Sekizenkan Ryokan, Shima Onsen, Japan
Sekizenkan Ryokan, Shima Onsen, Japan

Five Real Places That Inspired Studio Ghibli

I love Studio Ghibli. The first time I discovered them was at a Japanese film festival in my hometown. That film was the enchanting Spirited Away and it instantly captured my imagination. I went to track down some of their other films as soon as it finished.

The brand new Studio Ghibli film, Earwig and the Witch, will be released here in Australia on February 4. Entirely computer animated, it’s a departure from their usual hand-drawn style but exudes the same magic with third-time Ghibli director Goro Miyazaki behind it.

With Earwig on the way, it’s got me thinking about the real-life places that inspired many locations featured in the likes of Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro.

Here are five of the most impressive.

1. Princess Mononoke: Shirakami Sanchi

Located in the north of Honshu Island, UNESCO listed Shirakami Sanchi mountain range served as inspiration for the, lush wild forests of Princess Mononoke. It straddles the border between Akita and Aomori and features the last virgin beech forest that once covered much of northern Japan. Black bears and around 87 species of bird can be seen here.

2. Spirited Away: Sekizenkan Ryokan at Shima Onsen

Baba Yaga’s bathhouse in Spirited Away may be a work of fiction, but its design is rooted in reality. One look at Sekizenkan Ryokan in the sleepy town of Shima Onsen, renowned for the medicinal quality of its waters, and you’ll immediately see the resemblance. Built in 1691, it’s the oldest onsen hotel in Japan. And is definitely worth a visit.

3. My Neighbor Totoro: Hachikokuyama Park

This lush forest in the Sayama Hills an hour from Tokyo inspired the setting for one of Studio Ghibli’s most memorable films: My Neighbor Totoro. It’s a tale of two sisters who befriend a myriad of magical creatures, like the loveable Totoro spirit, in the forest near their home. Sayama Hills was that forest and has been affectionately known as Totoro’s Forest since.

4. Whisper of the Heart: Seiseki sakuragaoka

More than just one place, a whole Tokyo neighbourhood made it into Whisper of the Heart. Seiseki Sakuragaoka, around 30 minutes by train from Shinjuku Station, is home to several locations recreated in the film, including the station and stairs up to Konpiragu Shrine

5. Castle in the Sky: Okinoshima

One of the four Tomogashima islands off Wakayama, Okinoshima inspired the setting of the Laputa: Castle in the Sky. While there are no sentient robots around, you will find the ruins of a former military base that’s slowly being reclaimed by nature. Giant tree roots, bushes sprouting from the roofs of buildings… it’s an eerily impressive site to explore.

When international travel resumes, Japan is right at the top of my list of places to revisit. It goes without saying a few of these sites are destined to find their way onto my itinerary.

Written by
Chris Ashton

We're Chris Ashton and Simon Ceglinski, two Aussie travellers with a love of exploration and adventure, and the odd bit of luxury thrown in. We seek out street art, street food, and scuba diving wherever we go, and prefer the road less travelled over well-worn tourist paths.

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Written by Chris Ashton