Since its founding in 1985, Studio Ghibli has become one of the world’s preeminent masters of film animation. In 2001, the Museo d’Arte Ghibli, or Ghibli Museum, opened its doors in Tokyo.1 Nine years later in 2010, I finally had the opportunity to visit this magical place.
One of the recurring themes of Ghibli’s work is the relationship between humankind and nature. So it is that the museum is nested within one of greater Tokyo’s most beloved parks, Inokashira Onshi Kōen 井の頭恩賜公園. The lush parkland is particularly stunning during the springtime cherry blossom season as well as the autumnal peak of kōyō, when the maple leaves complete their transformation from green to brilliant vermillion red.
For a piece about an animation art museum, you’ll likely have noticed that there is little to no photography that accompanies this article. Photography is strictly not allowed at the museum, save for the exterior areas—including the rooftop, where a large bronze statue of the robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky stands guard.2 There is a catbus inside the museum that absolutely screams photo-op, but you’ll just have to snap that perfect shot with the camera of your mind.
If you must have photos of the museum interior, there are picture books for sale in the gift shop dedicated to the museum itself, but the intent of the policy is meant to encourage visitors to get out from behind the lens and take in the experience. “The Ghibli Museum is a portal to a storybook world.” it reads, “As the main character in a story, we ask that you experience the Museum with your own eyes and senses, instead of through a camera’s viewfinder.”
And what an experience it is! The building’s concept and design was led by Hayao Miyazaki himself; as a result, the museum contains all sorts of idiosyncratic secrets that beckon the curious visitor to explore. The museum’s styling is reminiscent of the quaint, European-inspired settings that often serve as the backdrop for Ghibli’s films. Art from frescoed ceilings to stained glass windows contain references to Studio Ghibli works, while tiny doors and hallways invite a circuitous route around the winding interior.
Included with the price of admission is one complimentary viewing in the Saturn Theater on the ground floor, where Ghibli’s short films—made exclusively for the museum—are screened. We happened to catch a screening of Chūzumō 『ちゅうずもう』(also known as “A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail”), a charming folktale about rodent sumo wrestlers and their human allies, but the films are rotated on a seasonal basis. The museum tickets themselves are precious as well—each ticket is made of 35mm film print that was actually used in theaters.
On the second floor, the permanent exhibits are set up as beautiful reconstructions of the animator’s workshop, full of precious vignettes of an artist’s busy imagination (and work schedule). Tubes of paint, pencils, and figurines sit scattered across a desk alongside paint palettes and works in progress. A stack of books about World War II aircraft sits in the corner, while model airplanes dangle from the rafters (flight being another of the recurring motifs in Studio Ghibli’s works). Walls are covered in sketches.
“The Ghibli Museum is a portal to a storybook world.”
The museum also strives to educate visitors about the art and craft of animation through its exhibits, so the workshop exhibit is set up to display the many steps of the animation process, from idea to animated film. Visitors can see concept sketches, storyboards, background matte paintings, and animation cels in incremental states of completion. The works on display as part of this exhibit are original production pieces from the actual development process, making this an especially rare treat for fans of the movies. In addition, special exhibitions are brought in on a yearly basis to enliven the museum for regular visitors.
Other types of animated works are explored in the museum’s exhibits that demonstrate the science of animation, most notable being the dazzling “Bouncing Totoro” zoetrope on the ground floor. This and the other zoetropes are illuminated by strobe lights, making the 3D figurines on the turntables spring to life. This impressive display served as the inspiration for the retrospective exhibit in honor of Pixar’s 25th anniversary. Both the Pixar and Ghibli zoetropes are mind-blowingly cool.
Just like the films that the studio has become famous for, the Ghibli Museum has a global appeal that spans young and old alike. While the rumors of Studio Ghibli’s demise remain unfounded (for now), the heart of its films—and of its wonderful museum—will continue to spirit audiences away.
How to Get There
Tickets: It’s worth going into some detail on the ticketing policy, as admission is by advance ticket purchase only. While it’s possible to buy tickets in Japan at the Lawson convenience store (or konbini コンビニ as they’re called), I wanted to secure a reservation far in advance of our trip.3 In order to buy advance tickets from abroad, the Ghibli Museum deals with designated travel agencies—namely, JTB. I took care of the ticket reservations one month prior to my arrival in Tokyo. After exchanging reservation and payment details (including shipping and handling fees) with my local JTB agency branch in San Francisco, a letter appeared in my mailbox with a paper voucher. In order to redeem your voucher for tickets, you must present both the voucher and your passport (for identification purposes) at the museum.
Make no mistake, this is a well-known attraction and it can get crowded on weekends, especially in the gift shop (“Mamma, aiuto!” indeed).
Transport: Take the JR Chūō Line from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Mitaka Station (about 20 minutes). Exit through the South Entrance (Minami-guchi 南口), turn left and walk down the stairs from the station to bus/taxi pickup area (not the walkway that crosses over the street) to wait for the shuttle bus at Stop #9. Use the ticket vending machine to pre-pay for the shuttle fare. A yellow bus comes by at least every 10 minutes during opening hours (pro tip/reality check: it doesn’t look like this). It’s also possible to walk from the station to the museum by following the road along the Tamagawa waterway.
Assuming that the weather is pleasant, it’s frequently recommended that you buy a one-way ticket for the shuttle bus and take that to the museum, then make your return by strolling through Inokashira Park to the funky neighborhood of Kichijōji. Explore Kichijōji’s many shōtengai (traditional shopping arcades) before jumping on to the JR train at Kichijōji Station back to central Tokyo.
Where to Stay
We actually stayed quite far from Mitaka (or even Shinjuku) during this trip, opting to stay near Tsukiji Market at the Park Hotel Tokyo. This small boutique hotel is not to be confused with the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the Nishi-Shinjuku hotel best known for its role in the film Lost in Translation. If you’re staying at the Park Hotel Tokyo, I recommend a room with a view of Tokyo Tower.
Where to Eat
There are a number of small eateries at the museum. We happened to have packed a picnic lunch cobbled together from things at the convenience store, but treated ourselves to ice cream at the museum nonetheless. As the museum’s café can be crowded during busier times, it’s also worth looking for something to eat in Kichijōji (map here) or elsewhere on the JR Chūō Line.