One of our first mistakes at Ghibli Park was lifting our 1-year-old son onto the polyester belly of a wild spirit creature. Someone was allowing him to hide in a woolen bus with cat eyes to check the headlights.
“They’re not following the rules,” I told my wife, as the staff at the cat bus playground looked on curiously.
He said: “They are insulting.” But we didn’t stop him.
Ghibli Park, which opened in November outside Nagoya, Japan, pays homage to the fun, exciting films of Studio Ghibli, the company founded in the 1980s by the director. Hayao Miyazaki. We took our two young children there because their favorite movie is “My Neighbor Totoro,” Miyazaki’s beloved 1988 film about a spirit creature and his cat sidekick.
As parents, we thought it would be fun for our boys, 3 and 1, to be immersed in “Totoro”. And as long-time Ghibli fans, we were eager to see what the scene would look like.
American visitors may wonder how Ghibli Park compares to Disney World. It’s not really. It sounds like a low-key secret and has no rides, exotic animals, turkey legs or animatronic American presidents, among other things. The main point is that wander around and soak up the Miyazaki vibes.
Also, the park is not finish. It was connected to the park that was already established, it was opened at the end of last year, but as of the beginning of July only three of the five who had tickets were opened. When I booked the June trip, tickets to only one of the attractions – the so-called “Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse” – were available to international visitors who book through the park’s website. (It was possible to book the other two sites through Japanese travel agencies, but I learned later, from a Japanese speaker.)
Susan Napier, a biographer of Mr. Miyazaki at Tufts University who visited Ghibli Park in April, told me that it struck her as “a work in progress.” He also described the ticketing system, which has combined lotteries and long online lines, as “byzantine and not fun.”
Maybe that’s why Studio Ghibli itself seems to be inconsistent in promoting Ghibli Park. In Japan, it has released advertisements advising fans to “take time” to visit.
A fantasy park celebrating Nintendo or Pokemon, two other popular Japanese franchises, would feel like Disney World, said Matt Alt, author of the book 2021 “Pure Invention: How Japanese Pop Culture Conquered the World.” But he added that the park’s expansion and slow marketing were similar to the studio founded by Mr. Miyazaki, a director who has never hidden his anti-capitalist politics.
Ghibli Park is not a place to “turn off your brain,” Mr. Alt told me. “It requires a strategic partnership that most parks don’t.” When I booked our trip, in March, a little relief felt good. I imagined wandering around in the sunny area, pondering Mr. Miyazaki’s movie career while our boys paused to pick up music – just like the two sisters in “Totoro”. (These boys, who are Anglo-American, love acorn pictures so much that they learned the Japanese word for nut, donguri, before it came to English.)
In fact, we arrived just three hours before our scheduled visit to Ghibli’s Grand Warehouse, and our intelligence was limited. Our parents’ nerves were frayed by the hour-long flight from Nagoya and the random beating of moving tiny, diaper-clad people around unknown places.
Our morning in Nagoya was already marred by 4am wake-ups and public displays of childish excitement. On the basis of the 17th century Nagoya Castlefor example, our 3-year-old son, named T, burst into tears when he heard that the building was closed for renovations.
To cheer us up, we quickly took action by buying him and his brother, B, ice cream cones as a second breakfast. That put an end to the crying, but our growing tiredness led us to Ghibli Park. Could a trip to meet our favorite magical creatures be worth all the time, money and energy you need?
Ghibli Park may see tourism problems this summer because of Mr. Miyazaki’s release a new movie in Japan this month. But, for my family, making a pilgrimage there was to see Totoro and the cat bus.
“Totoro” follows two sisters, Mei, 4, and Satsuki, 10, as they live in a dilapidated house in the Japanese countryside with their father, an archaeologist. Their mother is trapped in a nearby pantry, suffering from an unknown illness.
After Mei encounters Totoro by stumbling into her room inside a large camphor tree (while sleeping on its stomach), she and her sister encounter the creature several times and learn more about its magical powers. At the end, when their mother seems to be getting worse, they ask for help from Totoro and a bus of wild cats.
Professor Napier told me that “Totoro” reflects the aesthetic that runs through the Ghibli series, which is more abstract and more colorful than Disney’s. He said that it is “a deep, low-level magic of being connected to other things.”
“It’s a world you love,” Professor Napier, who is writing a book comparing Ghibli and Disney, said of Mr. Miyazaki’s living creation. “But it also has unpredictable and complex, and sometimes dangerous, elements.”
Totoro and the cat bus can get a little nervous, especially when they’re teething. But this movie is more delicious than it is scary. It was set “before television,” as Mr. Miyazaki told an interviewer, and includes pastoral hand-drawn images — a pastel sunset, a snail crawling up a plant stalk — that make you want to be a kid. up to the rural idyll.
The film also celebrates the wonder of a child. Mr. Miyazaki created “Totoro” with children in mind – he said he hoped it would make them want to pick acorns – and many critics have seen it as an ode to innocent childhood. It is no coincidence that Totoro and the cat bus are visible only to the sisters, not the adults.
Maybe this is why I still cry every time I watch the final credits: “Totoro” reminds me that my boys will never be young or innocent again.
In our Seoul apartment, he plays with Totoro and cat toys, sleeps in Totoro pajamas and sits on Totoro’s potty. Their love is so great that my mother-in-law bought us tickets to “Totoro” at the Barbican Theatre on our last trip to London.
In Nagoya, before we left for Ghibli Park, B showed his interest by bringing a plastic cat bus to the hotel – and feeding him whipped cream for breakfast. He also showed the toy to a man dressed as a ninja who took a selfie with us outside the building.
The ninja smiled a knowing smile, showing that he was also a fan of “Totoro”. “Cat bus,” he said in Japanese, as if the word was a password.
Ghibli Park is located in Nagakute, a small town in the mountains outside of Nagoya, a few stops down the street from Ikea. There is no gateway to Ghibli, exactly; you wander around an obscure museum looking for the Ghibli scene you’ve reserved tickets for months.
The Grand Warehouse is a sleek, multi-story building about the size of a shopping mall or stadium, with continuous sunlight in the sky. It is located next to a grassy meadow, an ice park and another future Ghibli location that is under construction.
Inside, there are movie replicas, including the towering bathroom from the 2001 Oscar-winning film “Spirited Away,” as well as plenty of Instagram-worthy Ghibli photos and props.
The attention to detail is amazing. In the area dedicated to the Ghibli film “Arrietty,” I saw a large drop of plastic dew stuck to a large fake flower, for example. Nearby was a detailed photo of the building from “Howl’s Moving Castle,” my oldest son’s favorite Miyazaki movie after “Totoro.”
“Alright, man!” Three-year-old T said happily. Finally, a Japanese palace that didn’t make him cry.
The problem was that many of the tableaux were captured by Ghibli fans – with lines that we did not have time to stop with restless children. The building’s only restaurant was also crowded. We finally got a promotional cake, but the staff said the cake was out of stock.
After about an hour of exploring the warehouse, we went to “Children’s Town,” a theater that shows scenes from “Totoro” and other Ghibli films.
Town’s Town has three rooms. The first is a labyrinth of more Ghibli film images than I can count: The orange train from “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” bakers from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and so on. The boys loved it, even if dad messed with their head by following them around the crawl space.
Some of the rooms were “Totoro” and had sympathetically high ceilings. There was a house where Mei and Satsuki lived with their father. There was a camphor tree, where there was a giant Totoro next to the donguri. And in the far corner was a furry cat bus.
It all looked fun, kid-friendly and immersive – almost, like what you’d find at Disney World. The boys were in heaven.
“A row of toes! Finger line!” B said, standing inside the tree, with a voice similar to the theme song of the film’s marching band.
“Hey, Totoro!” Said T who was watching the giants closely. “Wake up!”
But even though the Children’s Town seemed designed to inspire a child to wonder that Mr. Miyazaki celebrates in his films, the staff of the warehouse informed us of several rules that disturbed the vibe. In particular, it was forbidden to put children on Totoro’s stomach, or to let them play in the bus zone for three minutes – even if the zone was not full, which it was not.
The staff were friendly, but their rules were not clear to small children like ours. I wondered if that was another sign that Ghibli Park was still rough around the edges. Take your time visiting, as the studio says.
We reluctantly agreed to the no belly rule, but B didn’t want to play anywhere but inside the cat bus. We were with him. We spent a few months – the best part of his life! – waiting for this moment.
Seeing our determination, the staff told us to join. He also said that a special extension of time can be granted depending on the situation. Instead of the standard three minutes, our B can have six.
Make it nine. Then 12. Et cetera. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, he was among the last, and the smallest, group of Ghibli fans to leave the building.
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