Visiting the places which have inspired the films of Hayao Miyazaki is not just for fans of the great animator’s films, but for anyone who wants to visit some of the most stunning natural landscapes and interesting cities in Japan. This tour takes in the Ghibli Museum and Sayama Hills in Tokyo, the Totoro House in Nagoya, Tomonoura, Matsuyama, Kagoshima and finally the magical woodlands of Yakushima. The basic itinerary is 12 days, with suggested extra excursions that you can add on as you please, and assumes arrival and departure from Narita Airport in Tokyo.
- Day 1: Arrive at Narita Airport and take the airport bus or train into the city. Stay in Tokyo.
- Day 2: Visit the ever-popular Ghibli Museum in Tokyo’s western suburbs, accessed from Mitaka Station, just 13 minutes on a JR Chuo Line express train from Shinjuku station, a major terminal (220 yen). You need to buy tickets for the museum in advance for a certain day and time, and information on how to do so can be found on the museum’s website here. Tickets bought outside Japan incur a handling fee, but the museum can fill up on weekends and holidays so it is worth paying the extra if you are set on visiting the museum. The museum takes around 90 minutes to visit, so there’s still time left in the day if you visit in the morning. Another Ghibli sight in Tokyo is the Sayama Hills, whose natural woodlands inspired the forests seen in the 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no totoro). It’s conveniently close to the museum; from Mitaka station, take the JR Chuo line express service 11 minutes west to Tachikawa station (220 yen), from where the park is a 10-15 minute walk north from the North exit. Stay in Tokyo.
- Day 3: Spend another day in Tokyo. For interesting daytrips and excursions in and around Tokyo, click here.
- Day 4: Take the train to Nagoya to visit Satsuki and Mei’s Totoro House, an exact replica of the Kusakabe house from My Neighbour Totoro. The house is located in Moricoro Park, where Nagoya held the 2005 World Exposition. For Japan Rail Pass users, the 10:03 Hikari shinkansen from Tokyo Station arrives at Nagoya at 12:09 (11080 yen), allowing you to miss the morning rush hour but still arrive in time for lunch. For an overview on rail travel and railpasses, click here. The station offers a plethora of delicious Nagoya specialities such as pork cutlet with miso or freshwater eel in sweet sauce on a bed of rice. For a cup of coffee and a view, head up to Café du Ciel on the 51st floor of the JR Nagoya Station Tower.
- From Nagoya Station, take the Higashiyama Line to Fujigaoka at 13:06, arriving at 13:33, then change to the Linimo Line at 13:41 for the short journey to Aichikyuhaku kinenkoen station. This stretch of the journey will allow you to travel on the only MagLev (magnetic levitation) train in Japan. Satsuki and Mei’s house is a 15-minute walk from the station. This is another attraction which needs advance booking for a certain time; this can only be done in Japan from Loppi ticket machines found in Lawson and Ministop convenience stores; ask staff in the shop if they can help you buy the ticket, or go with a Japanese speaker. Otherwise tickets can be bought on a first-come first-served basis in the morning, but this is not recommended as each time slot is limited to just 50 people. For photos of the house, see this blog.
- In the evening, take the train west to Fukuyama. From Nagoya, rail pass users can take the 19:11 Hikari Shinkansen from Nagoya, arriving in Fukuyama at 21:43 (12280 yen), with a change of trains at Himeji. Stay in Fukuyama.
- Day 5: From Fukuyama, take the bus south to Tomonoura, a charmingly ramshackle fishing port and the inspiration for the setting of Ponyo on the Cliff (Gake no ue no Ponyo). Buses leave every 20 minutes from stop 5 outside Fukuyama Station for Tomonoura port. Tomonoura is a lovely town for wandering, getting lost, enjoying fine views of the harbour, and sampling houmeishu, a local liquor.
- In the late afternoon or evening, take the bus back to Fukuyama and then take a train to Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku. The 18:36 Kodama Shinkansen from Fukuyama will arrive at Okayama at 19:04, giving you time to buy a snacks or a beer for the 19:35 Shiokaze train to Matsuyama, arriving exactly 3 hours later at 22:35. Stay in Matsuyama.
- Day 6: In Matsuyama, make a beeline for Dogo Onsen Honkan, the beautiful old bathhouse that inspired the labyrinthine baths in Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Having soaked travelling pains away in the ancient waters, spend the rest of the day sightseeing in Matsuyama, with prime attractions such as one of Japan’s 12 original castles imposingly situated above the city on a 123 metre high hill. Stay in Matsuyama.
- Day 7: Travel to Kagoshima. Rail pass users who want to take the train can take the 8:10 Shiokaze service to Okayama arriving at 10:58, and there change to the 11:46 Sakura Shinkansen direct to Kagoshima Chuo station, arriving at 15:01.
- Day 8: Take the regular ferry or jetfoil to Yakushima, the stunning island whose primary forest inspired Ghibli’s eco-fable Princess Mononoke (Mononoke hime). The ferry is slower but cheaper, and less likely to be cancelled. The jetfoil is quicker and has more services, but more expensive, and cancelled in even moderately high seas, so I recommend the ferry. The ferry departs Kagoshima port at 8:30am and arrives in Miyanoura at 12:30pm (Rail pass not valid, 8700 yen return). The most convenient morning jetfoil leaves Kagoshima at 7:45am and arrives in Miyanoura at 9:45am (16700 yen return). The full timetable can be found here.
- After arriving, stock up on information at the very helpful tourist information office in the ferry port, particularly hiking maps and bus timetables. Without your own car it’s difficult to do any hiking on the day of arrival; Yakushima is another place where hiring a vehicle allows you to escape from rigid bus timetables and see the island at your own pace. If you don’t rent a car, after arriving there is time to take the bus to Isso beach or Nagata beach on the northern coast, where snorkelling is also possible. In the evening, eat at the ever-popular Shiosai restaurant on the main road in Miyanoura, or buy sushi and other goodies from the nearby supermarket – you’ll need to come here anyway to buy food if you plan to do some hiking. Stay in Miyanoura.
- Day 9: Visit the forest for which Yakushima is famous. Serious hikers can tackle the highly recommended 10 hour, 20 kilometer hike to Jomon-sugi, a 7200 year old cedar tree in the middle of Yakushima’s virgin forest, passing a number of major Yakushima landmarks; the fantastic viewpoint from Taikoiwa, the Wilson Stump, the remains of a tree so large you can wander round inside it, and the 1800 year old Daio-sugi cedar tree. The walk starts from Shiratani-unsuikyo, and to get there in time for the full hike you’ll need to catch the hideously early 5:01am bus from Miyanoura (550 yen one way). The last bus back from Shiratani-unsuikyo leaves at 5:10pm, after which a taxi will cost around 3000 yen. The walk is well signposted and very popular, so you will not need any maps beyond those provided at the information centre. You will however need good hiking boots and waterproofs; Yakushima is one of the wettest places in Japan. Stay in Miyanoura
- If you don’t want to tackle the full hike, take a later bus at 8:17 from Miyanoura to Shiratani-unsuikyo, and tackle some of the shorter hikes in that area, ranging from a one hour amble through ancient forest and giant cedars, to a more challenging four hour trip to Taikoiwa and back. Both hikes will take you through the moss-covered forest where deer roam freely, just like the forest scenes in Princess Mononoke.
- Day 10: The ferry departs Yakushima at 13:30, arriving in Kagoshima at 17:30. Either spend a leisurely morning browsing for souvenirs in Miyanoura and perhaps recovering from the long hike, or take the bus south to Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a famous hot spring by the sea only accessible two to three hours either side of low tide (check tide times with your accommodation or tourist information). Stay in Kagoshima.
- Day 11: Travel back to Tokyo. Railpass users can take the 8:03 Sakura Shinkansen, arriving at Shin-Osaka Station at 12:24, connecting with the 12:40 Hikari Shinkansen, arriving at Tokyo Station at 15:40. Stay in Tokyo.
- Day 12: Travel by airport express train or airport bus to Narita for outbound flight.
Between Day 4 and Day 5
- Extra option 1: First time visitors to Japan should not miss Kyoto, the historic capital, which will amply reward at least a 2 day stay, if not more. The 19:11 departure from Nagoya passes through Kyoto, arriving at 19:47 (5790 yen)
- Extra option 2: Spend an extra day in Nagoya and take a daytrip to the castle town of Inuyama, just 30 minutes from Nagoya Station on the Meitetsu line (rail passes not accepted, 540 yen). Rail pass users can save money by taking the Takayama line to Unuma Station, around 20 minutes walk from central Inuyama. Inuyama’s beautiful castle is one of the oldest in Japan, dating from 1537, and has been declared a National Treasure by the government. Other attractions include the fine Urakuen garden, where you can take green tea and traditional confectionery in beautiful surroundings, and in summer cormorant fishing, a method of cashing river fish using cormorants that dates back 1300 years (link).
- Extra option 3: Take a daytrip from Nagoya to Tokoname, a town that has been producing ceramics for over 900 years. Tokoname is off the tourist trail, but easily accessed just 42 minutes from Nagoya on the Meitetsu line (rail pass not accepted, 660 yen). You can wander the Pottery Path, whole streets made from the earthenware for which Tokoname is famous, and then see displays of fine wares at the nearby Ceramic Hall.
- Extra option 4: Those who want to get away from the beaten track could consider a trip down the Atsumi Peninsula to see the beautiful coastal scenery around Koijigahama beach and Cape Irago, popular with surfers, then take a boat over to Toba to rejoin the Ghibli trail at Fukuyama.
Between Day 5 and Day 6
- Extra option 1: On the evening of Day 5, take the train from Fukuyama and Hiroshima. Spend one or two days there visiting the Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Park and Museum, and the “floating shrine” of Itsukushima on Miyajima Island. Then take the ferry from Hiroshima to Matsuyama; an early morning departure at 8:15 will get you into Matsuyama at 10:55, while the latest evening service leaves at 19:45, arriving at 22:25. Full timetable is available here.
- Extra option 2: Cycle the 70 kilometer Shimanami Kaido, one of Japan’s most beautiful and well designed cycling routes. Rental bikes are available and the route takes one full (and tiring!) day. The scenery visible along the route was also an inspiration for Ponyo. To do this, take the JR Sanyo line from Fukuyama 19 minutes east to Onomichi on the evening of Day 5. This is the start of the cycling trail, while the finish is in Imabari, just 50 minutes by train from Matsuyama.
Between Day 6 and Day 7
- Extra option 1: From Matsuyama, travel south to Kubokawa to spend two days exploring the middle reaches of the unspoiled Shimanto River, the setting for a number of scenes in Ghibli’s 1993 film Ocean Waves (Umi ga kikoeru). The 9:03 Uwakai train from Matsuyama arrives at Uwajima at 10:24, connecting with the 10:29 train to Kubokawa, arriving at 13:16. This is an area where one’s own transport is almost a necessity, so if you want to visit do consider renting a car.
- Taking the ferry between Shikoku and Kyushu to get to Kagoshima allows an easy stop in coastal Beppu, one of Japan’s largest hot spring resorts, and the beautifully situated town of Yufuin, one hour inland by train. The 8:08 Uwakai train from Matsuyama reaches Yawatahama Station at 8:58. From here Yawatahama port is 5 minutes by taxi, 10 minutes by bus or 30 minutes walk away. The 10:15 ferry departure arrives in Beppu at 13:05, allowing an afternoon wallowing in hot springs before spending the following day in Yufuin; for more information on Yufuin click here, and for a full ferry timetable click here. A morning departure from Beppu can get you to Kagoshima by lunchtime; the 8:53 Sonic train arrives in Kokura at 10:03, connecting with the 10:26 Sakura Shinkansen to Kagoshima Chuo Station, arriving at 12:10
Between Day 7 and Day 8
- Extra Option 2: Kagoshima is a fascinating city, beautifully located on a bay facing an active volcano, which more than justifies a one, two or three day stay. For more information on what Kagoshima has to offer, click here.
Between Day 10 and Day 11
- Extra option: This two night itinerary is the minimum you would want to spend in Yakushima, but there is much more to reward a longer stay. Keen hikers could try a two or three day hike across the whole island, staying in mountain huts (these are just huts, so you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bags, cooking equipment and the like) and scaling the 1936 metre peak of Miyanoura-dake, the highest point in all of Southern Kyushu. If you rent a car, a very enjoyable day could be had driving round the island, stopping for excellent views, hot spring baths and cute cafes. This also allows access to the remote western side of the island, too narrow for buses to pass, where you are guaranteed sights of monkeys and deer. Yakushima is also an excellent spot for hitchhiking; for more information on hitchhiking in Japan, see here.Between Day 11 and 12
- Extra Option: Break the long journey with a night in Osaka, or take the two nights in Kyoto suggested as an extra option on Day 4 here on the return journey instead.