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.

Okuizumo Dayori (Click for source)

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…

Additional Reading:
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 (, 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


Have you ever heard of Tatara?

If you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head is one of the 28 Chinese mansion constellations (婁), but if you’re more interested in iron working, steel working, and Japanese swords, perhaps you already know this as foot-operated bellows used in the firey production of these materials (踏鞴, though usually written phonetically as たたら).

It’s such a crucial part of this region’s history, however, that I’ve learned a thing or two–though lacking any craftsmanship sense, my knowledge is still limited. Here’s a basic introduce so as to introduce one of the local deities.

Tatara was likely imported into Japan from Korea by way of Shimane Prefecture, and seeing as the San’in region is rich with titanium magnetite, a necessary ingrediant for iron production, it took hold here very early on in Japanese history. Way back in ancient Japan–specifically 713ad, two years after the compilation of the Kojiki (originally ordered by Emperor Temmu) was completed, Empress Gemmei ordered the compliation of the Fudoki. While the Kojiki is like a history book (which we would now consider a book of Shinto mythology), the Fudoki were like encyclopedia, conducted in each province to chronicle geography, plant and animal species, the lifestyles of the people, and significant historical events (many of which we would now refer to as myths). Most of the Fudoki no longer exist, but the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki remains mostly in tact. Therefore, we know a lot more about life in 8th century Izumo than about any other part of Japan. It includes many details about tatara.

One of the diorama at the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

Because we have so much information about its history and because it was practiced in Izumo province for hundreds of years, there are a number of museums, blacksmith family residences, archeological digs, ruins, and sword museums around the towns of Okuizumo, Yasugi, and Unnan. Okuizumo is best known for this because the The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords has rebuild a tatara there called Nittoho-Tatara, and forges swords using traditional means once a year a so. Unfortunately, due to risk of injury, these are not typically open to the public (bummer!). The nearby Okuizumo Tatara Swords Museum, however, does a 90-minute forging display on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month.

Click for map source (Japanese)

There is a patron god of Tatara, though many of the popular local myths say she is a goddess. This is Kanayago, the kami that is revered throughout Japan for teaching craftsmen how to making iron. Having particular influence over Western Japan, she wanted to settle in the mountains there, so she descended upon a particular spot in southwestern Yasugi where a heron perched upon a katsura tree, a very brief hike up the hill from Kanayago-jinja, the head shrine of all Kanayago shrines.

Pretty humble for a head shrine.

As numerous as Kanayago shrines are (especially in the Chuugoku region), many of them make donations to this head shrine.

A short walk across from the entrance to the shrine is the folk tradition hall dedicated to the shrine and legends about Kanayago. It’s small, but well designed and with lots of information and 3D displays. I was running out of battery on my camera, though, so I didn’t take pictures of the birds and katsura and wisteria displays!

This shrine is mounted on a “kera.”

I thought the rat motif carved into the shrine was interesting, especially since there is another very famous kami in the Izumo region associated with rats. When I asked the museum staff about it, they said that because rats are numerous, they are a sign of good luck–that the blessings may also be numerous!

There is a kera featured in this photo, as well as a few outside the shrine. This seemingly unattractive 2.8 tone slab of rock is actually the result of 70 hours of heating 13 tons of iron and 13 tons of charcoal in the firey bellows, it is from this kera that they can get 1 ton or less of tama-hagane (“jewel steel”), from which katana and other Japanese blades are made.

Phew. That was a heavily paraphrased mouthful from the highly detailed and information Hitachi Metals’ English homepage. Please start reading here for the more thorough explanation of everything that goes into tatara.

For those of you like me who just want to cut to the mythology, here are a few stories about Kanayago, quoted directly from the Hitachi Metal’s page about her:

According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I’ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.

(Notes: A “murage” was an iron-making master. Hoki Province is now western Tottori, and neighbored Izumo Province.)

To wrap this all up, if you’re a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli studio movies, then you likely are already familiar with tatara after all. Iron Town in the 1997 film Princess Mononoke was based on Okuizumo (not to be confused with Higashiizumo)!

I kid you not, that is exactly how it happened! I heard the Kodama (tree spirits)! If you have not seen this movie, this is all you need to know:

This would make a great story, expect that I remembered it wrong. Hayao Miyazaki’s movie “Princess Mononoke” didn’t take place in Higashi-Izumo. It took place in Oku-Izumo!

I was really excited about the unidentified sounds and certainly appreciated the five-minute walk through the forest near Yomotsuhirasaka for it, but I thought about it more later and what I remember of the Studio Ghibli film. The geography wouldn’t make sense with the time period, so I checked–sure enough, I was wrong! Oku-Izumo makes more sense, giving the iron production history there. I feel a little disappointed, but whose to say forest spirits wouldn’t spread out to the surrounding areas?

I see a lot of piles of rocks like this in forests around here, and they always remind me of Lafcadio Hearn‘s essay about another Shimane sight, “In The Cave of the Children’s Ghosts”:

From the sea the ribbed floor of the cavern slopes high through deepening shadows hack to the black mouth of a farther grotto; and all that slope is covered with hundreds and thousands of forms like shattered haka. But as the eyes grow accustomed to the gloaming it becomes manifest that these were never haka; they are only little towers of stone and pebbles deftly piled up by long and patient labour.

‘Shinda kodomo no shigoto,’ my kurumaya murmurs with a compassionate smile; ‘all this is the work of the dead children.’

(Buri note: Haka = grave(stone), Kurumaya = driver)

Given the circumstances, these rocks made me think more of Kodama!

…but maybe the nearby neighborhood puppies lived here instead?

Thus ended my charming visit to the gateway to the underworld. Given it’s ties to Yomi, the story of Izanagi and Izanami is rather dark and places associated can be on the somber side, but other Kojiki stories that took place in the San’in region tended to have happier endings. Now that we have this tragedy out of the way, look forward to more love stories and heroism ahead.