The Real-Life Destinations That Inspired Spirited Away
Spirited Away is one of the greatest films of all time. Explore the historic city of Jiufen in Taiwan to relive the majestic world crafted by Hayao Miyazaki.
Spirited Away is a beautiful story of friendship set in a magical world filled with mysterious gods and other fantastical creatures. It is the animation masterpiece of highly acclaimed director (a better word might be 'legend'), Hayao Miyazaki, set to the ephemeral piano tunes of Joe Hisaishi. The film won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards during 2003, and is regarded by critics as one of the greatest animated feature films of all time. The story, without giving too much away to those who may not have seen the film, is about a young ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who is teleported to a spirit world after moving into a new neighbourhood. A witch named Yubaba then transforms Chihiro's parents into pigs, forcing Chihiro to work in Yubaba's bathouse in order to find a way for her and her parents to return to the normal world.
It is no wonder that Miyazaki chose Jiufen to be the base source of his inspiration for the strange world and story that is Spirited Away. Jiufen is a magical city located approximately 30 minutes drive from Taipei in Taiwan, which was once annexed by Japan and has become an island of such diversity and uniqueness. Jiufen is an old gold mining town set in the Notheast Mountains of New Taipei City, and there is really nowhere else in the world like it. The people here speak both Chinese and Japanese, and a strong Japanese influence is still present today in the architecture.
At the start of the film, Chihiro and her family wander through a mysterious little town lined with food stalls, said to be the downtown heart of Jiufen itself. The winding alleyways which stretch and meander like veins throughout the city are lined with hundreds of red paper lanterns which Miyazaki heavily sketched during the pre-production stages of the film. You can compare both the animated and real-world photographic stills of these scenes below:
The bathhouse in the film, sheer in size and beauty and operated by the strange spider-like character, Kamaji, forms the central foundation for the story. Most who highly appreciate Miyazaki's films know quite well that he was a master of presenting scenes of grand scale to great effect. True to the cultural tradition of Jiufen, the bathhouse in the film is neither Chinese or Japanese in style, but rather a strange mix of majesty between the two. In stark contrast, there is an enormous teahouse in Jiufen which shares many similarities with the bathhouse in Spirited Away. Miyazaki was known to have spent some time sketching the Jiufen teahouse and quite obviously drew inspiration from its grand scale, elaborate rows of old wooden-framed windows, and the strange effect it has dominating the skyline from all whom stand in its gaze. The teahouse in Jiufen is called the A-Mei Tea House and is more than 100 years old.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is at night when the brightly illuminated ferries begin to arrive with the bathhouses otherworldy guests. When night falls in Jiufen, the city is illuminated in a similar fashion, contrasted by the darkness of the sky and ocean behind it.
The mask shop in Jiufen shares very strong resemblance to the ghostly 'no-face' character in the film, and the heads.
It is also well-known that there exists other locations outside of Jiufen from which Miyazaki may have drew inspiration for his masterpiece film. Whilst working on the development stage, Miyazaki spent some time in the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei in Tokyo, Japan. The architecture of the museum shares strong resemblance to the spirit world buildings in the film, and Miyazaki was always fascinated with the architecture he referred to as 'pseudo-Western' from the Japanese Meiji period which is on display in the museum. To quote his thoughts on the nostalgia experience by Miyazaki when he visited - “I feel nostalgic, especially when I stand here alone in the evening, near closing time, and the sun is setting – tears well up in my eyes”.
In addition, the Dogo Onsen, which is the oldest spa in Japan and said to have a history stretching back more than 3,000 years, is also considered to be one of the major locations outside of Jiufen which served as inspiration for the bathhouse in the film.
Visitors looking to visit Jiufen for themselves, not only to experience the majesty from the film, Spirited Away, but to also experience the cultural charm that this small town has to offer, would be wise to come in via train. Take the train north from Taipei to Ruifang Station, and then exit the train and cross the street from the station to the Welcome Supermarket where you should board the Keelung Transit bus to Jiufen.
Come and visit one of the most beatiful places in the world, and enter a magical place which inspired one of the greatest films of our time. Explore the landscape of realism and fantasy that fills the mind of the master, Hayao Miyazaki, and see for yourself why the films of Studio Ghibli will remain on the pages of our history for generations to come.
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