Inokashira park is a tranquil patch of green located in Mitaka, a west-lying suburb in Tokyo about thirty minutes by train from the centre. But from first glance, you wouldn't think hidden behind the t'ai chi groups and bandstands lies one of the city's most cultured attractions: the Studio Ghibli museum. Primarily thanks to the animated films Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke by the Oscar-winning Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli has become known as "the Disney of the East". But any thoughts that this beguiling museum devoted to his work is like a Japanese Disneyland are swiftly banished as soon as you approach the museum's entrance.
With light streaming in through stained-glass windows, all depicting various Studio Ghibli characters, you're immediately confronted with a giant bunny-eared creature sitting behind the reception desk. This, for the uninitiated, is the eponymous hero of My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki's delightful 1988 children's film. It's at this point, as our guide tells us "the museum is considered part of Miyazaki's work", that I begin to realise the museum is the very antithesis of the crass commercialism of Disneyland. No rides, candyfloss or soul-sapped employees wandering about in cartoon-character costumes here.
Instead, what you have is a thing of beauty. The expansive hallway, fitted at its height with a glass dome depicting a yellow whale swimming in the ocean, immediately sets the tone. Dominated by an old-fashioned wrought-iron lift, and various spiral staircases, like Miyazaki's films, it's designed to cause wonder – and it does. Everything has been designed with children in mind. Off to one side, for example, is a small cinema, showing various Miyazaki shorts. Not your typical dingy fleapit, it's light and airy; the windows present, we're told, to stop little ones being afraid of the dark. Upstairs, meanwhile, is a giant Cat Bus. And before you get any ideas, adults are strictly prohibited.
In line with Miyazaki's mission statement on the museum's website, which describes "the kind of museum I don't want to make" with a few well-chosen words, this is certainly neither "pretentious" nor "arrogant". Rather, it's a pure paradise for Miyazaki fans, young and old. Take the entrance to the roof by the Cat Bus play-area and, after a short staircase climb, you'll be looking at a metallic 5m-tall statue, the Robot Soldier from Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Below him is the rooftop's wild vegetation, and if it's a sunny day, there's nothing more relaxing than sitting on one of the fish-shaped benches to soak up the rays.
What truly impresses, though, are the exhibitions themselves. The rooms upstairs are full of memorabilia, models, storyboards, drawings, sketches, cells – with each designed to lead you through the various stages of animating a film. Unsurprisingly, most of the pictures on display are devoted to Ponyo, Miyazaki's latest film about a young boy who befriends a goldfish. But it's all as laid-back as the museum's well-stocked gift shop, and nothing here screams "exhibit". With the rooms decorated with a mish-mash of objects – a rusty bike and an old tape recorder catch my eye – it feels more like walking through a bygone era than any sterile museum.
While more than 2,000 visitors a day troop through its doors, with tours beginning at two-hour intervals across the day, you never feel rushed. Perhaps that's why you can't just turn up on a whim. Tours must be booked in advance – and can be done so via the website. Pick-ups from various hotels can be arranged, with the whole trip taking around four-and-a-half hours. It may not be as awe-inspiring as the must-see Asakusa shrine or the panoramic view from the top of the Shinjuku twin tower, but there's something quite soulful about time spent in the company of Miyazaki and his museum. And the kids'll love it.
Visit ghibli-museum.jp/en. 'Ponyo' is out this Friday
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