Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Japan - Studio Ghibli Museum

My wife and I are big Hayao Miyazaki fans - pretty much all Japanese people are, and he's definitely gained popularity in the United States over the past few years too. So we had the Studio Ghibli museum on our itinerary pretty much from day one, though we waited until the last day to make the trip. It's not easy to get tickets, so we had to pretty much take what we could get.

The Studio Ghibli museum is not like any other museum, in that you can't just walk in and pay and be on your way to browsing. You need to buy tickets in advance, and as near as I can tell, there is only one way for individuals to do that: purchase over the phone, pick up at a Lawson's convenience store. Tickets normally sell out well ahead too, so if you're going to go, you'd better decide early. I'm talking months in advance, although there are probably times of the year (the middle of the schoolyear on a weekday non-holiday, for example) that might be less busy.

We actually went through the process as a normal Japanese person would, which is not something most non-Japanese speaking westerners are going to be able to do by themselves. There are really no provisions for helping foreigners through the process. For example, here's a scan of the instructions telling you how it all works:

Got it? Yeah, me neither.

I understand that some travel agents and tour groups can arrange tickets as well, so definitely talk to yours if you want to go. If you're traveling to Japan on your own, though, good luck. Maybe you can scalp off someone.

Here's an official ticket from Lawson's (the museum gives you a souvenir ticket when you get there, which I'll scan soon):

The museum itself is pretty small, which is why they can (and need to) make it such a production to get tickets for specific times and dates. It's located in Mitaka, which is a quiet suburb just outside Tokyo - about 20 minutes from Shinjuku on the Chuo line. We were a little worried about making it there on time - if you're a minute late, you're locked out. But this is Japan, where the trains (generally) run on time down to the second, so we got there with time to spare. From the train station, there's a little shuttle bus that runs the mile or so to the museum - and I point out the size of the bus because it was too short for me to even stand! These buses are pretty crowded, so seating is at a premium - and at 6'4", I was forced to hunch down lest my head smash against the ceiling over bumps.

Here's the little-bus ticket:

Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the museum - but you can buy a museum program in English or Japanese at the information desk that includes a lot of interior shots. I'll be scanning that along with some other stuff after I've written up my remaining posts, so check back for that. (I'll also be adding some of those scans to this post.)

I did take a lot of exterior shots, though there are only so many angles of this building that you can get:

Every inch of this place is crammed full of Ghibli-esque details:

The museum interior is designed to be like one of the buildings or houses you'd expect to see in a Miyazaki film. There is no set path to guide you, and in fact signs invite you to explore on your own and get "lost". It's pretty hard to do so, and despite the "whimsical" design of the building, there's definitely an implied path that most visitors seem to follow.

Check out the information brochure if you want some of the official details (PDF):

Entering the building, you're immediately drawn to the first room on the right - a sort of retrospective on animation in general with exhibits showing how the illusion works. There's actually some cool stuff here, from regular old rotoscopes to a large rotating sculpture display lit by a strobe that makes it look as if the figures are animated. I'm a film school graduate so I know about all of the concepts on display here, but the exhibits themselves are done in that signature Ghibli style, and the sheer size of the strobe display - with a lot going on inside - makes it really fun to watch.

The only other major area on the first floor is a theater, which we saved for later. On the second floor are a series of rooms jam-packed with original Miyazaki artwork - from character sketches to airship designs to storyboards - all designed to look like rooms he would have worked in. (I'm not clear on whether they're modeled on actual rooms he did work in - the signs simply call them "an animator's room"). They're also crammed with books that he's apparently taken inspiration from - again, the overall cluttered, nostalgic effect looking a lot like a character's room you might see in a film like Porco Rosso.

The second floor also houses two shops - one where you can buy some of these books, and the second for general Studio Ghibli merchandise. We had planned on buying a ton of stuff here, but it's pretty shockingly expensive - so we didn't. We did buy a few little trinkets and souvenirs both for ourselves and as gifts, but the overall haul was a little disappointing.

I'm writing this from memory and clearly, based on my photos, my memory is already becoming muddled as to what's on the second and what's on the third floor. But go upstairs from the top floor and you'll end up on the roof - a big garden with a statue of the robot in Laputa. Unfortunately, we did not realize this until it was too late and we had left the museum!

We did go to the theater downstairs, though, which I initially was hesitant to do. When you first go inside the museum, they give you a little souvenir ticket made from a print of one of Ghibli's films. I had read elsewhere that when you go to the theater, they take your ticket - that's how they keep it to one visit per customer. (Quick tip: don't believe everything you read on the internet.) My wife asked one of the staffers about this, and she explained that they simply stamp it instead - so we not only got to keep our tickets, but now we have proof that we saw a Ghibli film that's unavailable for viewing anywhere but at the Ghibli museum.

The film they were showing this time was a new short film continuing the story from My Neighbor Totoro - still at least among the most popular of Miyazaki's films in Japan. It focused on Mei and and her meeting with the grandfather of the "cat bus" from the original film - though this time, it became apparent that there's not only one cat bus but many, and in fact cat trains, cat airplanes and more. It actually was slightly disturbing, as some of these cat vehicles more resembled centipedes - with thousands of legs - than cats.

It's always amazing to me how quiet and well-behaved Japanese kids are in these types of situations. There was some crying and yelling while we were all waiting to get inside, but once everybody sat down, there wasn't a peep out of anyone until the show was over. This is the same experience I had seeing Spirited Away in Japan on its release - I'm not sure exactly why it is, but the behavior of even the youngest Japanese kids is almost ridiculously polite. (The Japanese themselves don't necessarily agree - I know this first-hand. But most of them don't have experience with western kids - and especially not New York City kids! - for comparison.)

After the film, we walked around a bit more outside, where there's some faux-European landscaping typical of the nostalgic look of Miyazaki's films, along with a cafe/snack bar (partially indoors, partially out).

The snack bar was again overpriced, and anyway this was our MOS Burger day so we left it alone. Feeling we'd exhausted all the museum had to offer, we left - only to immediately realize we'd missed the rooftop garden. Oh well.

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting from this museum, so I can't say if my expectations were fulfilled or not. Certainly, if I'd gone to a Disney museum in the United States, I'd have expected something a lot bigger and with a lot more flash. But despite Miyazaki often being called Japan's Walt Disney, there's a big difference between Miyazaki the man and Disney the company as it currently exists. The Studio Ghibli museum seems to be a reflection of Miyazaki the man and his work, and in that, I think his personality and style are probably captured pretty accurately.

And as with anything else on any vacation, it always ends up being a matter of whether or not we're happy we went, and we definitely were.


  1. Anonymous11:11 PM

    I liked the Ghibli Musuem, but we went on a weekend and it was crowded!
    We didn't even get a chance to eat at the cafe because the waiting tmes were so long.
    There was a huge line to get to the gift shop too.

    Too bad only kids can play on the cat bus...

  2. Oh, I think it's probably always about equally crowded. I mean when we went, which I think was on a weekday, our time was sold out. So we didn't eat at the cafe either. But it's probably better at certain times of the year - though who knows when, because we went in October! I don't really know when the "off time" would be.

  3. Anonymous4:11 AM

    Enjoyed reading about your visit! Since your post was written 2 years ago, I just wanted to update that the museum now makes it easier for non-Japanese visitors to acquire tickets. The museum's website (in English) points to a specific travel agency that can provide foreign visitor tickets. These specific tickets are valid the whole day - not limited to a specific time.
    Just went this spring... very enjoyable, much of the same experience you described. :)


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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