Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Japan '08: Ghibli Museum

Studio Ghibli, of Totoro, Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke fame, operates a small museum on the outskirts of Tokyo, on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka. The Ghibli Bijutsukan isn't a traditional museum so much as an attempt to recreate the ambiance of a Hayao Miyazaki film in three dimensions: the interior space is all dark wood, brass, wrought iron and rough stone; there are alcoves and stairs of doubtful utility everywhere and a lingering smell of cedar in the air. The grounds and even the roof the museum (where the Laputa robot in the photo lives) are landscaped with a chaotic half-wild mix of ferns, grass and trees. The closest thing to an ordinary museum exhibit is probably a studio mock-up, where you are permitted to leaf through original pencil storyboards (my group spent a good 20 minutes very carefully poring over Miyazaki's latest, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea). A visit to the Museum is, I suspect, a bit like spending a short vacation inside of Miyazaki's brain.

It's easy to find the Museum from Mitaka Station: just head out of the south exit, and follow the path along the stream angling off to the left, to the park. Or you can just look for the Totoro-themed bus (round trip tickets, purchased from a vending machine at the bus stop, are 300 yen).

Access to the Ghibli Museum is limited to a set number of ticket holders per day, and it tends to sell out well in advance. It's easiest and safest for American visitors to arrange for tickets through JTB before leaving the States. I used JTB for plane tickets and rail passes as well, by the way, and have nothing but good things to say about them; their airfares were cheaper than anything I could find through the usual online sources.

There's a fake ticket booth off to the side of the real entrance to the museum, staffed by Big Totoro. We visited on a national holiday, so the usual Connecticut schlemiels were joined by native guides R.-san and S.-chan, who had the day off.

Photographs aren't allowed inside of the Ghibli Museum, so my visual documentation is limited to the outdoor exhibits. Inside, we saw a film, Whale Hunt, which is one of a series of shorts only available for viewing at the museum. The film rotates every month, and R-san says that she returned in December to see the Totoro spinoff, Mei and the Kitten Bus. Whale Hunt was excellent, but I'm still jealous. Also inside the museum was a room full of animation-related displays and contraptions, the most impressive of which was a bunch of 3-D model tableaus involving Totoros on a table, which created a little looping animation when spun.

Here's me at the stone control panel on the roof. Presumably, only Miyazaki himself knows the incantation that causes the museum to self-destruct. I couldn't even figure out how to make the cafe give me a free beer.

Here we are at the deck outside of the museum eatery, the Straw Hat Cafe. There is a sit-down area inside, but it was totally jammed, so we ordered from the takeout window and ate outside. The menu has sort of a picnic theme, with a limited selection of sandwiches available. The cafe's exclusive brew, Kaze no Tani (Valley of the Wind) Beer, is good stuff, a bit meatier than the usual from Kirin/Sapporo/Asahi.

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