PART 3: Studio Ghibli

The gates to the Musee d'art Ghibli

The next morning I once again found myself waking from a deep slumber (though brief) in Merrick's apartment. It was Thursday, February 25th and it was a very important day. It was the day I ventured out on my own to not only the Ghibli Museum, but Studio Ghibli itself.

This was, as is most often the case, easier said then done. Before I left for Tokyo it hadn't occurred to me that the museum would operate any different then the California Science Center, or LACMA, or any museum to speak of. That is to say, you show up, pay the entrance fee, and walk in. This is not so with the Ghibli Museum (hereafter referred to as GM). The GM is effectively an entrance by appointment type of place, and as Merrick informed me before I left, tickets were often sold out at least 3 weeks in advance. To make matters worse, looking up how to buy tickets through the GM's website was (even in English) almost impossible and more complicated then it should have been. All in all this left me extremely disheartened. Going to Ghibli was effectively my number one priority in Japan and more then that, a dream I've had for a very long long time. So, before I left for Korea, on a whim I googled, "Ghibli Museum tickets" and a website called "govoyagin" popped up...and sure enough tickets to the GM were ready and available. How this is possible I could only guess but I found the whole outfit to be extremely shady. The entrance fee to get into the GM was a mere 1000 yen, and GoVoyagin was asking for 6000. 60 bucks basically. The shadiness of the site nor the padded price tag could keep me from trying, and I very quickly and easily purchased a ticket for the Thursday, 1:30pm tour.

The way this worked by my conjecture alone, is someone must purchase the tickets in advance, and then sell them through GoVoyagin at an inflated cost. I didn't care one way or the other, I just wanted my ticket and that was that. I was instructed to come to their office in Shibuya on the 7th floor. Thus began my first and only major solitary outing in Tokyo. 

Being with your best buddies anywhere is very exciting and fills you with a confidence you don't generally have on your own, especially on an adventure. Conversely being alone in a similar situation can have the opposite effect. And though my first steps out the door, through the alley, down the secret staircase, under the bridge, past the super market, and into Yoyogi station were not filled with anxious thoughts, I found myself shrinking in size when I got to Shibuya. The sheer number of people alone was intimidating enough, combined with the monolithic buildings towering overhead, and jumbo screen advertisements blasting full motion videos of Tommy Lee Jones drinking coffee from a can, I just began to doubt myself a little. 

[Yes indeed, Tommy Lee Jones is for some reason or another the mascot for BOSS iced coffee in Nippon!]

My life line was Google maps, without which, I would've never been able to navigate the trains and streets of Tokyo. According to Google, GoVoyagin's office was a mere 4 or 5 blocks away from Shibuya station, but even with the digital satellite perfection of GPS,  it didn't stop me from taking an elevator 7 floors up to a closet sized hallway leading to a solitary door (in the wrong building - but I obviously had no idea quite yet). In a very confused fashion I rang the doorbell not having any idea what to expect. No response. I rang it again and heard some muffled speech accompanied by a shuffling sound coming closer and closer to the door. As the door opens I saw a very elderly woman appear and my confusion gave way to panic. There I was, a bumbling gringo, attempting to ask a woman old enough to be my grandmother where the heck I am, and as she speaks to me very politely (in Japanese) I can see at her feet a great number of slippers on the floor, and behind her a closet, and beyond that, the door to what looked like a kitchen, and I realized I was most definitely not at the place of anyone's business, but rather this little old lady's private home. Suddenly my gaijin-gringo-extraordinaire-status reached code red, and I went flush with such a severe embarrassment, I hurriedly (though as politely as I could) ended the conversation. Bowing and chanting "arigato gozaimasu" I left her there, and felt like a class A dumb-dumb all the way down the elevator. 

Back on the sidewalk I regained my bearings and made my way through a corridor into the back of a building I hoped was the correct one. Along the way I passed a small curry restaurant which looked and smelled maximum OISHII (delicious)...but I pressed onward, determined to find my Ghibli tickets! I discovered an elevator in the back, but it was cordoned off by caution tape and so I quickly ascended the 7 flights of stairs on foot. I was very pleased to see the numbers on the doors were similar to the address they provided me and soon I found myself in front of their door. RELIEF. I rang the bell and a young woman my age answered. She instinctively seemed to know who I was and why I had come, asking only my name. She then procured for me an envelope and from it she withdrew my ticket to the museum. My eyes widened like Charlie's must have, gazing upon the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory for the first time. I thanked her, and headed back out into the chilled Tokyo air. 

I took the elevator this time as it wasn't cordoned off on any other floor other then the first, I found myself having a brief discussion in English with a man who had spent some years in San anecdote he seemed very proud of. I bid him farewell as we arrived on the first floor, and passing once again by the curry restaurant proved too difficult a task. I could see through the window a MASSIVE vat of curry being stirred constantly by a mechanical apparatus and I had to have it. I walked in to find a waitress in a huff setting tables and when I asked if they were open or not she coldly responded in a percussive rasp, "we're not open until 11!" Which was an hour away. I considered staying, I certainly had the time, but I wanted to get to Mitaka as soon as I possibly could. So I went onward, putting a curry feather in my cap for later. Lunch was only a few hours away and this is Tokyo, how far could a curry house be?

I walked back to Shibuya station and boarded the train for Mitaka, a good 20 minutes or so away. I was instructed by several veterans of the museum that you needn't change trains at all. Get on in Shibuya, and get off in Mitaka...simple! So I took a load off and relaxed. All I had to do was chill until the last stop. It was quite a beautiful sight (not unlike the voyage to Kamakura) watching the big city fade away into much smaller, much simpler buildings and homes.  The ride was very pleasant as the car was nearly empty the whole way there, I may have even dosed off a little. 

At some point the train stopped at some station or another, and thinking the train went straight on to Mitaka I sat patiently and waited for it to press onward. But it didn't. After a brief spell it occurred to me this was an unusual length of time to wait. Furthermore, the few people who were with me in the car had left the train completely. The last person on the way out told me several times as he was passing by, "last stop, last stop!" But as I've trained myself to ignore strangers in LA it didn't quite sink in for about a minute, when suddenly my feet stood me up and started walking me out of the car without my express permission. No sooner had I left the car, did it lurch into motion and start heading back towards Tokyo. The same guy who told me it was the last stop must have seen the puzzled look on my face and he very courteously and in perfect English began asking me about my journey. I explained why I was there and as it turned out, he was going to Mitaka as well, so he showed me the ropes and we sat next to each other on the next train which arrived across the platform a good 10 minutes later. 

The view from some station or another...

We had a few stops to discuss things and it turns out he was in advertising of some nature. The second former resident of SF I had met that day as well. We discussed Japan, the US, and Miyazaki, and before I knew it we pulled into Mitaka station. I don't remember much about the station, but rather the kindness this man had showed me. Determined to see me to my destination he walked me down to the shuttles to Ghibli museum. They costed a few hundred yen, and since I had no cash I politely said I was planning on walking anyways. I had several hours to kill besides. At that point we introduced ourselves (though I've forgotten his name sadly), I thanked him for his kindness, and we parted ways. 

Away I went with Google maps as my guide through the narrow sleepy streets of Mitaka. The city so reminded me of some small port town in Washington like Anacortes or Orcas Island, despite not being a port town at all. Nevertheless, it had a Pacific Northwest vibe. The walk was just a few miles, and I found it very enjoyable in the chilly but sunny weather. Finally I came to Inokashira park, in which the Ghibli Museum lived. Rounding the corner, the museum came into view, and not quite believing what I was seeing, nor the idea that I was actually there, I walked past it, and decided that before I could truly soak it in, I needed a snack. So I popped into coffee shop across the street and ordered a "sandwhich", a pastry, and a coffee. Something to hold me over until I had gone through the museum. 

Vaguely Miyazaki-esque city banners

Before I get to the museum itself I think it would be best for those of you who don't know, to explain briefly who Miyazaki is and what his work means to me. Hayao Miyazaki is an animator, film maker, and founder of Studio Ghibli. The first film I saw of his was in 1998 or 99, called Princess Mononoke. It came to the little independent theatre in Bellingham and was scheduled to run for one week...I saw it 7 times, in as many days. And my life was never really the same after that. Miyazaki's work captures something so beautiful and essential about life and the world we live in, he is an absolute genius and one of my greatest heroes, right up there with Freddie, Bowie, Jackie and Bjork.

And now the museum:  

You will notice none of the pictures are from inside the building, and like most places in Japan, photography was not allowed. I was so disheartened by this but upon entering the museum it made perfect sense. There is WAY too much to see and absorb. The whole museum feels like a set from Hogwarts or Bag End (Lord of the Rings), so many details, and so much care and craft poured into every one of those details, to photograph it all would've taken hours and hours. That said I did buy the souvenir book, which doesn't capture the magic in the same way, but I will share some pictures from there to give you an idea. The entrance is through a very large door, with stained glass windows featuring a variety of Ghibli characters, and two Totoro cherubs beckoning you inside. The foyer was modest with a welcome desk, and more stained glass windows, which I confess I didn't really pay much attention to. I wanted to get into the museum proper so much I didn't stop to smell the roses there. 

The first thing you receive upon entering is a welcome packet, and a movie ticket. This was without a doubt the most exciting thing about the experience, to witness a new film by Miyazaki.

My movie ticket...I'm not sure what film the frames are from, but they are real!

As much as I don't like to admit it to myself, Miyazaki has retired from feature length films, and the future of Studio Ghibli is uncertain. That said, he is still making short films for the museum. That is to say, they can only be seen at the museum, and no where else in the world. No DVDs or Blu Ray have to be there to experience them. Equally frustrating is only one is playing at any given time! I don't have information on all the films, but one of them is even the sequel to Totoro called Mei and the Kitten Bus. It's the story of Cat Bus' very small kitten storming into Mei's house at night when everyone is asleep and spiriting her away on a grand adventure to where all the Cat Busses live. My heart broke when it wasn't playing, but my movie was still amazing all the same. 

Mei is the littlest sister from the original Totoro...the original Cat Bus was big enough to fit many full sized Totoros!

Mei is the littlest sister from the original Totoro...the original Cat Bus was big enough to fit many full sized Totoros!

The film was called Pan Dane to Tamago Hime - (Pan DA-NAY toe Tamago HE-MAY) aka Mr Dough and Egg Princess. It was a beautiful little story about a witch, whilst making a rather large omelette for herself, cannot crack one of the eggs, so she either wills it to life with magic or the egg was alive to begin with and makes the little Egg Princess her slave. One night as the moon was shining brightly through the window onto a vat of dough, Tamago Hime somehow either grants this vat of dough consciousness through magic of her own or through some other twist of fate, and the two run off together, escaping the witch. Hijinks ensue and they both live happily ever after! It was a beautiful story and a beautiful film. 

Poor little Tamago Hime, eating her dinner all alone. The vat of dough comes to life in this scene and they rescue each other from the awful witch!

Just as beautiful as the film itself was the cinema in which it was shown. It was very small, but had the same grandiose design as any of the finest theaters I've been to in LA. More amazing than that, was the projector itself. The projector was like something out of Cinema Paradiso. It was an all analogue, FILM projector, with reels upon reels spooling film in all sorts of directions. Up, down, sideways, diagonally. It looked like miles and miles of film. I am unaware if this is necessary for this particular projector, or if it was for aesthetics alone, but the projector room was possibly the coolest part of the museum. The technicians inside looked like they were nurses in the quarantine ward, with blue scrubs and gloves. The projector itself looked like it was made out of a series of oddly shaped vintage refrigerators, all stacked on top of one another in a variety of strange ways. The walls were signed by every famous animator on the planet. Nick Park, and the other guys from Aardman animation, and John Lassiter's signatures were amongst the more recognizable ones. A truly magical room.  

It is difficult to see the inner workings of the projector in this picture!

After that it was time to dig into the museum itself, which felt more like an eccentric wizard's castle then a museum. The main permanent exhibit room was full of zoetropes galore, in a variety of styles, and in this room I saw some of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Walking in the first thing you'd see is this:

What you can't see is these birds were all animated and flying upwards whilst circling around this robot (whom you might recognize as the robot from Castle in the Sky). The robot itself was also slowly turning creating an absolutely mesmerizing display. What is also impossible to see is the shades of blue in person were so exotic, I'm not sure I had ever seen blues quite like that. It was so beautiful I must have stared at it for 5 minutes. I wish I could have gotten a video of this. 

The room was filled of examples of primitive styles of animation and cel art in a sort of historical order. Beginning with physical models, light boxes, wood carvings set to motion with mechanical gears, and zoetropes. Walking along the periphery I noticed lots of little things to look at that were so low to the ground, an adult would have to get on their hands and knees to see it. Another reminder for whom the museum is genuinely intended. 

In the middle of the room was something truly awe inspiring:

Upon first inspection you'd see a series of very similar models sitting motionless...but this whole apparatus started spinning at such a speed, all these wonderful little characters just became a blur of color, until a strobe light came on, and in the sudden bursts of light they all came to life. Totoro started bouncing, Mei started jump roping, the little Totoros at the bass began running into the tree, Cat Bus was running through the air! It was a real time display of stop motion animation, and I'm not sure anything exists like it anywhere else in the world. 

Needless to say the rest of the museum was amazing, in particular, half of the second floor was modeled after what I can only imagine as an animator's/artist's workshop, but in order of the phases of animation. The beginning of the exhibit was sketches, raw paper sketches plastered from floor to ceiling. These were Miyazaki originals and if they weren't authentic sketches from the past, they were authentic sketches from the present. There were sketches from every single Ghibli film in this portion of the exhibit but the one that stood out most was the Kiki's delivery service sketches. They caught my eye immediately because unlike the rest of the sketches which were scenes from the films as we know them, these sketches took place AFTER the events of the movie. It was Kiki as a young adult. So elements of the "sequel" to Kiki's delivery service were just hanging on the walls. I kept my eyes peeled for other such clues into the future of other Miyazaki characters but found none. 

The animator's "workshop" - pretty cozy! 

From there it went on to background and landscape paintings, story boarding - which was very interesting because they had whole binders with the complete story boards available for perusal. Then they had a section showing the process of matting and compositing the artwork together (for lack of a better term). Beautiful finished cels were hanging up on the walls, each of them priceless, and like everything in the museum, completely exposed. No security, no glass cases (for the most part) - you could reach out and touch whatever you wanted...and yet, you don't. It was all so...not sacred...familiar. It felt like your own cozy bedroom. 

Other areas of note were the giant cat bus on the top floor...not for adults, but about a dozen children could be seen playing inside, around, and on top of him. Wish I could've gotten a picture of that too. Down the hall from Cat Bus was the "reading room" - which was part mini-gift shop and part library. It was too crowded to do much other then just get buoyed around in the tide but I could clearly see the books were hand picked by Miyazaki as either having inspired him and his films in some way, or just being recommended reading. There was a lot to chew on in this room, and I couldn't even get through the tip of the iceberg. But it was very Miyazaki. 

The reading room. This photo is from 2002ish and by the time I got there there was about a million books in here. Very overwhelming. 

I wish I could show you and tell you more, but to do so would truly be too much. The museum was worth the entire trip, and having been there, I can check it off my bucket list. That said, a new item has appeared on my bucket list, and that is to return again to the Ghibli museum. So it balances it out. 

I didn't want to leave but I had a new mission to attend to...I was going to go to see Studio Ghibli!

But first...LUNCH. I was starving and I could still see and smell the vat of swirling curry from earlier that morning, so I Googled "Mitaka Curry" and went to the highest rated, and closest curry joint on the map. I walked through the park away from the museum and saw many fun things en route to curry. 

A small zoo, the bike sign says SU-PII-DO and then some red Kanji meaning SLOW DOWN no doubt. A memorial for a famous pianist, and a temple in the middle of a stream...though the stream was drained for construction. I deliberately angled the camera to avoid all the construction equipment. Lastly, a very typical Japanese alleyway along with some uber rare graffiti. So sad about the lack of graffiti in Japan but it makes perfect sense. 

Walking through downtown Mitaka was very familiar, it was just a miniaturized version of Shibuya. Lots of shopping. Finally, as my stomach was growling wildly and the pangs of hunger were beginning to cripple me, I found my curry destination. When I got there, I could see through the glass door the joint was empty, and I thought maybe they were closed. I pushed on the door and groaned a heavy groan as it did not open. But Google told me they were open for business! So I re-approached the door and this time slid it to the side, and this time it opened for me. At last I was going to get my curry lunch! I sat down and a woman in a somewhat brusk fashion brought me a menu. Scanning the place I realized it was very funky-dunky (as my mother would say). It was funky-dunky on a Daikokuya in little Tokyo in LA level. Layers of dust caked on a plethora of figurines and book shelves, thing-a-ma-bobs galore and so on. Observing this I realized it could only mean one thing. 


This wouldn't have been a problem if I wasn't completely out of cash. To specify, I never had cash to begin with. Yes that's right, I went to a foreign country with no cash. I assumed (incorrectly) that Japan being a first world nation much like my own, plastic would be the payment method of choice. WRONG. Only big corporate stores accepted cards, and nearly every place I went to opted in favor of cash. The Japanese still use coins as well. They have pennies, nickels, dimes, dollars, and 5 dollar coins. The lowest bill they make is 10 dollars! I started freaking because I was in a foreign country with no money. I ask the woman where the nearest ATM is and she points me in the right direction, and with my stomach eating away at itself I ventured back out into the cold, found the ATM card was unreadable. I went to another card was unreadable. Now I was really screwed. But I knew it was a worthless endeavor to panic so I reached in my pocket and counted my change. I had approximately 14 dollars and assumed (correctly) I could put some yum yum in my tum tum for that amount, and I would solve the rest of the problem on a full stomach. 

I returned to the restaurant, and the woman, still brusk, came to take my order. I asked what the house specialty was and she said it's the veggie curry and so I went with that. This was another example of eating food in Japan and me thinking, "it's alright," then coming home, eating my usual curry and crying into it. You never know what you've got until its gone...or so they say. After I finished I downloaded skype, spent 5 bucks to get some call time and dialed up my bank. My card is fine, its the ATMs that aren't working. So indeed, I was up poo poo creek. Whether or not I had a paddle remained to be seen. 

Nevertheless, I was stalwart on my mission to go to Studio Ghibli. I had very little daylight left and I resolved that I had come so far, there was no turning back. I had plenty on my Suica card anyways, I was in no danger of at least making it back to Merrick's. So I hot-footed it to the densha, and up a few stops, and found myself in the sleepy neighborhood of Koganei. 

And sleepy it was. Google kept me on track, and at a very leisurely pace, I winded my way through little side streets, with middle class homes, the occasional cyclist, baby wouldn't assume (from an Angeleno perspective) that one of the world's most prolific film studios was nestled in here. 

And then...there it was. 

Studio Ghibli

I recognized it immediately having seen the documentary film, "Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" - a rather dramatic title for an otherwise simple story: how Miyazaki gets it done. This is the view from the side street. And here is the front:

You may have noticed the time difference between the two is just before sunset, and the other just after. The reason being, was while I was just standing outside, breathing the same air that MIyazaki does everyday, a woman came out of the studio and noticed me. I was standing across the street about to take this picture, and while she was collecting the mail she sort of connected with me somehow, and I sheepishly ushered her onward. She then connected with me a second time, perhaps she even spoke to me and I still persisted in denying her attention. And at last on the third and final time on her way back to the door, she stopped and looked at me, and I gave up trying to be polite and we walked towards each other. 

She had a very positive air about her, which put me at ease almost immediately and we began discussing my situation, and how I had come to be there. It turned out she worked in human resources. Mercifully she spoke pretty good English and I told her pretty much everything. About seeing Princess Mononoke in theaters seven times, about my pilgrimage to the studio, and my time at the museum. I then asked her about Miyazaki-san's retirement and if it was legit or not. She assured me he still continues to work on the short films for the museum - which doesn't do me much good - and that Studio Ghibli is still going strong. She then told me something which in retrospect I would've much rather not have known at all.

She said, "you know, MIyazaki-san is in the building right now, working on his next movie for the museum..." I was hoping the next thing she was going to say was, would you like to meet him, but instead I got this, "...if you go around the corner there is a log cabin-like building. That's his private office you might be able to see him there."

These words sort of broke me into several large and coarse pieces. To begin with, I never assumed he would be there, I also never had the intention of doing anything aside from standing outside. But this woman had just informed me that my greatest of heroes is somewhere within my own vicinity. It was now physically possible to actually meet the man himself. And that was where she left me. I gratefully bid her farewell and I let her go without asking the fateful question...

"may I meet Miyazaki-san?"

At that point I was so full of tumult and torment, I had no idea what to do. The sun had set, nighttime was settling in, and I just stood there dumbfounded for probably 45 minutes at the least. A. to simply remain there as long as I possibly could, and B. to play out in my imagination how this could all go down, and whether or not I could, should, or would've attempted to meet Hayao Miyazaki. Several people came in and out of the studio and a few of them even greeted me cheerfully on the way out as if they had already known all about the white boy loitering out front. No doubt my friend in HR was telling them everything. 

For those of you wondering if I gathered myself, walked into Studio Ghibli right through the front door, went straight to HR and asked humbly though with force and dignity if I might meet Hayao Miyazaki...I did not. And I did not for several reasons. The first of which was, I thought it would be a somewhat disrespectful thing to do, especially in Japan. I also found myself thinking if I were Miyazaki-san, would I want some strange gringo invading my privacy, and my work day? Furthermore, what would I say? If I didn't break down into a violent fit of tears, what could I possibly tell my hero that he wouldn't know already? How would that change anything at all? I have read all his books, seen all his movies, and without having met the man, I do believe I understand him and his mind. I know for a fact he would wonder why I had watched all his movies so many times instead of going out into nature and enjoying myself there. There is a quote of him saying he doesn't understand why people watch his movies more then once or twice! 

I think with all that swirling around in my head, I resolved not to attempt to meet him. Ultimately it wouldn't change anything, and I would risk inconveniencing one of my greatest heroes, or worse. The point was to come to this place, and stand outside, and feel the goosebumps on my skin, and breath the same air as the people who've created my favorite films. And I did just that. Mission accomplished.  I took one last breath of Studio Ghibli air, bade farewell, and began my journey home to Yoyogi. I know I will come back again someday soon. Perhaps I will meet Miyazaki-san then. 


To be continued in part 4!