Japan 22 : Fancyplants' Big Day Out

It was time to leave Fujikawaguchi. I was not in any great rush to leave the pure, fresh air of the mountains, but I was becoming a little short on cash, so after getting a shower and wishing the people in the hostel good bye, I left on foot in the direction of the train station with the intention of calling at the local post office ATM on the way. It was closed when I arrived, so after getting a little bit of nosh at the 7-Eleven over the road I sat outside until the cashier dutifully opened the doors for me. Spare folding would be very useful to me today.

Back at the station, the next train out would be a little while, so there was a little time to peruse through the in-station tourist shop and buy a few souvenirs. The trains outside were lined up on their tracks, painted with crazy cartoon mountains to give their passengers a garish and slightly embarrassing appearance as they glided through the picturesque countryside. I paid for a ticket and boarded mine, a definite tourist train- although it was a little past its best, the on-board TV screen had long since been shaken loose of its connection to the looping video of the mountain and its sights, and as the train gathered pace, each wobble and bump on the privately-owned track randomised the image.

So I concentrated on the view outside, the steadily shrinking Mt Fuji to the south, and the increasing amount of structure and form to the landscape as we headed east and the forests vistas were replaced with built-up areas once more. I switched trains at Otsuki to a JR-owned line, which allowed me to make use of the last day of my Japan Rail pass. My destination would be the city of Mitaka, home of countless Sakura trees and most notably, the Studio Ghibli Museum, a building dedicated to some of the finest anime movies of all; a giant exhibit of film chronology mixed with adventure playground, designed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, veteran directors and artists responsible for most of the output in the firm's 20-plus year history. It's somewhere any animé fan should visit once in their lifetime, and definitely so if they ever find themselves in Japan.

I had my ticket ready, or rather a voucher for the ticket, which I had got myself a couple of months previous from a place called MyBus, the designated ticket provider for the UK. That was a little weird. The London number I had called was connected through and I found myself being greeted in Japanese. This was my first ever experience of the language and suddenly I was tongue-tied. Garbling some confused sentence not out of place in Boris Johnsons' repertoire, the lady at the other side thankfully switched to English and we carried on. She apparently had a lot of reactions like that.

I had planned my entire trip around the ticket in fact, so that I could use it at the end of my journey. Oh yes, I had every intention of leaving the museum with a travel fee-incurring amount of tat to bring home with me. However, I didn't get off at the Mitaka stop. I carried on until hitting the Yamanote line at Shinjuku. Good old Yamanote line - how I had missed thee. The last time I had seen it was on the third day of the trip, leaving Ueno on my first Shinkansen ride to Sendai. It was almost like coming home.

I had a room booked in Shinjuku, but it was at a hotel quite a way from the station and getting there would take a while, and also, I might not be allowed in just yet. Instead, I compromised by finding a spare locker in Shinjuku station, sticking both my bags into it (sans a couple of maps and the all important ticket-voucher) and headed back on the same line to Mitaka.

Arriving at the station, the map pointed to a long, straight dual carriageway. In between the opposite lanes of the road was a small ditch through which a gentle stream flowed, the swaying branches of a hundred or more Sakura trees - now in full bloom - creating a pleasant, dappled canopy softening the hard, straight lines of the road. At the head of the long road was a little sign with a Totoro on top, diligently pointing the way to the museum.

I strolled down the road, taking in the pleasant sights; word was that Miyazaki chose Mitaka because of its greater prevalence of natural open spaces than most other wards in central Tokyo, being someone who infinitely prefers a natural scene to look out of the window at as he works at his desk. Even the tarmac on the road to the museum was infused with little specks which sparkled in the sunlight.

The museum emerged slowly from its hideaway behind a group of trees and bushes, the first thing you see is the large, faux ticket booth placed at the gated entrance area. A huge Totoro sat behind the window and provided rare photo opportunities. I stayed there for a short while as gaggles of families passed by, the children (and some of the parents) squealing and pointing excitedly at the booth and posing for photos.

I carried on down the path, taking me along the side of the museum building, a large, chunky sand-coloured structure a few stories high, styled similarly to some of the buildings in Miyazaki's films with smoothed edges and small stained glass windows. From the pathway, a wrought-iron spiral staircase protruded from the upper floor of the building giving access to the roof. Little more about the innards of the building was obvious from the outside, and I had little choice but to work my way through the outer gardens and join the gaggle of excited children and parents, standing in a large queue outside talking excitedly with each other about the experience ahead.

Eventually, I made it to the entrance, where my voucher was swapped for a special museum ticket, a kind of souvenir itself, being a few cells of one of the Ghibli films, encased in a little cardboard frame. Since it showed a few frames from Princess Mononoke, it now sits proudly next to my Ashitaka and San Cominica figures.

There is a slight picture break here; the reason for this is that the museum staff were very vigilant on anyone taking pictures of the inside of the building, stating that Miyazaki wishes people to remember it in their minds and hearts. Out of respect for his wishes, I'll be brief with the contents of the museum.

The museum was designed largely by Miyazaki himself, and many little references to films and other works pepper the museum. It's designed with a childlike exploration in mind, with multiple ways to get up through the different floors from the bottom to the top. The idea is for the kids to go off and crawl through holes and go up stairs and generally lark about like children, while the parents and big kids such as myself stroll through the rooms and exhibits.

Each ticket provides its owner with a single viewing of an exclusive Ghibli Museum Short Film at the in-house Saturn Theatre screening room on the ground floor, although the time and day you go will determine which you see, and you won't know until you get there. I danced about like the other kids in the queue with fingers crossed it would be 'The Day I Harvested a Star', but was more than happy to get to see Koro's Big Day Out, a lovely little flick about a puppy who escapes from his young owner and gets into all sorts of scrapes as the panic-stricken pup tries to find its way back, occasionally helped by well-meaning strangers along the way. Like many of their films, it was a little cute, a little funny, and a little scary, and both parents and children alike spent the entire film with big goofy smiles on their faces.

Slowly I made my way from the bottom to the top, each floor packed with squealing, running children and cooing adults. There was a section of exhibits on the film processes, one made up like Miyazaki's typically cluttered artists' rooms, a book library with titles from all over the world picked out specially by Miyazaki because of their imaginative stories. There were also rooms that were devoted to installations by other artists the world over; there had previously been exhibits by Pixar and Aardman Animations, and this time it was a collection of works based on Tolstoy's picture book version of the old-fashioned fairy-tale The 3 Bears.

On the top floor was the main draw if you were 7 or under: a massive furry catbus that took up most of the room, crawling with a constantly rotated group of children. I had heard about this before, but was not expecting the gaggle of parents, museum staff and huge numbers of kids. I had joked before leaving for Japan that I was definitely going to have myself photographed inside the catbus, but there was going to be no way, the staff had a very rigid age limit set and short of setting the fire alarm off there was nothing I could do after my third beg to the alpha staff member.

By now, the museum was operating at capacity. I went outside to the balconies and visited the Straw Hat Cafe, which was hugely busy. They were serving slice after slice of cartoon-style cakes and ice creams and hot dogs, and finally after a lot of waiting I managed to get a large strawberry cream cake and a seat and gorged on it for a while. The influx of people was relentless and the exit which I could see below me was populated by parents in two minds whether to step through the exit, often with children trying to drag them the other way for a final look round. The result - it was getting seriously packed.

After finishing off my cake, I headed up those wrought iron spiral steps to the top, where an enormous robot from Laputa stood in the centre of a rooftop garden, waiting for small children to come along to pose for pictures (the no cameras rule didn't apply outside). Behind him was a small area for parents to get their breath back and walk in peace amongst the bamboo and grasses, although it was clear that a few more months would be needed before it recovered from the winter.

There was only one thing left to do, and that was head to the souvenir shop. 'Mamma Aiuto' was packed with official Ghibli stuff. Everything from little badges to enormous plushes (especially of the perennial Totoro's) and plenty in between - artbooks, DVD's, soundtracks, loads of soft toys, fragile looking and expensive glasses, cutlery and dinner sets, and some very desirable but very pricey (30,000 yen or more - about £150) framed cell and background scenes from the films. I sat for a little while after perusing what was on offer on the helpfully-positioned benches outside, debating about one of the cells I had seen (a beautiful sunset scene from Whisper of the Heart going for about 37,000 yen) and finally coming down on 'no' since it would never survive the trip, and its not something you can fold (and its really expensive).

Decision time came when an elderly lady made some subtle glances in my direction that she wanted my place on the crowded seat. With only a cursory thought towards how I was going to transport anything else back with me, I launched back into the shop and bought myself some little badges (little Totoros and one of Miyazaki in his self-imposed characture as a pig) some DVD's (including the Short Films collection and the Ghibli Museum DVD with the Russian animator Yuri Norstein), a couple of soundtracks I was missing, the official museum book, and the Laputa artbook, a large high-quality, book containing stills from the film as well as all sorts of concept art as well - which I had spent a long time searching for in the UK without success. Since they were there I also got the accompanying books for Koro, Mei and the Kittenbus and The Day I harvested a Star, since they were all in the same style and I couldn't decide between them. About 20,000 yen all in. I must be mad.

Heaving it outside, it was impractical to try and work my way round the museum any more since some of it would be almost certainly damaged by the knees and elbows of a thousand or more visitors. I hesitantly crossed the threshold of the entrance, a very one-way road as explained by the staff member there, and my visit was over.

Behind the museum is the large Inokashira Park, and rather than going back via the road, I strolled through the park in the warm April sun. It was almost as crowded as the museum, with gravel tracks around squares of grassed land covered with people sitting and chatting in the sun, jogging round or playing football. I took a breather on a park bench and watched the world go by for a while and it occurred to me for the first time that my holiday was nearly at a close.

Back at the station, I was a little annoyed to see a branded Ghibli bus waiting to transport passengers down to the museum, although on reflection my trip there was more enjoyable by foot (wouldn't have minded it taking me back though). I boarded my train to Shinjuku and it hit me just what I had left myself to do. Now I had three bulky Mamma Aiuto bags to go with my two backpacks and another large plastic bag containing the Mt Fuji choccy. Instead of taking them all at once, I figured I should find my hotel first and come back for half of it.

Shinjuku station was large and busy - in fact it is officially the busiest in Japan, and the evening had just begun, meaning revellers were heading out and tired office staff were coming back. I made a stab at the direction of the hotel, my map being a typical JTB map that is sort of right but also sort of not. I passed through some of Shinjuku before finding myself back at the station, this time at the east side, having passed three separate people pleasantly trying to sell me massages and 'Big American Man' sex sessions (yes, I declined). Shinjuku station happily had a tourist information office, a cramped one-person booth which I squeezed into and asked the thankfully English speaking person for directions. The described some landmarks to work by and some street names (some of the larger shops in Japan often have enormous cube-shaped advertising boards on their roofs) and sent me on my way.

Somehow, and I don't fully know even now, I managed to work through the shopping complexes and wide roads and their crossing areas (which always had a million people trying to cross from each side), past glittering windows advertising cheap, hi-tech gadgetry and displaying posters of various western icons (Timberlake, Beckham etc.). The route took me out of that district and into a slightly different one, where the retail outfits were replaced by red neon and lots of X's. Fortunately they passed by and finally up a road my hotel. I checked in, put my bags down, and retraced my steps to the station to hulk back my remaining possessions.

After getting myself some food at a nearby Italian restaurant, I did a little bit of photo transferring and headed to bed, tired and aching. Tomorrow was my final full day - a day which would be spent at least partially getting more stuff for gifts for folks back home. I would also have to try and find another suitcase, into which this growing pile of tat would have to go. For now, I just watched some telly until my eyes got heavy.

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