Aug. 27, 2006: Tokyo and Ghibli

And now back, as promised, to Hayao Miyazaki. This was our day to tour the Ghibli Museum, dedicated to Miyazaki’s animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Since there is no parking available at the museum in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, it’s necessary to go by public transit, tour bus, bicycle, motorcycle or pogo stick. We considered the tour bus to be the most practical and pleasant option. In fact, Yukari already bought tickets for all of us in advance, and when we asked her how much they were so we could reimburse her, she smiled defiantly and said, “You should have been here.” Guess she’s trying to get even with us for Disney.

Accompanied by Yukari, Ayaka and Keisuke, we headed into downtown Kumagaya City on this sleepy Sunday morning and caught our bus for the long ride into Tokyo.

Zephyr and Ayaka stopped pestering each other long enough to share a seat, and both even fell asleep in a charming pose that we couldn’t resist photographing to blackmail him with later.

About halfway through the ride, we took a bathroom and refreshment break at one of the rest stops along the tollway. Dennis was in the mood for some coffee, which he had yet to drink in Japan; but because of his hypersensitivity to caffeine, he restricts himself to the decaffeinated variety. At a coffee stand in the rest stop he tried inquiring if they had any decaf, but was getting nowhere – he didn’t know the Japanese word for decaf, but figured it must be similar to English, just as “kohi” is similar to coffee. Along came Yukari to the rescue, and informed him that in fact, there is no decaf anywhere in Japan! And yet the people are fairly heavy coffee drinkers and cola drinkers, and extremely heavy tea drinkers. With this much stimulant being pumped into their systems, how on earth do they manage to stay so mellow?

En route to Tokyo, we passed by quite a number of baseball fields, all in full swing, as it were. Baseball (“yakyu”) is an extremely popular activity in Japan. Not only do people love watching the professional teams play, but many also play on amateur teams, wearing uniforms modeled after those in the major leagues, including English lettering. And Sunday morning seems to be prime time for these games.

The bus tour was in two parts; Ghibli would come later in the afternoon, but first we all were let loose at a shopping center in Tokyo, down by the waterfront. We had a view of a variety of vessels passing by, ranging from what appeared to be a spaceship/submarine to one that looked like a Chinese junk without sails.

And we could see one of those gigantic Ferris wheels and the landmark Rainbow Bridge – which, we learned, earned its moniker not from any pigmentation in the concrete, but from the colored lighting that illuminates the structure at night after absorbing energy from the sun in the daytime.

Also not far away was Tokyo Tower. Been there, done that.

As soon as we were off the bus, we descended upon a Chinese restaurant for an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet included in the price of the tour. (For an additional fee, one could partake of an all-you-can-drink liquor bar as well, but we didn’t see anyone taking advantage of that this early in the day.) We managed to round up enough vegetarian items (many of which featured eggs in one form or another), which weren’t too shabby, to fill our tummies.

Then we were all free to do a mall crawl on our own, for over 2 hours. This, we all agreed, was entirely too long. We were eager to get on to Ghibli, and none of us is a professional shopper (well, except maybe for Keisuke). We figured it was all a pretty shrewd move by the tour company: they cut a deal with the restaurant and the shops to bring in fresh bodies; kiddies put up with their mothers shopping for a while because they know the mommies will be more contented taking them to Ghibli later.

In any case, even though we were malled too heavily, there were plenty of interesting shops to browse through, including one that specialized in those wonderful old tin robots and rockets and futuristic cars.

And some other eyebrow-raising merchandise.

There was also a whole gamut of sweets and treats, including every kind of mochi this side of the Milky Way. So we didn’t mind spending some time prospecting, especially since time was running short to complete our gift shopping for folks back home. (We didn’t have much success here, but it was an educational expedition anyway.) Oh yes, and we mustn’t forget those “designer” hermit crabs for sale with brightly painted shells, happily munching away on popcorn.

The clothing stores were a bit pricey, but Kimberly was compelled to scour them anyway, after she discovered a hole in her pants. The tags on most of the prospects she examined were steep enough to encourage her to just keep on wearing Ayaka’s sweater tied around her waist instead. But she did manage to find one pair of suitable brown trousers on sale for only 1000 yen (10 bucks) so she snapped them up and snapped them on. We now call them her japants.

Speaking of clothing, we’ve been searching in vain, everywhere we go, for T-shirts and/or caps with Japanese writing on them. But they seem to be nowhere in captivity. It’s very trendy here to wear clothes with English lettering and wording, but the words don’t always form a coherent sentence. There are stories about Americans getting tattoos (which, by the way, you rarely see over here, as they’re quite frowned upon) of Chinese or Japanese characters, and then learning that the meaning is radically and embarrassingly different from what they’d thought. We haven’t seen anything that drastic, but there have been a few messages to make us give a double take. One such T-shirt, witnessed at Disney, proclaimed; “It is surely possible. Let’s spend it all. We live in space.” Which is either patent nonsense, or utterly profound. But the one we spotted today was even better yet: “Spiral and Girl. New Imagine Create. Splash out a season’s subscription to your face, and each month you’ll get.”

Likewise, the merchandise you’ll see promoting sports teams is far more likely to “sport” the logo of an American club than a local one. Kimberly has been searching for a souvenir for a friend who’s a baseball nut – specifically, he requested something touting the Yomiuri Giants. And you’d think, given the reverence the Japanese have for that particular organization, that a cornucopia of such items would be found in sporting goods and souvenir shops such as the ones here. But nope. She might as well have been searching for hen’s teeth.

Zephyr took advantage of our extended layover to patronize Joypolis, a fabled indoor video “amusement park”.

His parents, however, would have found a monkey more entertaining. Come to think of it, they did. Just outside on a walkway was a young street performer with a very well trained monkey who enthralled the crowds with all kinds of fantastic tricks, including making some very difficult hoop jumps. (It was the monkey who did this, not the young man.) They brought laughter and enthusiastic applause from even the most staid of onlookers.

At last, we were ready to move on to Ghibli, and admire the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki and company. Miyazaki is often thought of as the Japanese Walt Disney, and indeed Disney has marketed English-dubbed editions of some of his works. The results, however, have not been consistently favorable; we heartily enjoyed the original Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta (better known as Laputa), which we viewed with English subtitles, but we hear that its Disney incarnation, Castle in the Sky, never got off the ground. Ghibli is reported to be less than enchanted with some such makeovers, and accordingly has demanded a policy of stricter adherence to the originals. The rumor goes that in dispatching one of his creations to the U.S. for dubbing, Miyazaki enclosed a note reminding “no cuts” – and emphasized the point by attaching it to a samurai sword!

When we arrived at Ghibli Museum, the first thing that caught our eye was the towering cyclopean steel robot, like the ones appearing in Laputa, standing guard over the premises.

Up front, by the entrance window, visitors are greeted by a furrier and less foreboding presence: Totoro, the 6-foot Harvey/teddy bearish star of My Neighbor Totoro.

Inside the building is one of the most creatively laid-out museums we’ve ever encountered, built upon the theme “Let’s lose our way together”, and it certainly is a fun place to get lost in. There’s not a plain, straight or barren wall in the place; but the architecture, like the content, is flowing, organic, convoluted, natural and wonder-invoking. It’s not really a maze, but there is a hint of a labyrinth in its spatial orientation – or disorientation. There are spiral staircases, a small bridge curiously arching over the main floor, and unexpected nooks and crannies into which unexpected treasures have been tucked.

These included a mock-up of an animator’s studio (and a rather old-fashioned one at that); a depiction of the steps involved in animating a film; demonstrations of the principles of animation via a strobe diorama and an elaborate zoetrope; and a temporary exhibit of claymation figures used in Wallace and Gromit.

There was also a theatre for screening animation shorts (about 15 minutes long), decked out in the motifs of nature; the ceiling was a rotunda with the sun painted on it, and when the lights dim, the moon appears. The short we saw was Monmon the Water Spider, a cute little love story – with no dialogue, yet – involving a water spider and a flying creature (mosquito?) who apparently were supposed to be an odd couple, though not as odd as Michael and Lisa Marie. Admission to the film was included in admission to the museum (there are three shorts screened daily, but each visit only entitles you to see one) and the ticket to the theatre contained a celluloid strip with a few frames of animation on it. Each person receives a different set of images, so you can compare yours to your neighbors’ while you wait in line.

We also just had to spend some time browsing in the gift shop, even though it was elbow-to-rib with people. We managed to pick up another gift or two, and Dennis couldn’t force himself to exit without buying a CD of soundtrack music from Tales of Earthsea. It was playing when we entered the shop, and he immediately fell in love with it, as he generally does with Ghibli music. Most of the Miyazaki features are scored by Mamoru Fujisawa, better known as Joe Hisaishi, a pseudonym derived from the Japanese transcription of Quincy Jones, the American composer/arranger whom he admires. Hisaishi has an extraordinary gift for poignant, lyrical, hummable melodies – which, especially when played by the Tokyo Symphony (surely one of the most expressive orchestras ever to follow a baton), results in some of the most haunting soundtracks ever to be ignored by the majority of filmgoers. Laputa especially is one of our favorites.

The Earthsea score was not composed by Hisaishi, but it sounds very much like his style. We knew what it was, because footage from the film was being shown along with it, on a screen on the wall. There was also a video of a singer, a young lady who didn’t look over 15, performing a poignant little song from the score. [Her name is Aoi Teshima, and she was actually 19.] When Dennis heard this enchanting soundtrack, he knew it would always be a magic button to conjure of vivid images of this incredible trip to Japan.

But three albums were displayed beside the screen, and although we thought we knew which one we should select, we weren’t sure, since none of them had English on the cover. So Dennis carried what he figured was the right one to the register and asked “Eigo hanashimasu ka?” (“Do you speak English?”) He was referred to a young man who replied “Little bit”. (His “little bit”, however, seemed to be a little bit more than the “little bit” of Japanese that we speak.) So then Dennis asked, “I want to know, is this the movie soundtrack?” The young man responded in the affirmative, so he shelled out his hard-earned yen, and the bustling store spat him back out.

Once we’d seen the inside of the building, we went to the roof, to stroll through the little sculpture garden, and attempt to obtain a photo of all of us coddling the giant robot – whose eyes themselves look like lenses of a camera. But even though the woman to whom we handed our camera was quite patient, she was unable to coax a single pixel out of our cantankerous new camera.

(Here are some public domain images of Ghibli to help take up the slack.)

After hurriedly buying some snacks at a quick shop across the street for our long ride home, we all boarded the bus and settled in to hear the same woman who’d yapped all the way out here (she was supposed to be having a conversation, but it turned out to be a monologue) resume where she left off. Keisuke passed the time by playing with his cell phone, and we were amazed to learn that he could enter kanji into it. Not just the phonetic writing systems of katakana or hiragana, but kanji, which consists of the complex ideograms borrowed from the Chinese. How do they do that?