Are the words “Spirited Away” ringing any bells for you? No? Well, stop whatever you’re doing right now and go stream it. This is a 2001 animation film that took the world by storm. It’s all about fantasy and adventure by the world-famous Hayao Miyazaki.
It’s thanks to this film that Japan’s tourism boomed. It’s just another masterpiece that proves that Studio Ghibli has no limits to their imaginations. Picture enchanted forests and floating castles among other fantasies you can think of.
But the thing is, every artist has their muse. Miyazaki was inspired by a few places in Japan to create Spirited Away. We can’t jump into our TV screens, but we can definitely pop by these inspired places when travelling to Japan. Let’s take a look at the 3 onsens (温泉) that were muses to the art that is Spirited Away.
1. Dogo Onsen Honkan (Ehime Prefecture)
The first onsen is Dogo Onsen Honkan. This is officially confirmed as the main source of inspiration for the bath house, Aburaya. It’s the only one that’s been recognised as one. You can find this hot springs in Ehime Prefecture, in Matsuyama City.
This onsen is the oldest onsen in Japan. It can be dated back to more than 1,000 years ago! I can’t even imagine the number of people who have taken a dip in here..
This bathhouse’s structure has been the same since it was first built. At the moment, the onsen is under renovation since 2019 for some preservation works. There’s some Western influence amidst the Japanese ones in the architectural design. That’s what makes it different from other onsens. The animation crew sketched Dogo Onsen before creating Aburaya. You can see clearly the similarity between the two buildings from the windy, maze-like interior.
2. Sekizenkan, Shima Onsen (Gunma Prefecture)
The next onsen is the Sekizankan in Gunma Prefecture. This ryokan has a few similarities with the bathhouse in Spirited Away. Can you miss the blaring red bridge in front of the building? Although Chihiro held a breath when crossing the bridge in the movie so others wouldn’t realise she was human, you don’t have to do that here.
This onsen town is called “Forty-thousand Hot Springs”. It’s also known as “the cure for forty-thousand ailments”. The mineralised waters here are believed to aid movement disorders, weight loss and other similar issues.
There are three buildings at this onsen. The first one is the Main Building, a wooden ryokan built in 1691. The second is the Sanso Building that’s built on a hill in 1936 in the Momoyama Era style. To get between these two buildings, you have to go through an underground passage. If you’ve watched the movie, you’d understand this reference.
The third building is the newest, called Kashotei. It’s also built in the woods, but at the highest points of the grounds. If you want a bit of privacy, here’s where you can get it.
3. Kanaguya, Shibu Onsen (Nagano Prefecture)
The third onsen is Rekishi no Yado Kanaguya. Although this is also not confirmed by Studio Ghibli as one of the sources of inspiration, it’s undeniable. This onsen has been around for more than 2 centuries, all the way back to 1758. It’s found high up in the Japanese Alps, in Nagano Prefecture.
This four-story wooden bathhouse is designed with so much detail. An example is a window that has the shape of the ryokan’s family crest. Another is the corridor on the third floor having a water mill gear that’s shaped like Mt. Fuji.
Even with 29 guest rooms, they are all designed differently from one another. Choose between a Japanese-style one or stained glass-decorated one. You can visit here numerous times and have a different experience each time.
It’s safe to say these onsens are worth visiting, regardless of whether you’re a Studio Ghibli fan or not. Watch the film before your Japan trip and you can look out for resemblances when you do visit. Immerse yourself in the culture and history of these Japanese bathhouses!
If you like film, specifically Japanese film, then why not give our podcast’s Season 2 Episode 1 a listen? In that episode, we talk all about it and the top genres that make up cinematography in Japan.
Japan has one of the oldest and longest film industries in the world, going back to over a century ago. Horror lovers consider The Ring and The Grudge as classic Japanese scare fests, and who hasn’t watched Godzilla? The King of Monsters became a pop culture icon. And the 2016 animation Kimi no na wa took the world by storm as soon as it was released.
We looked at the top 4 genres of Japanese cinematography: animation, jidaigeki, kaijuu eiga and yakuza. Here’s a recap of what we talked about!
Japan is the king of animation — I mean, they have anime. To the Japanese people, anime is any type of cartoon, Japan-made or not. But to the rest of the world, anime refers to a style of animation that’s made in Japan.
With the earliest anime dating back to 1917, anime has a long-running history. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the prominent anime art style emerged, thanks to animator Osamu Tezuka, also known as the Japanese equivalent of Walt Disney. And if you haven’t heard of Ghibli Studios yet, you got a whole lot of catching up to do — quickly get in-the-know with our episode!
The 2001 anime film, Spirited Away, directed by world-renowed Miyazaki Hayao, had been warming the number one seat for ages before the spot got snagged away not too long ago. I won’t go into detail about Ghibli, but having a museum just to showcase their animation works says quite a bit about the animation studio. You won’t meet a Japanese person that doesn’t know Ghibli.
Literally translating to “period dramas”, jidaigeki movies are more often than not set during the Edo period (1603-1868), and gives an insight into the lives of samurai, merchants and farmers of the time. There can be all sorts of storylines, but the most popular kind features an action-packed sword fight between samurai.
A name you’ll hear often when talking about jidaigeki is Akira Kurosawa, one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinematography — so noteworthy that Star Wars creator George Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s period works. If you look closely, some of the elements in Star Wars were heavily influenced by chanbara filmmaking.
If you want to dip your toe in the jidaigeki waters, I’m not going to spill all the beans here — Season 2 Episode 1 has everything you need to know in a neatly packed few minutes! If action, sword fighting and an underlying interpretation to storylines spark your interest, jidaigeki should be your go-to.
Monsters and special effects? Count me in! Kaijuu eiga, a subgenre of tokusatsu to refer to special effects films, is all about monsters — gigantic ones.
Yes, we’re talking about Godzilla. In fact, ever since its release in 1954, the kaijuu genre popularity skyrocketed through the roof! Although this film is Toho Studio’s most famous creation, the production company has made numerous major successes as well, earning themselves the association of being one of the top studios for kaijuu movies.
It’s not just big creatures rampaging through the city causing havoc — these monsters have metaphorical references. As for Godzilla, it’s a metaphor for nuclear weapons, referring to the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Want to know other ones? You know where to find the answers to that.
Kaijuu films have such an influence in the world’s film industry — King Kong, anyone?
The final genre we talked about is yakuza. You might’ve heard of it if you listened to our Subculture Mania podcast episode (S1E7). The Yakuza’s influence in Japan’s film industry goes back all the way to the days of silent movies. Though over the decades it has shifted to something pretty different to the original, yakuza were kind of like the Japanese Robin Hood.
Yakuza films typically feature heroic gangsters with honour who live by their underworld moral code. The characters defend the traditional Japanese ways in a rapidly modernising island nation — the good guys in traditional kimono with conservative ways, and the bad guys in modern suits reeking of exploitation.
There’s a consistent theme of conflict for the heroes — their duty towards their gang and their own emotions. Which outrules which? Unlike Western movies where emotions are prioritised, in yakuza movies, duty is number one.
The Showa Zankyo-Den movie series, first released in 1965, sums up the ningyo genre in a neatly-packed series. The title says it all; in English it translates to “Brutal Tales of Chivalry”, telling the tale of power play and rises and falls of gangs in a small Japanese town.
We mentioned a few movie titles in the podcast episode, so if you’re interested, check that out.
In any Yakuza film, one thing’s for sure though — you’re going to get some good retribution-fuelled action scenes, a bit of blood here and there, and a hell lot of tattoos.
So here’s a list of all the vocabulary words we used in the episode!
Anime (アニメ) — animation, but more specifically animation made in Japan
Manga (漫画) — Japanese comic or graphic novels
Onsen ryokan (温泉旅館) — hot spring Japanese inn
onsen (温泉) — hot springs
Ryokan (旅館) — traditional Japanese inn
Sugoi (すごい) — great or amazing
Jidaigeki (時代劇) — period films, usually set in the Edo period
Chanbara (チャンバラ) — sword fight films
Rōnin (浪人) — a samurai without a lord
Kaiju (怪獣) — films that feature giant monsters
Eiga (映画) — movie
Eigakan (映画館) — movie theatre
Tokusatsu (特撮) — films with special effects
Kame (かめ) — turtle
Yakuza (ヤクザ) — Japanese gangsters
Ninkyo (任侠) — chivalry
Giri (義理) — duty
Ninjo (人情) — empathy/emotions
If you’re wondering why we didn’t cover horror, well, listen to our special Halloween episode which has 3 Japanese ghost stories that’ll do the trick of giving you a fright. But in any case, these 4 genres concludes the Japanese cinematography quite nicely, don’t you think?