Meeting Totoro — Part I: Getting There is Half the Fun

Chaos in Print

One of my goals while in Japan was to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum. Studio Ghibli, of course, is the animation studio responsible for such worldwide hits as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the recent winner for Best Animated Picture, Spirited Away. I had read stories online about the Museum, and, after a glowing review from my predecessor, it seemed like something worth checking out. After I had done the research, I learned that it was in a sleepy little suburb of Tokyo called Mitaka. And, I also knew that it was so popular, tickets had to be purchased a month in advance. But where to get the tickets? I went to the Studio Ghibli Museum website, but all of their information in English was for buying tickets from overseas. As was always the case when I needed translation, I called up Mr. Anderson and asked him to translate the needed information for me. Once he finished chiding me for having not learned the katakana alphabet (“My sister learned in one hour, you lazy wanker!” I believe was his exact quote) he told me that they were available from any Lawson’s store. Sadly, he lived far away and could not accompany me to Lawson’s to buy my ticket. There was only one person who lived in Kumagaya who could help me now….

I honestly did like my head teacher, but she and I just could not get along. We were getting along great until she got promoted against her will to the position of head teacher, and she went through some of those fits and starts that come with your first time in a command position. And then, when the management was quitting left and right and I was told in the midst of this that my contract wasn’t being renewed, she was the only constant and thus got a lot of my anger and angst directed her way. But I did like her. Really I did. And seeing as to how she was my only Japanese co-worker who lived in Kumagaya, the way I figured it she was the only one who could come to Lawson’s with me. After work one night, when it looked like she wasn’t too busy, I approached her with caution. Another reason why we couldn’t get along is we were both prone to mood swings. That, and I was an incredibly quiet person in the office and always wound up accidentally sneaking up on her. Luckily, she was in a good mood and saw me coming. I pleaded my case and asked for her help. I was twice as lucky when she told me that she once worked as a clerk in Lawson’s, and thus knew exactly what we had to do. We made arrangements to meet at Lawson’s on Sunday morning.

I arrived somewhat early on Sunday morning, and, not knowing what else to do, I did donuts in the parking lot on my 12-speed. That caused her to look at me funny when she arrived. I parked my bike and we went inside. It turns out that every Lawson’s in Japan has a machine akin to those Express Ticket lanes that we have in Canadian movie theaters. From this machine, you select the event or attraction you want your tickets to and it’ll print out a little receipt. You take that to the clerk, the clerk will scan the receipt into his/her till, and while you pay, the official ticket comes out of a printer behind the counter. Is that simple or what?

I knew about the whole “having to buy tickets a month in advance” deal, but there was a holiday coming up next week and that was my primary goal. Once we sorted our way through the system and found “Studio Ghibli Museum,” we entered the date for the holiday. Naturally, it was sold out. The weekend after, sold out. The next weekend, sold out. The next weekend, sold out. Things were looking grim. Finally, we reached the point where it was one month from today, and finally! A ticket! My head teacher asked me how many people were coming. Firstly, I asked her if she wanted to come too. She said no. Somewhat dejected, I said, “Just one, then.” See, I did try to be nice. The machine spit out our receipt, we paid the clerk, and I was set to see the Studio Ghibli Museum! My head teacher was off to the larger cities to do some shopping, and I had a very un-busy Sunday planned.

One month later, I awoke eager for my trip. Now, there were some rules to getting into the Studio Ghibli museum. My ticket was for high noon, and I had to be there a half-hour early to get in line. Since I did have quite a ways to go on the train, this was 7am, and I was going to do my traditional breakfast-on-the-road: Egg McMuffin! (Forgive me, Mr. Anderson, for I have sinned.) Even though the rules said no photographs in the museum, I was brining along my camera anyway. This was unexplored territory, after all. With my “voyage to the unknown” hat on and my utility belt hanging from my shoulder, I was off to Mitaka!

To get to Mitaka from Kumagaya, it was a simple job of taking the train to Shinjuku, then transferring to the Chuo line. Easy enough, but a 1.5 hour trip one way. I was on a train by 7:30. I would get to Mitaka by 9, and have lots of time to wander around trying to find the museum. Things went smooth as smooth peanut butter, and when I tried to get out of the Mitaka station, I found that the automated turnstiles weren’t letting me out. The friendly message of, “See station attendant” flashed on the display screen. The attendant kindly explained that Mitaka is such a sleepy suburb of Tokyo that it was out of the boundaries of my Tokyo rail pass. I was finally freed thanks to a ¥150 fare adjustment.

I left the station and entered what was truly the greenest city I had been in in Japan. Most of the places I had visited had just been dominated by concrete and modern buildings, but here, a proper balance seemed to have been struck, and there were just as many trees as buildings. I consulted the map that came with my ticket and saw I had to leave via the south exit of the station, and that it was just a short, 10 minute walk. By now, it was 10 am. Plenty of time. I lined up the landmarks with the spots on the map, and set off along a path that followed a forested canal.

When I had been walking for half an hour and still hadn’t arrived at the museum, I knew something had to be wrong. I turned around and walked another half an hour back to the station. I double checked the map, and lined up the landmarks again. This time, I set out on a slightly different path. Again, after half an hour, and with no museum in sight, I knew I had done something wrong. I was starting to get a little afraid, too, as it was getting dangerously close to noon. My watch said 11:30. I sprinted back to the station, and once again consulted the map. I was hoping to save myself ¥300, but I was hopelessly lost and running out of time. There was a special Studio Ghibli Museum shuttle bus that left the station every 15 minutes. It was my last, best hope.

Again, consulting the map and looking at the bus stops, I determined which bus had to be the Studio Ghibli Museum shuttle bus. But I wasn’t too sure. I decided to ask the bus driver if it was the right bus. I asked the driver, and shook his head. No, this isn’t the right bus. The shuttle bus is on the other side of the station. The map told me to leave from the south side of the station, but I went out the north side. I had been on the wrong side of the tracks all morning! In Japan for so long, and I never gleamed such simple kanji as “north” and “south.” I knew that, from somewhere over a drawing table, Mr. Anderson was laughing at me.

I jogged through the station, and was presented with a much larger bus stop area. It was now 5 minutes to noon. No time for exploration! I went to the attendant’s office and asked which bus was the Studio Ghibli Museum shuttle bus. She pointed at a bright yellow bus with Totoro, Yubaba, Kiki’s cat, and various other Studio Ghibli characters painted on the side. Running out of breath but pressing forward, I ran over to the bus, bought my bus ticket from the vending machine, and squeezed onto the bus. As the bus pulled away from the station, I noticed that yes, the landmarks on this side of the station matched my map much better.

When the bus arrived at the main gates of the museum, I didn’t have much time to take it in. My ticket was for noon, and the rules said I had to be there by 11:30 to get in line. It was now 12:15. Would they let me in? I walked quickly past all the other people who were marveling over the museum’s design. I burst through the doors of the museum, and presented my ticket to the clerk. The clerk smiled at me, took my ticket, and gave me the “official” ticket to the Studio Ghibli Museum. The “official” tickets that you’re given at the front door are made from a strip of 35mm film from an actual Studio Ghilbi movie. I recognized mine as being from the film Porco Rosso, which I saw on TV just two weeks before this trip.

The clerk also gave me an expository pamphlet, and for the first time, I was able to read the rules of the museum in English. I didn’t have to be there a half an hour early. The exact rule was that, the doors open a half an hour before your time, and close a half an hour after your time. That means, with my ticket being for noon, they would have let me in at any time between 11:30 and 12:30. It was now 12:25. I had made it with 5 minutes to spare. For the first time in two hours, I was able to relax. But not for long. My heart started to quicken again as I entered the museum.

End Part I

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