Spirited Away to Jiufen

8 08 2007

It’s not secret that I am a big Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki fan. I grew up watching such classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Gauche the Cellist in Japanese with Chinese subtitles (meaning I couldn’t understand a word), so I appreciated the art of Studio Ghibli before I understood the storylines. My interest grew when I finally got my hands on Japanese versions with English subtitles.

Studio Ghibli logo

How can anyone not fall for such a cute and furry character?

So imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that Jiufen, a village located on the northeast coast of Taiwan, was one of the inspirations for the village in Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Apparently Mr. Miyasaki visited the little village on a mountain and was charmed by it. There is even a teahouse set in the mountain that features masks similar to the ambiguous black robed spirit (No Face) with a mask in the movie.

Here’s a movie poster for Spirited Away:

Spirited Away Movie Poster

Here is a picture of Jiufen at night.


What do you think?

According to Wikipedia, Jiufen was a gold mining town that reached its peak under the time of Japanese rule in Taiwan. After the gold was exhausted, interest in this town declined significantly. Since the town was largely forgotten except by those living there, it is a well preserved example of a mountain town under Japanese colonization. The town was “rediscovered” as a tourist destination after it was featured in a movie called “City of Sadness” that was released in 1989.

We are planning to visit Jiufen along with Lukang, another preserved historic village, on our Taiwan visit. I’m not just visiting it for the Studio Ghibli tie-in, don’t worry. It is supposed to be a very quaint town with lots of specialty foods set in a beautiful mountain overlooking the ocean. I will report back with my thoughts after I see it with my own eyes!


Tokyo – Day 2

29 07 2007

Note: We went to Tokyo in May 2006. Please scroll down to the first Tokyo post, titled “Tokyo – May 2006” to start at the beginning of this series of posts.

On Day 2, we went to Asakusa, Akihabara, and Shibuya.

Asakusa is a must-see for anyone going to Japan for the first time. Yes, it is touristy, but its popularity is well deserved. The main attraction for Asakusa is the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. When you first walk out of the station, it looks like any other city block in Tokyo except the buildings look a little older. Then you get to Thunder Gate, a grand entrance marking the beginning of the temple grounds that is guarded by the gods of Thunder and Lightning.

Thunder Gate

After you pass the massive gate, you come to a long outdoor arcade of shops selling touristy trinkets, traditional snacks, and other souvenirs. Even though most things being sold are knick-knacks, we found some great souvenirs here.

After walking past the shops, you finally come to the temple itself. Tourists and pilgrims come here to make incense offerings in the outer courtyard before this Buddhist temple. Inside the temple itself, you can pay a nominal fee for a fortune. If you get a bad fortune, you tie it to a tree and the bad luck will be taken away from you.

Sensoji Temple

Next to the Sensoji Temple is a five story pagoda dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu. (I had to look that up, as I couldn’t remember to whom it was dedicated.) There is also a beautiful temple garden that has trees, ponds full of carp, and small monuments and little houses.

Sensoji Temple garden

Sensoji Temple garden 2

After leaving the temple grounds, I discovered there was a Studio Ghibli store right outside of Thunder Gate (on the left coming out of the gate). I was really excited and dragged Charles inside to look at everything Totoro. It wasn’t until later that I realized that there are Studio Ghibli stores EVERYWHERE. There is also a Studio Ghibli store in the underground mall at Tokyo station, and of course in the Studio Ghibli museum. I heard there is a big store in Odaiba, and one near the Tokyo Tower. But I digress…

Our next destination was Akihabara, the electronics section of Tokyo. This area is popular with students, tech geeks, and anime fans. While the area is said to be not as good for electronics as in the past, it is still a great place to poke around. There are still tons of electonics shops, both little ones lining a shopping arcade to 8 story stores with several departments featuring different appliances.


In addition, we found a street off of the main drag where there was a row of cheap eats, including a ramen shop, a tonkatsu (port cutlet) shop, and an udon shop, among other choices. We had a great lunch in the ramen shop, and it was pretty easy to make our order understood (again, the order by number via the plasticized food menu). We only stuck around a little while here, but I wish we had more time to browse! We saw some tiny Canon cameras that the US mostly wouldn’t even see in stores for at least a year.

Our last stop of the day was Shibuya, the famous trendy area of Tokyo where the young and fashionable come to shop. We first stopped by Hachiko the statue, a monument to the famously loyal dog that is now a popular meeting place.

Here’s Hachiko:

Hachiko the dog

And here is the famous Shibuya crossing, the Japanese version of Times Square. Amid humongous flashing screens hawking ads is a large 3 road intersection. The coordination between the pedestrians walking and cars driving is amazing. The intersection is so large that all pedestrians walk at the same time and all cars drive at the same time.

Shibuya crossing

We walked around Shibuya, gathering in the atmosphere. Imagine pop music blaring, ads flashing, bright shops selling all kinds of things and throngs of people everywhere and you might get a hint of what Shibuya is like. There was an underground arcade full of teenagers and a first floor area that had dozens of claw machines where you try to pick up different stuffed animals. From my knowledge of Asian culture gleaned from watching Hong Kong movies, winning a stuffed animal from the claw game seems to be a mandatory date activity a la “He won me that giant panda – our relationship must be fate!”

We also saw a bunch of American fast food chains represented in trendy Shibuya.

KFC Shibuya

We returned to our business hotel after our busy day and had dinner inside Tokyo Station. Here I am going to rhapsodize about Tokyo Station and its underground mall. It is fantastic, convenient, and huge! It has a gourmet supermarket where you can grab groceries or pre-made dinners! It has a Studio Ghibli store, an arcade, a drugstore, and other random clothing stores. It has restaurants, including a breakfast place, a traditional Japanese lunch place, and a conveyor belt sushi place! We actually ate at the conveyor belt sushi place for dinner, and it was great! The sushi was fresh and there was quite a selection (at least compared to the Americanied Japanese places in the US). Seeing that we are so close to the Tsukiji fish market, it comes as no surprise that the sushi is fresh even at the little sushi place next to the train station.

Ah, another satisfying yet hectic day in the rambling city of Tokyo.

Next: My last day in Tokyo, walking around the Imperial Palace and the Marunouchi business district.

Tokyo – Day 1

28 07 2007

Note: We went to Tokyo in May 2006. Please scroll down to the first Tokyo post, titled “Tokyo – May 2006” to start at the beginning of this series of posts.

Charles: We were up early today, around 6:00 AM. I just couldn’t sleep anymore, no matter how hard I tried. (Sandy: Jetlag is the worst – I hate getting the “your head feels like it is in a tight helmet all day” feeling)

We wandered around Ginza looking for breakfast, but nothing would open until 8:00. One street in Ginza reminded me of the Champs Elysee. All the major French and Italian luxury designers have boutiques in Ginza, and there is a myriad of bistros and cafes. In fact, it seems difficult to find traditional Japanese breakfast anywhere, because the Japanese seem to prefer French pastries. Eventually a cafe opened and we had pastries and coffee for about $10. So yes, it was just like the Champs Elysee.

Sandy: Here’s a pic of a side street in Ginza. It’s so cute!

Ginza side street

Charles: We checked out of our hotel in Ginza and headed for the conference hotel in downtown Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace. We couldn’t check in yet, so we left our luggage with the bell desk and went on our next adventure, the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Mitaka is a suburb of Tokyo, so we took a commuter train. I really liked Mitaka, it was a little more laid back. People were jogging, going for walks and riding bikes. The Ghibli museum is in a giant park. In case you don’t already know, Studio Ghibli makes animated movies in Japan. They’re the Japanese equivalent of Disney.

Since Sandy saw lots of Ghibli movies as a child, she really wanted to see the museum. The museum was a lot of fun. It was just like a children’s museum back in the U.S.

Sandy: Studio Ghibli is the famed animation studio headed by acclaimed director Hayao Miyasaki and Isao Takahata that was responsible for such wonderful films as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and more recently Howl’s Moving Castle. Disney distributes the English language version of these film in the US, so you may have heard of them.

I am obsessed with all things Totoro. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the Studio Ghibli museum. I need to post a picture of my Totoro collection one day.

Charles: After the museum we took the train back into Tokyo, but we got out before reaching downtown in an area called Nakano.

Sandy: Nakano Broadway is a very long covered arcade filled with little shops that is right next to the train station. There are a few floors, with specialization in certain areas. We went there because I heard that this was a good place to find anime stuff. They have a branch of Mandarake there. It looked like there were lots of different anime figurines there – like vintage Godzilla, masks, etc..

It seemed like a place where more locals went since we saw no other recognizable tourists there. It is like a market, with gift shops, clothing shops, trinket shops, restaurants, and snack stands. I liked the shops at Asakusa better for traditional gifts though. Nakano Broadway is not flashy at all and was more like other markets in Asia, and seemed older than other shopping streets in Tokyo.

Nakano Broadway

Charles: We shopped around for a bit and then headed to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a really crowded area. There are lights and TVs blasting images at you from the sides of large buildings. In Shinjuku we went to Isetan, a large Japanese department store. The bottom floor of Isetan is a huge gourmet food market, and our jaws dropped when we saw all of the great desserts. Sorry, but we could not take any photos inside the store and it was pouring rain outside! We had lunch ( I had some great tempura) and then went back to check in to the hotel.

Next: Asakusa, Akihabara, and Shibuya

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