira Park. Local mums and toddlers in puffy quilted outfits crunch and kick around autumn leaves. It's an ordinary but charming scene that could be from one of Miyazaki's movies – the connection with nature one his most enduring themes. We walk back to the train station along the hem of the park. The autumn colours look hyper real as if we are spellbound between Miyazaki's world and nature – a spirit world on the edge of the suburbs.
Jetstar has direct flights to Tokyo (Narita airport) from the Gold Coast and Cairns.
The Studio Ghibli site has information on how to buy tickets at Lawsons convenience stores in Japan. Go to a Loppi machine inside the store; it is all in Japanese so write down what you want and ask staff if you need help.
In Australia, limited date and time-specific tickets are available. These can book out months ahead. JTB Travel is the only place in Australia to secure tickets; see jtbtravel.com.au
Airbnb in Akihabara is good for families with children who are also into anime; hotels are often too small for extra beds.
Lesley Holden travelled at her own expense.