This three-part series about anime-based tourism is a collaborative effort between Artemis of Otaku Lounge and Buri-chan of San’in Monogatari. Artemis currently resides in Ehime Prefecture and since she likes to travel a lot, often discovers that she makes anime pilgrimages entirely by accident. She mostly writes about anime, with the occasional foray into Japanese music, street fashion, and general culture. Buri-chan originally became interested in Japan by watching the Odaiba episodes of Digimon Adventure, and already made that pilgrimage long ago. She currently resides in Shimane Prefecture and writes about Japan’s San’in region, including writing manga to introduce local Kojiki mythology.
You don’t have to be a hardcore anime fan to be a fan of Studio Ghibli’s works—you don’t have to be an anime fan at all to be fan, as mainstream acceptance of them in the Western movie culture would suggest. Hayao Miyazaki is well known and respected throughout the world, even among people with little knowledge of Japanese culture. Still, Studio Ghibli films are among some of the first works mentioned whenever fans might start discussing great works of anime.
Like Kyoto Animation’s works discussed in the previous entry, the rich settings are one of their major strengths. Anyone who watches My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) comes away with an impression of the pace of life in rural Japan and maybe even a craving for sunshine and fresh vegetables. In this entry, we will focus on a couple of settings that are fantasy worlds set apart from normal Japan, but directly inspired by real settings in the depths of rural Japan.
Shimane Prefecture is the least populated prefecture, second only to its lesser populated neighbour Tottori, which often beats it out as a rural setting in various anime, manga, and video games. Shimane often jokingly boasts of being the 47th most popular prefecture, but Shimane is known for being the setting for a large portion of Japan’s Shinto mythology, as well as for hosting the myriads of Shinto gods from around Japan for their meeting every October. The prefecture is also proud to have connections to the 1997 film Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime). Besides the storytelling and lively animation of the humans and beasts, again, the setting is part of what sticks with viewers years after they seen it. Hence, Shimane would love to have you come see the real thing. Yes, you can find enchanting forests with amazing trees on the Oki Islands, and wild boars that occasionally charge through the Chugoku Mountain Range towns! However, no, Shimane does not have that forest. Instead, Yakushima Island, off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture, gets to boast of the World Heritage site that inspired the forest in the film.
Shimane, however, does have one of the strongest histories of ironwork throughout Japan, and Okuizumo-cho, with a population of 16,484, continues to keep this tradition alive with monthly sword-forging displays open to the public. The culture of iron working stretches to the surrounding towns and industries of Unnan and Yasugi with a number of museums dedicated to the topic.
Although Princess Mononoke is set somewhere between the 14th -16th centuries, there has been a wealth of information about the region’s ironwork myths and Tatara methods since the 8th century. As seen the film, the iron was melted with the help of foot bellows. Ironically, as the goddess of Tatara was known to be quite jealous thus women were not allowed anywhere near the iron-working workshops, whereas in the film the women are the industrious ones working the foot bellows. This may have prompted the comment in the film that they “defile the iron.”
Many locals have found other associations between the film and the local culture as well, pointing about everything from how Ashitaka’s name sounds like it was derived from local geography to how the clouds by the mountain are animated to looked like Izumo clouds about 1 hour and 30 minutes or so into the film when Ashitaka and his red elk jump over a group of samurai. Perhaps working the foot bellows of a welding workshop does not have the same appeal at stomping through a forest supposed filled with little white forest spirits, but nonetheless, it remains an option.
While Shimane occupies one of Japan’s least-populated prefectures, it’s arguably more accessible for many would-be visitors, as the majority of the country’s population lives on Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four main islands. In contrast, the island of Shikoku is both the smallest in terms of land mass and also the least populated. Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture and Shikoku’s largest city, would probably still be considered fairly rural by Japanese standards; it’s best-known for being the (then-backwater) setting in Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan, its castle, and its hot springs – one hot spring in particular.
Dogo Onsen, the oldest hot spring bathhouse in Japan, is said to have a 3000-year old history, and attracts a large number of visitors from all over Japan. Situated in the heart of Matsuyama, the present main building was erected in 1894 and is built on three levels, lending it an appearance more akin to a castle than a public bathhouse. On the east side of the building is Yushinden, a section exclusive to the Imperial Family, which guests can pay extra to tour. A watchtower with red glass windows is perched on the roof, with a time-telling drum that’s beaten three times daily. Outside, the Dogo Shopping Arcade is full of souvenir shops and restaurants, but largely avoids any big-city feel thanks to its very active team of rickshaws and the numerous onsen guests wandering the streets dressed in their after-bath yukata.
The onsen also happens to be known as the inspiration for the bathhouse of the gods in Studio Ghibli’s 2001 film Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Viewed at night, it’s easy to see a resemblance; Dogo isn’t large, but lit up by the surrounding street lamps, it does have a certain mysterious atmosphere to it, while the inside is far more sprawling and expansive than one might think.
Oddly enough however, there’s very little outward sign of Dogo’s relationship with the well-known anime studio. Miyazaki Hayao is a household name in Japan, and in a country where labelling oneself as an otaku might not be the wisest move, it’s still totally okay to be outed as a Ghibli fan. Miyazaki’s practically a national treasure after all, and Spirited Away is still one of his most popular and critically acclaimed works.
Yet aside from a smallish Ghibli store located nearby in the shopping arcade, with a giant Totoro plushie sitting on the bench outside, a visitor would likely never make the connection at all; you won’t see any cosplayers, themed cafes, or art displays here. As Ghibli films have served as the gateway to Japan and Japanese culture for many a foreigner, this might come as a surprise to those looking to take an anime pilgrimage to Dogo – especially when compared to the official Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, where tickets go on sale three months in advance, and proves especially popular with international guests.
Although Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are extremely well-known among both Japanese and non-Japanese anime fans, it seems that Shimane’s iron working culture and Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen have a largely local appeal. Tourists may not be an uncommon site – particularly at Dogo, which is the one spot nearly any visitor to Shikoku is wont to go – but the connections between these locations and their Ghibli counterparts are not strongly played up, to the point where people not purposefully making an anime pilgrimage may well not realise there’s any connection to begin with. That said, local sites may lose much of their charm if they’re completely overrun with tourists, and it can often be the locations a little more off the beaten track that may offer the most unique experiences.
Next up, our third and final article in this series will discuss two more similarly rural locations, each of which has very strong ties to an anime classic…
In Jiufen, You Can Eat Your Way Through a Miyazaki Film (Elyssa Goldberg, Munchies, 2015)
ロケ地紹介：出雲編：鉄の歴史村 (www.ghibli-freak.net, has photos of the sites that inspired Iron Town in Princess Mononoke)
Studio Ghibli’s Satsuki and Mei’s House from Totoro in Real Life! (Martin Hsu, Martin Hsu Illustrations, 2013)
Visit the Real Princess Mononoke Forest (Brian Ashcraft, Kotaku, 2013)
Kanayago: God(dess) of Tatara (Buri-chan, San’in Monogatari, 2013)
Please enjoy this series while I’m on vacation, and I’ll be back to reply to comments shortly after the conclusion! Spirited Away is my favorite Ghibli movie, and Dogo Onsen is one of the most memorable bath houses I’ve been to. Did you know there is also a myth about Okuninushi and Sukuna-bikona visiting this onsen? ~Buri