satsuki and mei's house in my neighbor totoro

When Art Imitates Life: Real Life Locations of Hayao Miyazaki’s Movies

Hayao Miyazaki is a screenwriter, a filmmaker, a producer, an artist, and above all, a visionary.

It’s difficult to name another animator who made his mark in the industry with animated movies about moving castles and friendly witches. His whimsical style of storytelling made many viewers a loyalist. Best known for his works such as Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s works has recurring themes and concepts that endeared him to viewers of all ages.

His works have a trademark of elevating mundane everyday things and making them meaningful and insightful. Miyazaki’s focus on the connection and relationship of humans to the environment and technology are frequently tackled in his works, but never repetitive and always out of the ordinary. For most critics, his movies are created to drive home a point or to promote an advocacy.

Miyazaki’s knack for world building is impeccable, making people believe there really are places where witches can roam freely or there’s really a castle in the sky. The cities and towns he built looked so magical, that it’s quite easy to believe that these things can only stem from his imagination.

But even visionaries like Miyazaki takes inspiration from the real world. He may often let his imagination run wild when creating characters and crafting settings, but he spins real-life places into exotic and magical settings for his stories. While the common man may only see a simple town, Miyazaki sees a phenomenal tale unfolding.

Here are some real-life places that inspired the setting of some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films with Studio Ghibli.

Visby Town in Sweden

visby sweden

In the film Kiki’s Delivery Service, a young witch arrives in the port city of Koriko, hoping to be a little help to the town and develop her skills and strengths as a witch. She eventually learns that it’s not that easy and even weakens her powers in the process.

While there are other European towns that are said to inspire Koriko, it was Sweden’s Visby town that’s most reminiscent of the port city. Miyazaki first visited Sweden in the 70s when he was still planning to make a film adaptation of Pippi Longstocking. Though that movie didn’t come into fruition, Kiki’s Delivery Service brought to life the medieval city of Koriko.

With its cobblestone streets, defensive towers, and century-old churches, Visby is a well-preserved medieval city, which is also included among Sweden’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Jiufen in New Taipei City, Taiwan

Jiufen taiwan

In 2001, Spirited Away was released in Japan and became a theatrical hit. The animated film about the human girl Chihiro that got trapped in the spirit world became Japan’s highest grossing film and remains to do so 17 years after it was first shown in cinemas.

Miyazaki takes a lot of inspiration from the old mining town of Jiufen, but perhaps it’s the 100-year-old Amei Tea house that will remind most people of the movie. In Jiufen’s labyrinth of stairs stood a grand tea house with Chinese lanterns hanging from roofs and windows all year round. It’s reminiscent of the bathhouse that became the main setting of the film.

It’s not just the tea house that would remind you of the film, because sharp-eyed fans are quick to point out that some food featured in the movie can also be found being sold in the streets of Jiufen. While Miyazaki has taken the liberty to tweak the set design of Spirited Away, there’s no denying that the winding mess of Jiufen’s streets and stairs and the lanterns perpetually hanging from the streets will be reminiscent of certain movie scenes.

Tomonoura at Japan’s Hiroshima Prefecture

Tomonoura Japan

Miyazaki is not simply well-traveled. He has also lived and stayed in so many places, and when a place enthralls him, he weaves it into the stories he creates with his wild, yet genius, mind.

Hiroshima’s seaside village of Tomonuara is one such place. He then decided that it’ll be the setting of his next film. Miyazaki ended up staying there for about two months, doing research and putting the sceneries into paper. His team first saw the village of Tomonoura during a company outing, and Miyazaki instantly fell in love with it.

If you’re a fan of Ponyo, then Tomonoura shouldn’t be missing from your Japan bucket list. You can run along the streets and shops of Tomonoura where the characters Ponyo and Sosuke chase each other. There are so many Easter eggs around the town related to Ponyo that there are guided tours specifically featuring which spots are related to the movie.

Kamikochi Imperial Hotel at Japan’s Nagano Prefecture

Imperial Hotel Kamikochi in Nagano
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Wind Rises offers one of the most endearing love story in recent years. While it didn’t reach the height of other Miyazaki creations, anyone who has seen the film can attest how it’s heartfelt, creative, and powerful.

There’s no Hotel Kusaraka in Japan, but this hotel in the anime shares a close resemblance to Nagano Prefecture’s Kamikochi Imperial Hotel. It serves as the setting of a sweet courtship between an aeronautical engineer and his ailing wife.

Set during the beginning of World War II, the character Jiro Horikoshi meets the love of his life, Naoko, at the Hotel Kusaraka, and that’s where the courtship and whirlwind romance commenced. It’s a fictionalized biopic of the man who built the fighter aircraft used during the war.

Miyazaki’s works are never meant to be political, though critics can pinpoint how some of his works have political inclinations. He has always been adamant and vocal about his political views, and while his works often support an advocacy, they are never used to promote a specific agenda, cementing his credibility as an artist.

Sayama Hills in Saitama, Japan

sayama hill

My Neighbor Totoro is arguably the most loved Studi Ghibli of all time, with Totoro even used as the animation studio’s mascot.

There are a lot of realistic elements used in My Neighbor Totoro, and there are even conspiracy theories how it’s actually about a specific unsolved crime involving two young sisters. While these are only speculations, one location in Japan is believed to be a great inspiration to the movie that it’s now called Totoro Hills.

Saitama’s Saiyama Hills has lush forests and natural hills that serve as inspiration to the playground of the sisters Satsuki and Mei. This place is easily accessible to tourists, with its four parks and reservoirs.

Hayao Miyazaki has perfected the craft of taking the ordinary and transforming them into whimsical magical places of bathhouses that never sleep and forests with gigantic furry friends. He has the eye for what’s special and he manages to create settings that will leave the audience’s imagination running wild.

If you find yourself visiting any of these real world Studio Ghibli movie locations, listen for the footsteps and watch for the shadows, because you just might get a glimpse of the friendly neighbor Totoro.

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