Satsuki and Mei’s House
By Leonardo Flores
Ever since my girlfriend Rie-chan knew I was going to visit her hometown of Nagoya, Japan, she insisted that she would take me to a “Romantic Place.” So for a few months I wondered what that “Romantic Place” might be. July 2011 marked my second trip to my spiritual homeland of Japan and my second trip to the seaside city of Nagoya, the industrial heartland of Japan.
It was a 10 day trip that was packed full of the sights and sound of the charming city of Nagoya. The trip included a soccer game at the Toyota Stadium of the Nagoya Grampus 8 vs. Kashima Antlers, a tour of the Kirin Brewery, Terada Guitar Factory (Maker of Gretsch Guitars in Japan), a Noh Theatre play, the opening day of the new Ghibli film From Up On Poppy Hill, Mandrake Nagoya, Osu Plaza and drinking at my friend Jun Suzuki’s new English Pub: Bermondsey Café. It was great seeing many old faces and making new ones along the way and making Nagoya my home away from home.
But for a few days I was wondering what this romantic place of Rie’s might be. Finally during the middle of the week we traveled about a 40 minutes outside of Nagoya station to an area called Chikyu Haku Kimen Kohen. Chikyu Haku is an exposition park build near one of the universities in the Nagoya area. What was interesting about the travel into the park was the train that took us to the station was robotic and had no driver.
Once getting off the train one can see this was a newly built park, having been built in 2007. Since we were visiting during the week it was somewhat deserted, but the beauty of the place was awe inspiring and modern in design reminiscent of a scene from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds.
But we weren’t quite at the “Romantic Place” yet, as it would be another half hour walk through the park and over a small ridge and forest. About this time, for some reason I guessed to myself what this place might be. I had a feeling that it might be Ghibli related destination but it was just a guess.
First I must tell you about my first trip to Japan in 2010. I was planning to go to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo but I had traveled to Japan just after Golden Week. Basically, the day before I landed in Japan the Ghibli Museum closed its doors for refurbishing and the day after I left they opened again for the season. I was very disappointed that I did not get a chance to visit the Ghibli Museum.
So you can understand my explosion of emotion when we arrived to our destination at Chikyu Haku to see a complete full sized replica of Satsuki and Mei’s House from My Neighbor Totoro! First, I did not even know this place existed and never had read about it anywhere. Provided that The House is located off the beaten path in Nagoya also insured its position as a little known gem of Ghibli places to visit in Japan.
Before I begin I should give you a little background about how Meiji era houses were built. The day before, Rie had also taken me to a place in Inuyama called Meiji Village. Meiji Village was established in 1966 as a deposit for buildings that were built during the Meiji era (1868-1912’s) as Japan was expanding and rebuilding in the post war era. The Japanese knew these buildings were important and historical but also had a new vision for modern Japan.
The Japanese Government started depositing these buildings in an area one hour outside of Nagoya called Inuyama (Dog Mountain). Keep in mind these are not just small building being put in Meiji Village, but the collection also includes a huge hospital, a giant cathedral, an Anglican Church, A Post Office, factories, bridges, university buildings and famous houses. So big in fact that we simply ran out of time to see everything at Meiji Village. Definitely a location one should visit if you happen to be in the area.
One bit of info I learned while I was there was how Meiji era households were built. Because of the influence of western culture during the Meiji era, houses began to be built with a “Western Room” to mimic Western Households. These rooms were usually set to the right or left of the entrance of Meiji era houses and had angular roofs as opposed to the flat roofs of traditional Japanese households. Unlike the rooms in the rest of the house, Western Rooms had tables and chairs and were usually devoted to scientific and artistic household endeavors.
So it was to my surprise when we visited Satsuki and Mei’s House to learn that the white room where their dad has his office and where they encounter their first Soot Balls is considered the Western Room as the house is a Meiji Era style house.
Walking up to the house just blew my mind and it is quite difficult to describe the emotions I felt seeing something as great as this. Satsuki and Mei’s House was built in the traditional building structures of the Meiji Era. Everything was fully functional in the house. The house is split into six sections. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in the house so I will explain the best way I can each area of the house. Visiting the house is also limited to a half hour. One feature to take notice that I liked was there was no music playing in the background or any other distractions in the background, just the gentle sound of the forest and river that Satsuki and Mei would have heard.
One aspect that I loved about the house is as if the family was gone for the afternoon and you were looking around while they were gone. Meaning you can open the drawers, closets, hutches and each drawer is full of original Japanese 1950’s items that the family would have owned. This is evident in the entrance when you open the sliding door and see Satsuki and Mei’s rubber rain boots and the black umbrella Satsuki is waiting to give her dad at the bus stop.
The kitchen and bathroom are beautifully reproduced, with a working water pump and bathtubs tiled like the film. There is a wonderful rustic feel to these rooms.
One could not enter the Western Room but it was open enough to see inside. It was filled with Satsuki and Mei’s dad’s books and dressed with Satsuki handmade calendar and Mei’s chair with her paints. Even the pillar is rotted out a bit where Satsuki and Mei almost fell over the porch in the film.
The living room is the biggest room with the biggest entrance. Opening up the sliding closet you can see Satsuki and Mei clothing and bedding and perhaps the most touching item in the entire house Mei’s iconic tweed straw hat. I asked if there was a way to peek up into the attic and sure enough behind a door that looked liked a closet were the stairs leading into the attic. One could not go up and visit the attic but it was dark up there and I thought I heard something moving around.
The outside also has some amazing moments, including the working well shed, Satsuki and Mei’s Dad’s Bike and the pail with holes that Mei is seen playing with in the film.
Perhaps the most magical moment at the house are the two holes underneath the house where the medium Totoro is first seen, in the film. The second hole even has a ramune bottle inside just like the film.
Finally, I must say Satsuki and Mei’s House is not a cheap reproduction tourist trap but a high-quality house using the best woods and construction methods that a family could live in comfortably, in one of the most beautiful locations in Nagoya. It is also a peek into the lifestyle of a bygone era of Japan that is not often seen. Although I missed the Ghibli Museum (scheduled for 2012), I believe I was able to see a Ghibli related destination that most people do not get a chance to visit while they are in Japan. Thank you Rie-chan for taking me to such a beautiful “Romantic Place.”
©2011 photos and articled by Leronardo Flores