Studio Ghibli’s animated films — such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke — have attracted a cult following for many years, despite never appearing on any streaming services. Next month, Netflix will begin streaming studio Ghibli films outside of Japan, Canada, and the U.S., giving longtime and new fans the chance to journey into fantastical worlds through these creative classics. If you're in the U.S. don't despair; HBO Max will stream Studio Ghibli films starting in the spring.
Viewers may wonder whether the whimsical places and kawaii (cute) characters seen in the films actually exist. They do – or, at least, the inspiration for them does. The Setouchi region of Japan — comprised of seven prefectures and thousands of islands located in and along the Seto Inland Sea — has inspired several Studio Ghibli favorites.
Here are a few of the ways travelers can experience a touch of Studio Ghibli magic in real life with a visit to this colorful and charming region.
Akiyoshidai is Japan’s largest karst plateau, complete with sinkholes and limestone spires. This part of Yamaguchi Prefecture looks much like the stone-speckled grasslands seen in Howl’s Moving Castle, as well as Sheeta’s hometown of Gondoa Hill in Castle in the Sky.
Take a guided stroll through the Akiyoshidai Geopark and learn the fascinating history of this picturesque plateau that began about 350 million years ago when these rocks were coral reefs. The rolling hills and real-life rock formations are certainly cinematic, but mind your hands and feet when frolicking here; the limestone is sharp and sinkholes and rocks can trip you up if you’re not watching where you walk — as they did Chihiro when she stumbles over large boulders while she and her parents wander the abandoned amusement park in Spirited Away.
Tour Akiyoshido, Japan’s longest limestone cave that lies beneath the surface of the Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park. The way the craggy walls and stalactite reflections play on the river’s surface might have you questioning which way is up, much like a Miyazaki character trying to navigate mind-bending twists and turns. Start at the Kurotani Entrance then be rewarded with the brilliant blues and greens of the river flowing around moss-covered rocks when you finally emerge from the Akiyoshido exit.
Ehime is home to Dogo Onsen, the historic hot springs bathhouse in Matsuyama built in the Meiji Period and believed to be the inspiration for one of the most iconic Studio Ghibli film settings: Yubaba’s onsen in Spirited Away. Due to renovations (scheduled through December 2024), you may not be able to fully experience a lively interior of mazes and mystery as the character Chihiro did, but you can still snap photos of the brown and white wooden exterior and enter “Kami no Yu,” the first-floor main bath, for a small fee. Asuka no Yu, the recently built hot springs bathhouse annex just steps from Dogo offers a wider range of possibilities — including private bathing rooms, traditional tea service, and open-air baths — to accommodate visitors during the Dogo restoration.
Studio Ghibli fans will find another opportunity in Ehime to recreate a beloved Spirited Away scene. Board a train at Shimonada Station and recall the memorable moment when Chihiro and No-Face are seated on the train with the sea at their backs. Even if you aren’t traveling by train, however, you can still photograph this popular seaside train stop. Keep in mind that it’s an active station — not a film set — so be mindful, heed posted signs, and do not hinder service, trespass in the surrounding area, or endanger yourself or other passengers when setting up your shot.
Most travelers visit Hiroshima to honor the lives of those that experienced the horrors and irreparable destruction of the 1945 atomic bomb attack. The history here is significant, dark, and heavy but this prefecture is also a place of beauty, peace and hope. So after you pay your respects at the Peace Memorial Park, Atomic Bomb Dome, and Peace Memorial Museum, take a Studio Ghibli-inspired trip around Hiroshima.
Fly high like Porco Rosso on a Setouchi Seaplane sightseeing flight from Onomichi. Make like Satsuki and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro with a visit to Okunoshima Island where real-life — albeit, much smaller than Totoro — rabbits roam. And spend some time exploring Tomonoura, the port town that inspired Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Grab a Ponyo sites-specific map from the tourist information center and plot your route around the region where Miyazaki and his team stayed for months, immersed in the seaport life.
Related content: Island-hopping by bike around Japan’s Seto Inland Sea
Borrow a broom and fly through the air — or at least jump and imagine — like teen witch Kiki at Shōdo-shima Olive Park where the live-action version of Kiki’s Delivery Service was filmed. There’s no fee to enter the scenic park or borrow a broom, so long as you use it gently and return it swiftly; after all, an angry broom will not share its magic. And while you’re leap-flying around Shōdo-shima living your best witch life, take a hike or gondola ride up to the top of Kankakei Gorge. Although the fictional setting of Koriko seen in Kiki’s Delivery Service is modeled after European cities that include Visby, the view from Kankei Gorge toward the Seto Inland Sea will remind you of the scene when Kiki departed.
Across the water in Takamatsu, enjoy another Studio Ghibli-related experience: eating udon, the thick noodles Chihori’s parents are seen slurping in Spirited Away right before they transform into pigs. Thankfully, you’re in real-life Takamatsu and not the abandoned theme park Chihori’s parents stumbled into, so you can feast without the worry of growing a tail, ears, or snout. Bring your appetite and noodle shop-hop your way around town with the help of the famous Udon Taxi — a driver-guide that will chauffeur you to some of the best of Kagawa’s nearly 800 udon restaurants.
There are several sites in Tokushima with that mystical Studio Ghibli vibe that invites your imagination to drift somewhere between reality and fantasy. Fans of Princess Mononoke should head for Iya Valley where the steep ravines and deep, tangled forests will remind you of those seen in the film. Very real vines winding their way around the Kazura Bashi bridge appear as if they might reach out and wrap around you, and Chiiori, an old thatched-roof house built in the 1700s shares similarities with traditional style structures seen in many Miyazaki films. Day visits to Chiiori and overnight stays can be arranged in advance.
If you like Turnip-Head from Howl’s Moving Castle, you’ll love Nagoro, a quiet village in Iya Valley nicknamed “Kakashi no Sato” for the scarecrows that now outnumber the real flesh-and-blood residents.
In coastal Komatsushima, Pom Poko fans will recognize the Kincho shrine which is dedicated to tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog and featured in the film.
Okayama and Hyogo Prefectures
If your one wish is to find the Castle in the Sky, you have two chances in Setouchi: Bichu Matsuyama Castle in Okayama prefecture and Takeda Castle in Hyogo prefecture. When conditions are just right, both appear to float unkai-style, that is, on a sea of clouds. You can take in magical, misty views of Bichu Matsuyama Castle from the observatory during the months of October to March. And your best chance of viewing Takeda Castle — nicknamed “Japan’s Machu Picchu” — in ideal unkai conditions is at sunrise during October and November, from the observation decks on Ritsuunkyo Mountain.