Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Feb 08 2008

The Ghibli Museum and Shibuya

Another brilliant day, weather-wise, though still cold. I am loving the sharp, clean-edged light in Tokyo these days.

I took the JR (Japan Rail) for the first time today, to get out to Mitaka, changing trains at Tokyo Station. The JR runs above ground, or at least that line does, so I got a good few of the city on the way out. We passed an amusement park with a ferris wheel before the suburbs began. Soon we were cutting through a sea of slate rooftops.

I got off the train at Mitaka and walked past the bus to the museum, as I wanted to walk there instead. The map said to follow the canal to the park, where the museum is located. It was a nice stroll along the canal, which was clean and didn’t smell at all. The park, when I reached it, was full of joggers and bicyclers. Then I came to the museum.

robotApparently Miyazaki didn’t understand why anyone would want to build a Ghibli Museum until he actually saw the place. The building is a kind of stucco design, half buried in the earth with a glass tower. The line was short and quick, and I soon found myself in the huge atrium. Overhead was a large ceiling fan with wings straight from a flying machine in Castle in the Sky. The windows were stained glass, and many featured scenes from the various movies.

I watched the short film they show exclusively to visitors, about schoolchildren playing with a sailboat and meeting a whale. I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, but it did seem to be fairly anti-whaling in its message. I was sorry that I couldn’t see any of the other films in rotation there.

In another room was a series of steampunk animation devices. Everything is located more or less at a child’s eye level, so if you’re an adult of average height you’ll spend a lot of time bending over to see the exhibits. One particularly fascinating piece involved a spinning wheel with clay figures lit by a stroboscope so that a circle of animated figures formed like magic.

In another room was a mock up of the animators’ workspaces, complete with storyboards, inspirational materials, backgrounds, etc. I wondered if the cigarettes in the ashtray were really smoked by animation staff members.

One section features the story of the three bears, with a huge table and chairs you could sit at, with the bears themselves in another room. The books in the original Russian were on display. At the bookstore upstairs I found a few Miyazaki stories that would have made excellent movies, but I guess were never made. It’s too bad. One book described a huge warrior cat and a girl hunted by an evil samurai. Man, I would love to see that movie.

I went to the gift shop to look around. Unfortunately, there were no big-balled raccoon dolls available. The necklace piece from Castle in the Sky was for sale for 26,000 yen. “Will it let me fly?” I asked the woman behind the counter.

“Only if your last name is Laputa,” she said.

“Sorry, I bet you get asked that a lot,” I said, realizing that I was just adding to her misery. She nodded and smiled.

I bought a small Totoro with Umbrella figurine and went up to the roof, where a full-scale model of one of the robots from Castle in the Sky stood, surrounded by tourists and children. Everyone wanted their picture taken with the robot, so it was hard to get close to it. Instead I stood a little ways in front of it, and found that it was looking right at me. It was an odd experience; not unsettling, but as if I were just a little closer to that universe where it could come to life.

In all, I spent three hours at the museum. They’re strict about their no photography or filming rule. I snuck up to the third-floor balcony to try to catch a vidlet, but almost immediately a woman was there with her walkie-talkie telling me to knock it off. Then she somehow used technology/magic to wipe the video from my camera’s memory, I found later.

b/w neighborhoodThe restaurant was full of people, so I decided to leave and walk around the neighborhood a bit. Snow still covered parts of the park, but it was nice to walk on something other than concrete for a while. The smell of pine trees and the cold, still air were refreshing after the warm, child-filled museum. I walked through a nice subdivision and then a not-so-nice but still neat and orderly one, then along the canal back towards Mitaka Station. Some of the long wooden houses along the train tracks reminded me of San Francisco.

There weren’t many trees out there, except for along major thoroughfares. The crosswalk signals sounded like they were searching for life-forms on Ceti Alpha VI (or is it Ceti Alpha V? I always get those two mixed up).

Mitaka sunsetBack at the station, I stopped in at a small restaurant that had just opened for business for some lunch, even though it was already 6pm. Then I ascended the stairs of the train station, only to find that the sunset was rather nice, so I took out my little camera to take a vidlet. Next to me an older man was talking to someone in Japanese. “He’s talking to nobody,” I said to the camera. Then I realized that he was actually talking to me. He had seen what I was shooting and took out his cellphone to take the same shot. I still had no idea what he was saying, so I just looked at him, waited until he finished, and said, “Ok!”

“Ok!” he said, smiled, and left. I hope he got a nice shot.

I took the train to Shibuya next. Upon exiting the massively crowded station, I was immediately confronted with the huge screen from Lost in Translation, as well as the huge intersection that everyone films when they want to emphasize overpopulation. It was a sea of people getting off work and just a little bit daunting. It was also full of white people, Gaijin Central for some reason.

Shibuya crowdI walked up the road and found a guitar store that sold bass ukuleles. I tried one out and really liked it, but I couldn’t afford something like that, even if it didn’t involve getting something that fragile back to Taiwan in one piece. Down another street, I found a decent toy store and bought a comic book and a small model of the Enterprise, but refrained from buying a Captain Benjamin Cisko (AKA the sexiest Captain in Starfleet) figure with TOS uniform. Outside, a bus inexplicably played the Pink Panther theme while it drove around the block, PP cartoons playing in all of its windows.

tricolorFor dinner, I stopped in at an all-white ticket-style diner for a pork chop on rice with a raw egg on top. It was delicious. Then I walked around the block and spotted a nice pedestrian bridge where I took photos of the traffic below.

It was getting on towards 11pm at this point, but the square around the station was still full of people. Rock bands were setting up. I visited the statue of the dog who waited for his deceased master for a decade in front of the station, and wondered if it was the inspiration for the touching Futurama episode with Fry’s dog.

My feet were sore, so I sat on a railing and watched the ebb and flow of the crowds, enjoying the spectacle and grinning like an idiot. The huge screen would show a live feed of the crowd in the square, and I waved at myself. I know, I know: I’m such a tourist.

I’ve been here a week now, but it feels like just a couple of days. It’s hard to think about going back, but I guess I have to start. Tomorrow I’m meeting Arnd at Harajuku for some afternoon shooting, and Sunday I hope to go to Yas’s film festival. I’d also like to see the view from Odaiba at night, and some more Krispy Kreme donuts wouldn’t go amiss.

posted by Poagao at 12:40 pm  


  1. I’ve always had an overly romanticized idea of what Japan was like…. and your captivating travelogue is only further cementing those thoughts in my impressionable mind. I did have an overnight layover in Tokyo one time, and I was flipping out over being able to grab late night ramen downtown. I really should have made the time and saved the funds to make a proper visit to the country while I was still living just a short flight away in Taiwan. Guess for now the Japan trip will have to remain one of those “someday” goals.

    (Can’t wait to see what you’ve shot show up on flickr.)

    Comment by Bobby — February 9, 2008 @ 1:43 am

  2. Thanks, Bobby, I like your photography blog, lots of nice stuff there.

    Everyone thought I was crazy to go to Japan for Chinese New Year instead of someplace sunny and warm, but I’m having a great time and am glad I came.

    Comment by Poagao — February 9, 2008 @ 10:02 am

  3. I enjoyed your write-up about Okinawa and I am enjoying this one too. It is nice to see Japan from a different perspective. Having lived here a few years now, it is so easy to get stuck in a rut (the daily commutes and office hours will do it to you) and I forget to take a step back and try to see things from a different viewpoint. As always, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Bryan — February 9, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  4. I know what you mean, Bryan, I get the same way in Taiwan, which is why I need a vacation from time to time.

    Comment by Poagao — February 9, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

  5. 🙂 Bobby takes good Holga photos as well.

    Comment by Daniel — February 10, 2008 @ 2:08 am

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