Why is Totoro so popular?
Is it Ghibli’s magically simplistic yet detailed anime style? The elegant soundtrack drawn from “Western classical, Japanese classical, and electropop-minimalism“? Is it the mesmerising weaving of Japanese culture with humour, entertainment and reverence? Or is it our fat, fluffy Totoro himself with his big ol’ smile?
Whatever the reason, Totoro is popular. Very popular and in Japan, he’s a national treasure.
So, you can only imagine my surprise when first heading out of my rural town, I spotted something familiar just off the main road. In Sagara village, near Hitoyoshi city, a tight cluster of tall, dark trees looms over the valley, interrupting the sea of rice fields.
It caught my attention every time I drove by. It was only after I actually passed it, heading to my first day of nursing home volunteering, that I could get a better look.
With the mysterious cluster still on my mind, I mentioned it to the nursing home staff and their faces lit up instantly. They said they knew it and that “we call it the Totoro Shrine!” With that, I knew I had to investigate.
My noble steed, Tofu-san, brought me safely to the forest’s edge, after following the clear signs to Amemiya Shrine.
(Note: there are also signs for Amamiya Shrine, I’m not sure which one is the right translation!)
When I got there I saw an old guy cementing in loose rocks from some steps leading up into the forest. He looked pretty into it but looked up for a second, nodded at me, we said hello and I headed up.
The steps were steeper than I expected. After living in Japan for a while now though, I know better. You should expect burning calves after visiting a Japanese shrine!
At the top was a small wooden shrine. The ground would’ve been flat, except for a carpet of twisting roots. You have to step lightly here, avoiding the mischievous trees from tripping you over.
Around the back of the shrine, some small steps lead down to a lookout. Behind a mesh of branches, the view stretches out across the bright green fields all the way to the Kawabe river, where the forest reclaims the mountainside.
I fell in love with the shrine and wanted to know more, so next time I was at the nursing home I asked about the Totoro Forest and Amemiya Shrine. They told me that it was a shrine for rain- hint’s in the name, ‘ame’.
I listened intently as they explained that a long time ago this area suffered a drought. The crops were failing and so the local people visited this shrine and prayed for heavy rain. You can find more info about this story, and see some more awesome pictures Authentic Visit Japan!
I told this story to my family and friends when they came to visit me in Japan. This shrine was up there on my ‘local places to visit’ list! During my friends’ visit, when I was at the nursing home, it would appear that someone’s prayers had been answered.
All of a sudden, while I was talking to one of the elders it started to rain heavily. A surprisingly short time afterwards, my friends turned up at the nursing home. They were soaking wet and my friend Rachel even used a leaf to try and keep dry…
Every time I drive past I feel my head turning towards the forest. I guess I’m hoping that one day, I might just see a big, furry shadow sat in the trees.
Sources and Interesting Reads
More on Ghibli music from bachtrack: “Orchestrating the Dream Worlds of Studio Ghibli: A Short Flight Through the Music of Joe Hisaishi”
The Story of Amemiya Shrine from AuthenticVisitJapan: “Visit The Amemiya Shrine And The Totoro Forest in Kumamoto”
Haven’t watched it already? “My Neighbour Totoro” along with all other Ghibli films should be available to most countries, except Japan, on Netflix! You lucky bugs!
For more information or to check the release schedule visit Netflix Media Centre: “NETFLIX RELEASES 21 STUDIO GHIBLI MASTERPIECES AROUND THE WORLD”