This day was for many reasons a day that I’ve been waiting many years for. On one level I’ve wanted to go to the Ghibli Museum ever since I heard such a place existed. Also I knew that’s the only place you can watch “Mei and the Kittenbus” which plays only a few times per year. Finally the biggest reason was that for a couple years now I knew that this was the place that I would ask Anna to marry me! That’s right, on this the third day of our two week trip to Japan we got engaged!
I had a general idea for a long time that I wanted to ask her on the roof of the Ghibli Museum in front of the giant Laputa robot statue. We’re both huge Miyazaki fans, and the scene that moves Anna the most in Laputa is the scene where the robot is wreaking havoc on the castle in Laputa before it’s finally destroyed by the bad guys. I’ve known for a long time that this was the perfect place to ask her. It was just a matter of going there, so once we cemented the date for our Japan trip I got the ring ready for the big moment!
The Ghibli Museum controls the number of people who come in by only letting 600 people in at a time at four intervals per day, but once you get in you can stay there all day if you wish, but there’s no re-entry. To get there we took the “catbus” from the station at Mitaka. I had no idea what it looked like, but I’m glad it didn’t look cheesy and catbus shaped. Instead, it’s a yellow bus decorated with animals from the opening credits of My Neighbor Totoro. I was super excited, but I really had very little idea of what to expect once I got there.
There are many ways to describe the Ghibli Museum. I could say that it’s the most awesome place ever, educational, elegant, cozy, comforting and wondrous, but I think the thing that really stood out to me is how classy it is. Miyazaki is responsible for an empire of one of the most widely recognizable characters in the world which of course is Totoro. There are Totoro versions of just about any product you could possible dream of. Yet, the museum goes completely against this commercialism angle that it could’ve gone in a la Disney. I could think of a million ways this could’ve been a really cheesy museum, but Miyazaki did a wonderful job designing this place. It oozes the *feel* of Miyazaki films without directly recreating many specific things.
When you walk into the museum the first things you notice are the excellent wood-working and construction of the place. The front doors have stained glass windows of characters from Ghibli films and the ceiling has a splendidly painted fresco also with small renditions of Ghibli characters interacting with the plant life in the painting. As you walk down the staircase you see even more stained glass with characters like makkurokurosuke, no face, Jiji and Teto. They prohibit photos inside, but this website has a good writeup on the museum along with some official photos from the museum book.
The thing that this museum makes you understand is the love and dedication Hayao Miyazaki has for the animation, the environment, and also the old Europe feel that exists in many of his films. From the film strip ticket itself you already know that this is a place with a reverence for animation as an artform (we got strips from “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”). The information pamphlet says inside “Let’s lose our way, together.” The brief blurb has this sentence which says
“You will discover many interesting things in the Museum. There are not any set routes that you must follow. You are the one to discover your own way. Those who can lose their way and fully enjoy this space are welcomed at the Museum.”
There are walkways, stairways and hallways that all connect around a central area so that you can just walk around the museum in whatever order that you want. Kind of like my visit to Kiddyland, it was overwhelming trying to take it all in. At the same time I wanted to see everything, but I also wanted to focus on the little things.
We decided to start off with the star attraction of our visit: “Mei and the Kittenbus.” The film is about 15 minutes long and there was already a long line so we decided to wait for the next screening so we could get our seats front row center.
I don’t want to explain any specifics about the story because it’d be a travesty for me if I were to spoil any details for someone who hasn’t seen it yet, but I will say that this short film was concentrated film happiness. Sitting in the seat as the lights darkened I had a feeling similar to when I was in the theater waiting for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” to start for the first time (though I felt a lot better when the lights turned back on after this screening :P) If you had a camera on my face during this movie I’m sure you would see varying levels of emotion ranging from happiness to euphoria. I get dizzy thinking about how joyous this film experience was. During one particularly moving moment I cried actual tears. Okay, maybe just one tear. It’s the kind of happiness that causes you to laugh because a simple smile cannot contain it.
Visitors can only see the short film once per visit. Good thing we had the foresight to get tickets for two days! The film was definitely the high point of the visit, but there was still much to explore. Outside the theater there were some painted murals, and one particularly brilliant one which looks like a fixture in the wall that from a distance looks totally real. The reason is that there’s a light next to it, and the shadow on the painting is accurate to what shadow the fixture would have if it were real, a very cool illusion.
We admired more of the awesome wood work of the building itself, more stained glass, a chair under a metal dome-like thing which has a small film strip animation playing if you look in its roof. Also they have fire extinguisher/axe fixtures on all floors that look like they’re from a history museum. They looked pretty well attached to the wall, but I’m guessing they’re functional since they’re on all floors.
The first room we went to is the star attraction which a room called “Where a film is born.” The best thing about this room is this large enclosed spinning device which has small figures of Totoro, catbus, Mei, Satsuki and the other Totoro all in different poses. When the device spins at high speed, a flashing LED is activated and the result is a real life animation! Totoro jumps up and down with his umbrella, Satsuki and chuu-totoro play jump rope with Mei, catbus flies through the air and several dozen (hundred?) chibi totoro walk around the perimeter towards the giant tree in the center. This thing is positively mesmerizing and totally brilliant. The device periodically turns off the light and stops spinning so you can admire it. An amazing way to illustrate to kids and adults basic principles of animation. We watched this for a looooooong time.
Off to the side they have the models from this in a display case so you can look at them more closely. Another great thing in the room is a large tube shaped thing which has a Laputa robot statue inside with its arms raised up. Surrounding him are two glass tubes that fit over each other and have birds painted on them that constantly spin. The outside of this device has slits like a zoetrope, so the birds animate as if they’re flying through the air around the statue. There are some smaller more traditional zoetropes in the room too.
By the entrance there’s a film projector playing a number of looping animations that have things like an octopus walking down stairs, a classic Disney inspired animation of a hero trying to save a girl from a villain driving away with her in a car and some fish eating fish animation. The film projector is in a glass case so you can see it working. You think at first that there’s no sound, but actually there’s a large gramophone style speaker thing next to the projector that if you put your ear into you can hear the soundtrack. It’s directed downwards, so it’s clearly designed for small children.
The other highlight is a crazy film projection machine in a glass booth that’s like the craziest film project setup you’ve ever seen. There’s film going every which way and along the path are lights and also viewers so you can watch the animation play out from a number of different parts of the window. The animation is an evolution story that starts from dueling microbes which evolve alongside each other and have a feud as each tries to top the other by becoming new creatures. Beautiful morphing animation and it plays on a constant loop (I won’t spoil the ending).
From here you can either take the stairs to the next floor or take the caged spiral staircase to the top floor. We took the spiral staircase (if you’re not a kid you’ll have to keep your head down). At the top we went to the Catbus room! It’s an enormous plushy catbus big enough for kids to play in and around. Sorry, elementary school kids only 😥 Oh to be 5 years old again if only for a moment.
This finally brings me to what I started this post talking about. Next was the Laputa robot. Instantly I started getting nervous. The entire time up to this point I had been constantly checking and rechecking my jacket pocket to make sure the ring was still there. We took some photos of the water fountains outside, but the walk up the staircase to the Laputa robot was very nerve wracking.
As soon as I saw the robot I knew that I didn’t have much time left. I also realized that there’s a constant line of people waiting to get their photo taken with the robot. Oh crap, there isn’t going to be any time for big speeches is there? I guess because I always saw photos of the robot by itself I assumed that it wasn’t terribly crowded up top. It was warm outside and I had my jacket off so I pocketed the ring since I knew we’d be taking our bags off before taking photos. We took each others’ individual photos first.
Then Anna asked me to get someone behind us to take our photo. Oh crap, it was really on now! Quickly I asked the people behind us in Japanese if they’d take my photo, and as soon as I got over to where Anna was I said something like “I don’t have much time, but there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time.” which prompted a very confused “Huh?” But then I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me!
I don’t remember too well but she said my hands were shaking. I don’t even remember her saying “yes” but next thing I knew we were hugging and trying to compose ourselves for the people behind us who were probably very confused. So we have the literal moment after I asked her in digital form! I had done it! Phew…
Between “Mei and the Kittenbus” and getting engaged this was officially one of the happiest days of my life, but there was still more of the museum to explore. We took tons and tons of photos of the robot before moving onto the next area where there was a stone block like the one in Laputa complete with the ancient language carvings on top.
I think we headed to the store after this. The store was PACKED with people, but that didn’t stop us from trying to take a look at every single adorable thing they had in there. Most importantly they had “Mei and the Kittenbus” stuff! Some were a little bit cheesy, but we immediately picked up some of the plush toys and put them in a basket. There were lots of cool things, some small and some really out of our price range. Most elegant were the very fine dishware plates and cups that were behind a counter. I have a nice Totoro cup and plate at home from this collection, but looking at them they were all sooooooo cute.
We ended up getting a Nausica Ohmu shell planter, a Laputa head planter, some plush and most importantly the mini book for “Mei and the Kittenbus.” We almost thought of getting two of the book because we knew we’d be flipping through the other a lot. I was REALLY hungry at this point so we headed over to the cafe area.
There’s a food stand with just a few items and the actual cafe which has full meals, but there was a pretty long line. To tide us over a bit we got some drinks. Anna got a “red bean and soybean latte” and I got a “Kaze no Tani no beer” which means “Beer of the Valley of the Winds.” We thought it was just a name they gave their beer, but it’s a real beer complete with its own bottle and label! We saved the bottle of course.
We waited in line for the Straw Hate Cafe for probably over an hour, but eventually there were chairs with blankets, and also picture books in a basket for kids. The cafe was very very nice, not crowded at all and extremely cozy, we took a lot of photos of the fixtures and decorations. I don’t know if it’s similar to any cafe that’s ever existed in real life, but it definitely had the feel of a Miyazaki film.
I ordered a mikan (Japanese orange) juice and Anna got red wine. The juice was served with a real straw! Not a plastic one, but the kind that grows in the ground O_O The juice flavor was very rich and freshly squeezed tasting. Japanese mikans taste very different from oranges in the U.S.
I ordered the pork cutlet curry and Anna got the gratin soup. The curry was good, but Anna’s gratin looked even better. It had big chunks inside of it too. I scraped my plate clean and took photos of the adorable Totoro drawings underneath. Some of them looked like Anna’s Totoro cream puffs ^_^ While we were sitting at the counter we got to observe the people who make the desserts. We ordered the kabocha (pumpkin) cake and also a chocolate crumble cake. We saw a guy making a parfait that was finished with konpeito on top (the candy they feed to makkurokurosuke in “Spirited Away”) so cute!
The really impressive thing was what looked like a cappuccino that a girl in front of us was decorating. She used chocolate on a brush to paint this wonderful hat design on top of the frothy milk! Anna asked if she could take a photo. We knew that we were coming the next day so we planned to order a parfait and this cappuccino when we came back.
When we finished our meals the desserts arrived. The chocolate cake looked very tasty, but the slice of kabocha cake looked HUGE! It had some whipped cream with it too. I was wondering if Anna would be able to finish it all, but the first time her fork touched it, everything became clear. The cake was SUPER FLUFFY! The amount of cake in her piece was probably less than my chocolate cake which was pretty dense. They were both totally delicious. A thing I like about Asian desserts over American ones is that they’re not too sweet. We polished them off and left extremely satisfied.
Next up we went to the “studio” section of the museum where they have walls plastered with cels, sketches, concept art, reference art, reference photos and anything and everything you could imagine it takes to inspire one of Miyazaki’s films. Each desk was of a different person on the animation team. Director, storyboard artist, key animator, background painter, cel painter and the guys who actually shoot the cels onto film (with a usable film camera you could manipulate with hand cranks).
There were also photo albums with hundreds of reference photos. One book had photos from Yakushima which is where we were going to in a few days. It’s a mountainous foresty part island of Japan that inspired the landscapes and forest of Princess Mononoke, but alsoyou can tell it has inspired Miyazaki for films that he made long before Mononoke. Seeing the book got us even more excited about our trip!
The studio was really cool and parts were really funny to look at. There was a sign that said something like “Do not disturb the storyboard artist, they’re under A LOT of stress.” There were also buckets and buckets of art pencils. Also diagrams about how to combine two pencils that have been used almost to the nub so that they can still be held in your hand comfortably. There was a cute character sheet for Totoro that said it’s okay to draw Totoro with however many claws you want because there isn’t a specific number. Also a “Do and do not do” diagram for how to animate his eyes. Another room had complete storyboards for some films like Nausicaa. These rooms really give you an appreciation for the incredibly hard work it takes to make these films.
Next up we went to the room about the various short films that play in the theater in the museum. This room had a number of things in it. The centerpiece was a model for the short film about mice that do sumo. They also had a highlight reel of the films playing in a TV shaped box (but you could tell from the sound that there was a film projector inside) which we watched for a while. There were also a number of boxes in the room with hand cranks which would spin key animation sketches so that you could watch the drawings animate.
The entire next room was dedicated to “Mei and the Kittenbus”! There were some stills displayed on the wall, but the cutest thing were they had these kittenbus “costumes” which fit over a small kid (with metal handles on the inside to hold it up) so that it looked like they were riding in the kittenbus! There were some kids who didn’t want to, but seeing the others run around in these makeshift kittenbuses was soooo adorable.
From here we went outside to an area with plants, a shed, lots of wooden logs and also a working waterpump just like in Totoro! I know there are people who use these for real, but to city folk like us this is a real novelty. There was a sign warning people not to drink the water. We both took our turns using the pump, but it was the cutest thing watching little kids try to use the heavy pump.
It was starting to get dark by now so we made our last stop by the “fake” entrance with the box office manned by Totoro himself! This was a life sized Totoro! We took tons of photos, then took photos of the sign outside the gate and that was it! We had a very nice walk back to the station along Kaze no sanpo michi which is illuminated by small street lights. You think this was the end of our day but nope! We decided to squeeze in a visit to Akihabara too!
Like I said before, I don’t watch as much anime as I used to, so actually our visit to Akihabara was pretty quick. First place we went to was Kotobukiya where we just ended up looking at more Ghibli stuff anyway 😛
We also went to “Gamers” of Digi Charat fame, but that place pretty much ended up being all the otaku stuff that I don’t really care about like dating sims, doujinshi and idol related stuff. We left there pretty quickly. We also went to “Animate” but as soon as I saw that it looked just like in “Lucky Star” I didn’t feel the need to go in any further. We also took a look at a store with Japanese cell phones just to look around. Our final stop was “Super Potato” which I had heard about because of its retro-gaming goodness. The top floor had arcade games, and the rest of the place had tons and tons of old console game systems and games.I played a little Virtual Boy because I’ve never used one before.
But that wasn’t the end of our day yet! We then met Anna’s brother and his friends for drinks. They had already been out so we were going to their second bar which coincidentally ended up being the same Thai place that we went to the previous night! This time we had pad thai and pad siew. Also very good, but spicier than I’m used to. More good times were had, and we headed home to collapse from the very long day!
It was late, but we knew we had to get up early the next morning because we were going to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Move onto my post for day 4!
Check out my full Flickr set for Day 3. There’re a ton more photos and comments that couldn’t fit in one blog post.