Be aware, this article contains an excessive amount of squeeing and a whole lot of whimsy.
The journey begins in the real world, but ends down the rabbit hole. The beginning: Tokyo Haneda Airport, surrounded by suited businessmen and casual tourists, waiting for the next flight. Eating a bento box, drinking canned sake, and watching a television mounted on the wall. Spirited Away plays.
SPIRITED AWAYNow, for those of you who have never seen it, ‘Spirited Away’ is an animated film about a little girl named Chihiro, who, while lost in the woods, walks through a long tunnel and happens upon a strange and beautiful land inhabited by all manner of peculiar creature and ghost. It was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the Walt Disney of Japan.
And, while watching this movie, there’s little notion that a short flight later there’s an equally whimsical and haunting world, one where islands are populated by rabbits and villages inhabited by scarecrows. Southwest of Tokyo flows the Seto Inland Sea, a vast waterway separating three of the main islands of the Japanese archipelago. Within these waters stand thousands of smaller islands, many of which hold their own secrets and stories. And all the small islands and all the shores of the large ones, all the lovely townships and villages, valleys and inlets, all exist within this glorious region of this glorious country. A world that actually provided influence to several of Miyazaki’s films, including Spirited Away. Behold: Setouchi.
The Udon Taxi
The plane lands in the city of Takamatsu. With over 400,000 residents, it’s the second largest city on the island of Shikoku, the smallest island of the four main islands of Japan. It’s the last outpost before the truly magical. As such, it serves as an in-between, a gateway, a purgatory—one foot in reality, the other in fantasy.
There’s an initial escort just outside the airport—the taxi driver. Begloved and besuited, he ushers you to the cab. But, this is no ordinary taxi. No, this is an Udon Taxi—a black Toyota crowned with a giant plastic bowl of soup. And this is no ordinary driver—he is the Udon Expert.
The Expert opens the door. Perhaps, you think, a pool of broth will spill from inside. Not this time. But the thought of such a cab causes hunger. The Expert says that Takamatsu is an udon town—the cities in this part of Shikoku produce more udon than any other part of Japan and are home to over 700 udon restaurants. You’ll want to eat at them all, but he says it’s an impossible task for one afternoon. Not to worry, the Expert says, he’s charioting you to the best udon shops in town.
“After the engorging, the Expert rolls his passengers back into the Udon Taxi.”
First, Sanuki Mengyo, then, Nakanishi Udon: Buffet-style restaurants where patrons are given a tray, a bowl, and access to all the udon you can shove in your face. It’s happy-making. Eat and slurp and slurp and eat some more, but remember Chihiro’s parents in Spirited Away—they were such wanton gluttons, they were turned into pigs.
After the engorging, the Expert rolls you back into the Udon Taxi and asks if any more is wanted. No. God, no. So, instead, he takes you to the JR Clement Hotel to rest your head and dream of noodles.
The Happy Music Train to the Iya Valley
The following morning, the Shikoku Mannaka Sennen Monogatari train approaches at the departure station at Tadotsu, just outside of Takamatsu. It’s raining and gloomy. But then symphonic music blares through the outdoor speakers—a grand and jovial tune, heralding the arrival of something, well, grand and jovial. Standing there, umbrella overhead to block out the rain, it’s as though the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, another Miyazaki film, is arriving.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTOROAn adorable movie about two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to a remote town and befriend a giant, magical, rabbit-like spirit creature named Totoro, who is followed around by two similar-looking, though considerably smaller, magical rabbit-like spirit creatures. They occasionally get around by riding the Catbus, an anthropomorphic bus with the face of a Cheshire Cat that skips through the countryside upon 10 paws.
A smiling woman exits, lays down a mat at the door as though it were an offering at an altar, and beckons the passengers forward. The train is only three cars long, each a different color—red, blue, and green. Inside, the colors match the exterior. The smiling woman hands menus to the passengers. Everyone on this train—the crew and the passengers—are all smiling. In fact, you are, too. Every mouth has turned into a Cheshire Cat grin. This train is infectiously happy.
Perhaps it’s because of the music. That song from the station platform continues to play inside the train. Once the song ends—and it can’t be longer than five minutes—it starts up again. Through the entirety of the journey, which is over two hours, it plays. It’s so ubiquitous that they even sell a CD version of the track on board. The passengers begin humming it, not together, but in their own time. That song is like a living being, some sort of noisy ghost that nestles into ears.
The food arrives and so does the local beer. Everyone gazes outside the large windows. The train passes through many stations and towns, and each time it does, people gather to watch it pass, and each time all of them wear smiles, and each time all of them wave. Soon it’s not just people waving. There are enclaves made up entirely of scarecrows, all waving. At one station, a trio of spirits (or perhaps men in spirit costumes) even wave. And, still, the happy music plays.
The train plunges deep into the Iya Valley, a remote territory in the heart of Shikoku. The Valley used to be practically inaccessible–haunted by fallen warriors who sought refuge in its dark mountain passes. At Oboke Station, disembark to be greeted by a wood-carving of an Oni, an ominously fang-toothed spirit. And instantly it’s revealed that this newfound land is a wilderness of magic.
Across the Swaying Vine Bridges
Rivers run through Iya, along with a number of windy roads and modern bridges, but to cross from one side of the valley to the other is by way of a bridge made of vines. Once upon a time, there were 13 of these kazurabashi vine bridges, all constructed during the Genpei Wars of the 12th century. Now, three have survived and should be crossed only by those brave enough to grab hold of the vine-roped rail and walk the eight-inch wood-planks bound together by taught old ropes. Each plank is separated by a six- to 12-inch gap, certainly wide enough for a foot to slip. Far below the bridge, the clear waters smash across the rocks. One slip and it could all turn red. It all looks like a scene from the ancient worlds of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
PRINCESS MONONOKEA surprisingly violent animated film wherein a prince named Ashitaka is attacked by an evil boar spirit, whose venom curses him to death. Ashitaka undertakes a hero’s journey to find a cure, along the way battling both spirits and samurais.
But across the bridge, glory awaits. Hold it tight (the railing and your courage) while you can, and take your newfound daring with you onwards to the town where no one lives.
INSIDER TIPEnglish is rarely spoken in the Iya Valley. In fact, it’s rarely spoken throughout much of Setouchi. It would be prudent to arrange for a guide. Mine was Hiroshima-based Mie Tokunaga—and I cannot say enough kind things about her. She’s a lovely person and an absolutely brilliant guide.
The Village of the Scarecrows
Not far from the vine bridges there’s a woman named Ayano-san. She carries the gentle demeanor of Satsuki and Mei’s granny in Totoro, and perhaps a dash of the madness of the benevolent witch Zeniba from Spirited Away.
Ayano-san moved from Osaka in 2002 to a town of only a couple dozen inhabitants, deep in the Iya Valley. She came here to care for her ailing father. For reasons unknown, she soon began to construct giant dolls—kakashi. Slowly, these dolls began to outnumber the small population—there were thirty, then fifty, a hundred, two hundred. Now there are even more. They’re placed throughout—some inside, others out. They gather together at bus stops and storefronts, in fields and gardens. They have ages, families, and occupations—some are tillers, others lumberjacks. They gather round, their unblinking eyes blankly staring, standing silently like Turnip-Head, the scarecrow in Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLEA young woman named Sophie is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Waste and turned into a 90-year-old. On a quest to find a cure, she encounters the scarecrow Turnip-Head who takes her to a hodgepodge castle built on four moving legs. The castle roams the countryside and is controlled by the wizard, Howl.
As it’s a town with a population made more of straw and cloth than skin and bone, it’s dubbed Kakashi-no-Sato—the Scarecrow Village.
And in the center of the Scarecrow Village is the home of the creator: Ayano-san. Together with a friend, she sits upon a tatami mat, hunched over, stuffing clothes with straw to create a new resident. It’s a small home, warmed only by a wood-burning stove that billows smoke out over Kakashi-no-Sato. The smoke blends with the clouds until it’s impossible to tell where the smoke stops and the skies begin. Ayano-san sometimes gets her inspiration from the people she meets, sometimes otherwise. Maybe those who pass through here will end up being captured by her—put along the side of the road, a new spirit to haunt this valley as one of its silent citizens. The light leaves the sky and darkness comes to the valley. It’s time to take shelter.
A Night at a Kominka
While driving through the windy roads in the darkest of nights, the headlights reflect tree trunks and Shinto shrines. It’s easy to imagine what strange, magical spirits lurk out there, deep in the forests—easier still to accidentally careen off the road and into the valley below. But, there, ahead are the accommodations for the evening—an isolated thatched-roof farmhouse. In Japanese, this type of lodging is called a kominka.
An American named Alex Kerr, who had been visiting this country since the ’60s, bought up eight kominka, lovingly renovated them (and beautifully so), and opened them for bookings. This particular stunning four-room home with two bathrooms is called the Ten-ippou house, or “one step to heaven” house—either a lovely sentiment or a terrifying threat.
“…surrounded by shadows, it’s easy to imagine soot gremlins dancing—little dirt creatures with bright white eyes…”
There’s an elderly woman in the kitchen already preparing a gorgeous seven-course meal. She speaks not a lick of English and bows to all who greet her. After explaining the meal, she leaves, allowing you to eat happily, alone. It’s silent in the house. To prepare for sleep, tatami mats need to be arranged and dressed with bedding. And, now, preparing for sleep, surrounded by shadows, it’s easy to imagine soot gremlins dancing in the dark—these little dirt creatures with bright white eyes and have been seen frolicking in both Totoro and Spirited Away.
The floors are heated and since the only thing separating your ear from the pipes below is the wood, the tatami, and a pillow, the bubbling, gurgling and thumping are easy to hear. It’s easy to forget it’s just the noise of the pipes. Perhaps, you think, it’s something else. Perhaps it’s wild boars, which roam these parts. They clomp along hunting in these woods like Nago, the wild boar god in Mononoke, who was so full of rage that a dark oozing muck covered his rotting flesh and gave him the guise of a giant arachnid.
But when morning is broken, the valley is void of monsters. Rather, there’s a shocking majesty framed by the windows of the kominka—it hardly looks real in the orange dawn, but like something illustrated.
The Dogo Bathhouse
So far, it’s all felt like a dream, but somehow the Iya Valley feels like a dream within a dream. And now you’re leaving the Valley, but you’re still in the fantasy-land. You’re in Matsuyama. With a population of half a million, it’s the largest city in Shikoku, however, in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the Dogo onsen (bathhouse), it feels as though it’s a small Alpine spa town. The onsen itself is a hulking thing of gables and windows. At its top is a single watch-tower soaked in red light, atop which perches a statue of a crane.
The hot springs beneath the onsen have been used for more than a millennium by both peasant and emperor. The building itself dates to 1894 and to this day, there remain lodgings and a bath for exclusive use by the emperor and his family—though it’s gone untouched for many, many years.
“Those who wear their real-life clothing—their waking-life clothing in this onsen of dreams—might as well be naked.”
The building is instantly recognizable—it was Miyazaki’s inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away. It was here that Chihiro took refuge after entering the spirit realm, here that she acquired a job cleaning the spas, and here that she met the mysteriously faceless No-Face. In fact, in a shopping arcade abutting the onsen, No-Face masks and statues are readily on display for sale.
Outside in the courtyard of the onsen, bathers mill about and, despite an evening chill, wander in yukata robes and sandals. They shop and sip tea in these outfits throughout the arcade. Those who wear their real-life clothing—their waking-life clothing in this onsen of dreams—might as well be naked. They are like Chihiro, a human in a land of spirits—every bit the awkward outsider.
Inside the onsen, the baths are separated by sex, but upstairs, there are rooms for families to mingle. Those who care to spend the money can book a private room for relaxation. The early 20th-century author Natsume Soseki used to frequent Dogo and even wrote a popular novel in 1907 called Botchan that featured it as a key location—as such, there’s a room dedicated to him on the top floor.
INSIDER TIPThe Dogo onsen opened an annex in 2017 called Asuka no Yu. It’s a short walk away and is far less crowded. It also has a reproduction of the emperor’s bath that can be booked by mere plebeians.
After the bath and out of the robes, hunger calls. It’s over to Kiyomizu for dinner, a restaurant famous for its fugu—or pufferfish. Fugu’s somewhat feared by people outside Japan (mainly because of an old Simpsons episode)—and it’s true, if prepared incorrectly, it’s deadly. But Dogo, being a land for the spirits of Spirited Away, would make a fitting place for a soul to exit. They serve one beautifully prepared plate after another of fugu—gobble it up until you’re as puffed as the fish you’re eating. And bloated and happy, float away like a balloon and land in your ryokan, where you’ll sleep huffing and puffing till morning.
A Sleepy Seaside Village
Sadly, it’s time to abandon the island of Shikoku, by way of the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, which spans over 13,000 feet across the Seto Inland Sea to the largest island of the archipelago, Honshu. It’s a pleasant and quick car journey with stunning views of innumerable islands. And, still, on the other side, on the large island, you remain in the mystical region of Setouchi.
The first stop in Honshu is a sleepy fishing village called Tomonoura. Miyazaki actually stayed here for two months in 2004 and from it developed the look of the town in his film Ponyo. In fact, the visitor’s center even has a signed Catbus illustration from Miyazaki on display.
PONYOIn Miyazaki’s ‘Little Mermaid’-like film, a small half-fish-half-human child called Ponyo escapes the sea and befriends a five-year-old boy. Ponyo possesses magical powers that cause the sea to nearly drown the entire village.
There’s little to do in this town but take a leisurely stroll and admire its tranquility. Remarkably well-preserved Edo period architecture lines its tiny streets and solemn alleyways, which weave together beside the bay. There’s a lighthouse standing as a sentinel against the sea. A few residents sit idly around it, staring at the horizon. It’s easy to sit and sip sake here, wiling away all of the days, watching the ocean undulate, and waiting for Ponyo’s mother, Granmamare, a giant goddess of the sea, to rise from the depths and stand taller than even the lighthouse.
But there are few gods here—none in fact—but the sea remains hypnotic. Take some sake with you to drink in your room on the top floor of the tower-like Hotel Ofutei. Stare again at the sea far below. Should Ponyo accidentally cause the oceans to rise, those at this height would be protected. And then, if stranded in the hotel, all you would need to do would be to open your windows and swim out into the Seto Inland Sea, in search of the next destination… the Island of the Rabbits.
The Island of the Rabbits
The squeeing begins at Tadanoumi Port, about 90 minutes west of Tomonoura. This is the disembarkation station for Okunoshima, otherwise known as Rabbit Island. Young girls gather around in the official Rabbit Island gift shop to paw the merchandise and squee. Line up to board the crowded ferry and you will hear the squeeing. Sit down on the crowded ferry and you will hear the squeeing. Land on the crowded island and you will hear the squeeing. Spot the first of the rabbits and you will definitely hear the squeeing. But, what’s this? This time, the squeeing isn’t from around, but inside you. Yes, your mouth is wide and it shrieks, “Squeeeeeee!”
There’s one rabbit. Then another. Then another. They’re everywhere. They’re luring the crowd inward, into the island, like everyone here is a bunch of curious Alices. Or, more appropriately, a bunch of curious Satsukis and Meis, chasing after Totoro and his two friends.
No one’s quite clear where these rabbits came from, but there are two leading theories. The first and more sinister theory: the island was once a testing ground for poison gas (which is true—there’s even a Museum of Poison Gas on the island) and rabbits were used for experiments; after the facilities shut down, the rabbits were released into the wild and, without many predators, conquered these shores. The second and more adorable theory: a couple of children had pet rabbits that they could no longer keep, so they brought them to this island for protection; the rabbits were released into the wild and, without many predators, conquered these shores.
Regardless of the why, they have indeed conquered these shores. They’re everywhere. Along the boardwalk, in the bushes, on the beaches, outside the Poison Gas Museum. Every visitor brings a bag of food—it can be purchased at the gift shop on the mainland. Just the rustle of the bag compels them out of hiding. Sit on the ground and they cover you as though you were dressed in their pelts. It’s a fluffy flurry of them.
And surrounded by rabbits, the ear ghost is back and you’re humming the theme song of the Shikoku Mannaka Sennen Monogatari—that happiest of songs ought to be hummed at the happiest of islands. You’re smiling. Everyone on this island is doing it. Smiling. Widely. Wider than ever thought possible. It is such a jovial, happy-making, squee-inducing island that it feels like anything can happen. That any minute the Catbus will arrive and from its insides will emerge Turnip-Head, No-Name, and Prince Ashitaka, and they, too, will carry bags of food, and they, too, will fall to the ground. And everyone together will allow dozens of little Totoros—hundreds even—thousands!—to crawl all over them on this wonderful, whimsical isle in this wonderful, whimsical region of this wonderful, whimsical country.
And, then, suddenly, it’s all over. Back at Tokyo Haneda Airport, bento box in the lap, canned sake in one hand, waiting to take the 10-hour flight home. It’s all over. And so dreamlike that it hardly felt real. Setouchi was so uniquely otherworldly that it seemed to be conjured by a god-like Miyazaki putting ink to paper—an animated fantasy that couldn’t possibly exist outside the boundaries of imagination. The sort of place that can usually only be found when closing one’s eyes and drifting off, rather than wide-eyed in whimsy and squeeing with delight. But, fear not, it lives on inside you—it continues its existence, folded neatly in the drawers of your memories where you keep those that make you happiest.