Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan is a tribute to anime films, and the technical & creative process of animation. This review covers whether it’s worth the time, money & effort to visit, plus tips for buying tickets. We also discuss the current coronavirus closure. We won’t bury the lede–it’s one of the best things to do in Tokyo, regardless of whether you love My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or Hayao Miyazaki’s other movies. (Updated April 21, 2020.)
In response to requests from the Japanese government and local authorities, the Studio Ghibli Museum is closed indefinitely. At present, when the museum will reopen is unknown, but it would appear the plan is to not resume operations until the summer at earliest.
Refunds are being offered for tickets purchased with visit dates between now and July 31, 2020. If you’ve already purchased tickets for these dates, the museum will offer refunds via the processes on its website. There are no plans to reschedule those booked for future dates.
One of the first things you need to know about Ghibli Museum is that you must buy tickets in advance–they are not sold at the museum. It’s one of the toughest tickets to score for foreign visitors (presumably, anyone reading this blog) due to the Ghibli Museum selling a limited number of tickets each day. If you’re already on your trip, we want to share that up front so this post doesn’t get you excited about something you might not be able to do.
I’m not entirely sure of all the ins and outs when it comes to purchasing tickets. I know the easiest option for foreign visitors for whom the Ghibli Museum is a must-do is to do the guided JTB Tour that includes bus transit from downtown Tokyo or purchase Last Minute Ghibli Museum Tickets from Voyagin. The downside to both of these options is they are $50+ per person, and the tickets to the museum themselves only cost ~$10/person. However, if you don’t have a contact in Japan, these may be your only options.
Here are other ways you can purchase tickets outside of Japan; all of these are going to have some sort of convenience fee and they are also cumbersome and difficult to use. If you know anyone in Japan (or will be there for a while and have a flexible schedule), the best option is purchasing tickets from kiosks in Lawson convenience stores. (A friend purchased our tickets via this method.)
The problem with doing this if you wait until arriving in Japan is there is a strong chance your travel dates will already be sold out. During past attempts trying to do it ourselves, this prevented us from visiting. In fact, after trying this method over the course of several trips in the past, we finally gave up and had a friend in Japan pre-purchase the tickets for us. If you only have one shot at getting tickets, we would strongly discourage you from ‘winging it’ like this, unless it’s not a big deal if you don’t go to the Ghibli Museum.
Studio Ghibli has gained some degree of global recognition thanks to releases like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, but many people reading this still might be unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli. Suffice to say, it’s an animation powerhouse, and director Hayao Miyazaki has (rightfully) earned the distinction as being the “Walt Disney of Japan.”
Perhaps the moniker of “Counter-culture Walt Disney” would be more apt, as Miyazaki-san routinely bucks convention and works outside of mainstream expectations. Consequently, Studio Ghibli films are a different breed, embracing whimsical visuals that appeal to the child in us all, but with ample amounts of darkness, subtlety, and more sophisticated themes than you’d expect in animation. (If you want to learn more about Studio Ghibli, I highly recommend The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a fascinating documentary that can be found streaming on Netflix.)
Alright, moving on to the actual logistics of visiting the Ghibli Museum. Getting here, we took the JR Line to Mitaka Station. From there, you have the option of taking a direct bus to Ghibli Museum, or taking a 20-30 minute scenic walk.
We opted to walk, which I’d highly recommend, as the it’s a lovely stroll and impossible to get lost thanks to abundant signage.
When you arrive at Ghibli Museum, you’ll encounter a line. This is not to purchase tickets, but for entry at the designated time. Once that time rolls around, entrance is pretty quick and painless.
Upon entry, every visitor exchanges their ordinary ticket for a keepsake ticket to a movie screening.
Be sure to take as many photos as you can outside. The exterior of the building is has a unique architectural style befitting of Miyazaki, and has gradually been ‘reclaimed’ by nature since the museum opened.
Once you get inside the building, photography is strictly prohibited. Unlike “no photography” rules in the United States that are routinely disregarded without consequence, rules are to be obeyed in Japan. (All of the photos in this post are from areas where photography is permitted.)
It’s unfortunate that photos are not allowed inside, as the intimate experience has so many photogenic areas. The multi-story Central Hall is airy and beautiful, featuring a gorgeous fused glass ceiling. It takes a few moments to catch your bearings and determine where to go first. We started with the Permanent Exhibition Room. This area contains paintings, stills, projected movies, and dioramas featuring characters and scenes from Ghibli films.
The beauty of this room is that it doesn’t just pay tribute to popular movies, but the filmmaking process. This is downright inspirational, and you can see how technology has evolved over the years, and what goes into bringing Ghibli films to life. I could have spent an hour in this modestly-sized room alone.
The centerpiece of this exhibit is a large 3D zoetrope featuring characters from Totoro. If you’re familiar with the Toy Story zoetrope at Disney California Adventure, this should be familiar. In fact, the Toy Story zoetrope was directly inspired by this one. (Many of Pixar’s leaders and animators are big Ghibli fans, have visited the museum, and have had other involvement with Ghibli over the years.)
The Totoro zoetrope features a total of 347 figures in static positions, each slightly different from the ones they’re positioned near. When the zoetrope spins, a strobe light flashes, making the characters look like they’re moving. If you’ve never seen a zoetrope in person, you’re in for a real treat. I have seen zoetropes before, and I still stood here for a good 10 minutes, marveling at the running Cat Bus, bouncing Totoros, etc.
Our next stop was the Saturn Theater screening room, where 9 different original animated Ghibli short films play on rotation. To my knowledge, the schedule here is random (or I just missed something–entirely possible). We ended up viewing A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail, which was really cute. Each of these films has a runtime of 10-20 minutes.
Our visit continued upstairs, where we saw one of the greatest things ever: the Cat Bus Room. This houses a giant, plush Cat Bus and variety of other characters from My Neighbor Totoro. Before you get hella-hyped for this mind-blowing experience…it’s only for kids. Without shame, I’ll admit that I had an internal debate over whether rushing the Cat Bus Room for a few seconds of unbridled fun would be worth getting kicked out of the room/arrested/deported. Ultimately, I restrained myself, but I’m still not sure I made the right decision.
We also encountered a series of rooms replicating an artist’s study and workspace. The room overflows with detail, including sketches and illustrations from Miyazaki films, but there are also books, toys, and other things that allude to what inspires animators.
It’s a tactile experience (yes, you can touch everything) that helps visitors gain a greater appreciation and understanding of what goes into creating an animated film. It’s really no surprise that a Ghibli Museum would be inventive and engaging, but this (and the downstairs exhibits) really felt like they transcended a standard museum and became something more.
In fact, Ghibli Museum reminded me a lot of a theme park exhibit on animation. Over the years, Disney California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios have both had animation buildings that offer participatory experiences, and to me, this surpassed even those. (About the only thing missing from the Ghibli Museum was a lesson in animation.) While the museum itself is small, literally everything is done at such a high level that the size is understandable (if anything, the intimate size of the museum helps make the experience).
Beyond that, there is an area for special exhibitions. These special exhibitions rotate regularly and generally last less than a year (you can see the current special exhibition on the Studio Ghibli website). The one that was shown during our visit is no longer running, so I won’t bother detailing it.
From this level, we climbed farther up to see some art installations before heading outside. There, you can once again take photos, and also visit the Straw Hat Cafe or Mamma Auito Gift Shop.
While we were there, the Cafe filled to capacity at one point, so this is something to be mindful of if you’re visiting during prime lunch hours. I’ve seen some kawaii foods here (via Instagram), so it might be worth checking out.
If you’re a Ghibli diehard, be careful at this gift shop. We saw people with armfuls of items, who had to have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars here.
I’m not entirely sure, but a lot of these items looked similar to/the same as items we saw for sale at the Character Street in Tokyo Station.
The only thing we bought was the aforementioned souvenir guide, which came with a free poster. (I’d recommend this book–it’s inexpensive and offers photos you won’t be able to take yourself.) The Ghibli Museum ticket itself is something of a souvenir, too.
In terms of whether Ghibli Museum is worth the time and money, that in part depends upon how you purchase tickets. If you’re paying a premium for a tour or some other package and have to fork over ~$50/person, it might be more difficult to swallow. If you’re a big Studio Ghibli fan, I’d say it is worth even that.
However, if you pay $10/person, the Ghibli Museum is a no-brainer for anyone. You don’t need to have ever seen a Studio Ghibli film to appreciate this museum (to be sure, you’ll get more out of it if you have). This is as much an interactive love letter to the animation process and history as it is a tribute to Studio Ghibli films. To me, it felt a lot like what you would have encountered had EPCOT Center opened a pavilion dedicated to animation (except with Miyazaki-san’s creations instead of Disney’s). That might sound like extremely high praise, and that’s exactly how it should be read. The Ghibli Museum is an absolute gem, and something we’d highly recommend to any visitor to Tokyo.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, we start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Tokyo City Guide to plan all aspects of your visit to Japan’s top two cities. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you toured the Studio Ghibli Museum? Did you think it was worth the time, money, and effort to get tickets? Are you a serious Ghibli enthusiast, or just an animation fan? Is it a place you’d like to visit? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!