Ah, Kichijoji: my favorite Tokyo neighborhood. Less than 30 minutes from the heart of the city, this hip suburb has everything a downtown dweller would want: good restaurants, good shopping, a thriving music scene and one of the coolest parks in the Kanto region. Indeed, most of my friends who live there tend to stick around, rarely venturing into the metropolis. When you have everything you need within biking distance, why hop on a train?
For families, the Kichijoji area offers a great day out, most notably the Ghibli Museum in nearby Mitaka, home of animator extraordinaire Hayao Miyazaki and birthplace of most of his creations. If you’ve never been to the Ghibli Museum, do yourself a favor and buy tickets now. If you’ve already been, then maybe it’s time for a return visit. I’ll explain why later.
First things first, however. Let’s start our day under some trees: A short walk from Kichijoji Station is Inokashira Park. There are countless restaurants and shops on the way, but if the weather is nice, my family and I tend to stop in the Atré shopping center attached to the station and pick up bentō (lunch boxes) or other picnic materials. Ten minutes later, we’re in the park and looking for a tree to eat under.
Inokashira Park is spacious yet feels secluded and intimate. Instead of the wide open fields found in places such as Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen, Inokashira Park is comprised mostly of broad, tree-covered paths circumnavigating a pond. If your kids sunburn easily like mine do, then you’ll enjoy the ample shade — most of the park is covered in a canopy of green, so you can ease up on the sunscreen and floppy hats for once. There are ducks to feed and paddleboats to ride, but what makes this place special on weekends is the strange and wonderful cast of regulars who descend on the park to perform, do business or something in between. There are artists selling their wares and buskers, puppeteers and jugglers entertaining for tips. There’s also Rikimaru Toho, a guy who lays out manga on a tarp, but not to sell: for a small fee, he will read one — quite passionately — to you and your group. In my opinion, however, the king of Inokashira Park is Broom Duster Kan, a kindly geezer playing the blues on a harmonica and steel guitar near the entrance every time I visit. He doesn’t seem to be playing for money — just for the enjoyment. Characters like him make a stroll through these wooded paths a treat for kids and adults alike.
There is a zoo in Inokashira Park, as well, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, head straight to the main attraction: the Ghibli Museum. The closest train station to Ghibli is actually Mitaka, and you should disembark there if the weather is bad, but if the sun is shining, then let the kids burn off some energy by starting from Kichijoji and making your way through the park. This can become a fun exercise in navigation: The park has lots of maps and signs, so let you child find the museum using them
Ghibli Museum tickets must be purchased in advance, however, and you must choose a designated time period that you will be allowed to enter, so plan ahead. We chose a late-morning/early-afternoon entrance, which gave us enough time for brunch in the park and then a leisurely stroll to the museum gates within 30 minutes of entrance time. It’s always crowded, but because of its ticketing system, it’s rarely too crowded.
There is much to like about the Ghibli Museum, and it can be enjoyed by young and old, die-hard fans and first-timers. Designed by Miyazaki himself, the museum grounds look like something out of one of his movies. Part playground, part labyrinth, the museum invites you to explore — there are no arrows telling you which way to go, and there are stairs, passageways and corridors in every direction. The theme of the museum is (in English) “Let’s lose our way together,” and that’s never looked like more fun than in this place.
Miyazaki took great pains to make many of the exhibits relay the science and the mechanics of animation as well. Kids can touch and operate lots of (now antiquated) equipment, and see not only how Ghibli created each cell of film, but also how exactly stop-motion works. Unfortunately, almost all the signs are in Japanese, but most exhibits are fairly self-explanatory. The special exhibit on display at the moment focuses on lenses and the role they play in movies and animation. If you’ve been before, this exhibit and the new short film playing exclusively in the museum’s theater are worth a second visit.
You are encouraged to explore freely, but there are rules. The one that irritated me is “No photos.” I mean, come on! I’m standing in front of Miyazaki’s desk, covered in sketches and paint swatches, and I can’t take a picture? Well, perhaps this isn’t the best place to confess, but I’ll admit it: I broke the rules, but only for a few minutes. I took a few stealthy snapshots, until my wife’s furious glare forced me to put the camera away.
And I’m glad I did. Once I stopped trying to capture all the amazing things I saw, I was actually experiencing them, with the kids, in a way that I wouldn’t have while trying to compose a shot. As it says on the official website: “The Ghibli Museum is a portal to a storybook world. As the main character in a story, we ask that you experience the Museum space with your own eyes and senses, instead of through a camera’s viewfinder.”
Inokashira Park is a 5-minute walk from Kichijoji Station on the Chuo Line and a 1-minute walk from Inokashira Koen Station on the Keio Inokashira Line. The Ghibli Museum: 1-1-83 Simorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m,. (closed Tuesdays and some holidays). The museum is 15 minutes from Mitaka Station on foot or 5 minutes by bus (one-way ¥200, round-trip ¥300, half-price for children under 12).Tickets range from ¥1,000 (over 19) to ¥100 (ages 4 to 6): under 4s free. Tickets can be bought in Japan at Lawson convenience stores. For more information visit www.ghibli-museum.jp/en/howtogo or www.lawson.co.jp/ghibli/museum/ticket/english.html.