Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was the main character in my favourite anime. The rich visuals, emotive storylines, and intoxicating landscapes have me attempting to dive through my TV screen on a weekly basis. Seriously, don’t try this at home. From Studio Ghibli staples to old-school Seinen series, anime scenery is a relentless eyegasm. And the animation team is just half of it.
It may surprise you to know that the most beautiful anime scenery is based on real life. After all, who wouldn’t want to stroll among traditional thatched-roof farmhouses huddled together in leafy hidden valleys; or climb the steepest steps of a hillside town bathed in the rosy hues of psychedelic paper lanterns. Fragments of anime magic can be found all over Japan (and beyond) if you know where to look. Fuelled by a matcha latte and the entire works of Joe Hisaishi blasting through my AirPods, here are the top 10 spots that inspired your (and my) favourite anime scenery. And yes, Studio Ghibli is most definitely included.
Jiufen, Taiwan – Spirited Away (2001)
First up: everyone’s favourite Miyazaki masterpiece. Spirited Away follows the story of young Chihiro as she wanders to the spirit world, forced to work in a magical bathhouse after her parents are transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba. The 2001 classic is teeming with enchanting (if not slightly creepy) characters; while the anime scenery will hurl you headfirst into the spirit realm. Fans have likened the film’s otherworldly spirit town to an unsuspecting mountain village in Taiwan. Although Miyazaki denies it, the resemblance is truly uncanny. Climb your way through winding alleyways lit with the glow of countless paper lanterns. Hungry? Gorge yourself – No Face style – on a feast from Jiufen Old Street. Sugar-seekers, try the famous Ice Cream Puff: a scoop of ice cream sandwiched between two slices of flaky puff pastry. Don’t worry though, it won’t turn you into a pig.
How to get here? Jump on a direct express bus from Taipei. Most travellers are happy with a day trip, but there are great hostel options for diving deeper into the spirit world.
Yakushima Island – Princess Mononoke
Another Studio Ghibli classic, say whaaat? Princess Mononoke is set in age-old forests teeming with ancient gods. While giant wolf deities may not exist in real life, the Kodama-clustered woodland certainly does. On Yakushima Island in the far south of Japan, the wooded valley Shiratani Unsuikyo hides some of the oldest trees on the planet. Primaeval roots (over 7000 years old) burst from the ground covered in hides of lime-green moss. The air is heavy with magic and humidity. To experience the forest at its best, hiking is essential. There are many walking, hiking, and climbing trails through the forest if – like Ashitaka – you’re the energetic type.
To get here, you can fly or ferry from Kagoshima City. Once arrived, there a numerous car rental companies, buses, and taxis to explore the island further. Accommodation-wise, there are multiple guesthouses (and one or two hostels) dotted around the island.
Yotsuya, Tokyo – Your Name
You must have been hiding in a secret bunker in 2016 to not have heard of Your Name, the magical realism love story that captured the hearts of anime fans worldwide. It’s a striking mix of the surreal and the ordinary that blends time travel, body-swapping, and a saliva-filled bottle of sake. The events taking place from young Taki’s point of view are located in Tokyo, particularly the Yotsuya area. The top hit here is the Suga Shrine Steps. A highly popular photo spot; it’s perfect for recreating the film’s heart-wrenching final scene. Tired of anime-trekking? Stop by Salon de Thé Rond for a latte. It’s located in the striking National Art Centre, a must-see for architecture and art lovers.
Like most of Tokyo, Yotsuya is easy to get to by metro/bus/cab/foot/go-kart. Hostels sit on countless street corners; finding one close to the anime-action is easy.
Shinjuku Gyoen – The Garden of Words
Still in the capital? Time for some rest and relaxation. The Garden of Words is a contemporary Tokyo tale inspired by ancient Japanese poetry. Set in the famous Shinjuku Gyoen, an imperial garden turned public park, be prepared for some truly beautiful anime scenery brought to life. The film doesn’t just look real, it looks better than real. Like its refining reality with every drop of rain. Located a short walk from Shinjuku Station, this is one of Tokyo’s largest and most visited parks. If you visit during cherry blossom season, it’s an even bigger deal.
There are multiple hostels around the Shinjuku region of Tokyo. But really, it’s easy to get to from anywhere in the city. Make your way to Shinjuku Station, the park is right next to it.
Kawagoe City – Kamisama Kiss
This charming supernatural rom-com witnesses homeless high schooler Nanami Momozono accidentally becoming the earth-deity of a local shrine. Just an hour’s drive north-west of Tokyo transports you to a city plucked out of the Edo period. The streets are lined with two-story wooden Kurazukuri (old merchant warehouses) which conceal souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and cafés beneath their black-tiled roofs. This is the Old Town Warehouse District in Kawagoe City, Saitama prefecture. Hikawa Shrine, though not on a hill, could very well be the inspiration behind the anime’s Mikage Shrine. Like in the series, people worship at Hikawa for good fortune in marriage. Here you can wander through picturesque tunnels of ema (small wooden prayer plaques); and in summer, the gates are plastered with multicoloured wind chimes.
Kawagoe City is on the outskirts of Tokyo. You can reach it from the city centre by train, the quickest of which takes 30 minutes (from Ikebukuro Station on the Tobu Tojo Line.) We’d suggest staying in Tokyo and visiting Kawagoe in the day.
Washinomiya Shrine, Saitama – Lucky Star
Perched on the outskirts of Tokyo, a weathered red Torii marks the entrance to Kanto’s oldest shrine. Washinomiya shrine is the setting for Lucky Star, a comedy high-school drama that follows a colourful clique of girls’ term-time misadventures. You can buy all sorts of Lucky Star merch at the shrine, including anime-inspired ema. For extra otaku points, draw your own Lucky Star characters on the plaques. The Summer Festival is a must-see. Come on July 31st to see priests riding in on horses, float paper dolls down the river, and carry portable shrines (‘mikoshi’) through the temple courtyard.
From Tokyo, it’s easy to get here. The nearest station is Washinomiya Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line, about an hour’s journey from the city centre. My advice? Stay in Tokyo’s best and brightest hostels and visit Washinomiya as a day trip.
Shirakawago, Ogimachi Village – Higurashi: When They Cry
Higurashi: When They Cry follows a group of young friends and the mysterious events that occur in the rural village of Hinamizawa. Hinamizawa is the host of Hinamizawa Syndrome, known for breeding paranoia that drives characters to the brink of insanity. Who on earth would want to come here in real life, you ask? We would, of course! The Shirakawa-go region lines the Shogawa River Valley in the remote mountains of Gifu Prefecture. Nestled in the shadow of the mountains lies a cluster of traditional thatched-roof farmhouses called Ogimachi Village. This sleepy village is the stuff of dreams; plucked straight out of a fairy-tale in a land far far away. The anime scenery is spot-on – without the despair of the series.
Unfortunately for anime fans, there is no direct train to Shirakawa-go. To visit, catch a bus from either Kanazawa or Takayama. The journey is roughly one hour long. Kanazawa has a small selection of great hostels. Perfect for jumping straight into the heart of village life.
Hakone, Kanagawa – Neon Genesis Evangelion
90s Sci-fi hit, Neon Genesis Evangelion, sees giant humanoid robots clash with supernatural beings. The anime is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in the futuristic fortified city of Tokyo-3. Subterranean bases and retractable skyscrapers aside, Tokyo-3 is based on the city of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture. Want to know how it feels in the future? Hop aboard the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani. This active volcano zone spews Armageddon vibes and serves up eggs blackened by sulfur. Eating one is said to prolong one’s life by seven years… Sign us up! Hakone is also full of natural hot springs. Perfect for a well-needed soak after all your anime sightseeing.
The quickest direct route to Hakone from Tokyo is on the Odakyu Electric Railway. It runs daily trains to Hakone from Shinjuku Station (the busiest train station in the world!) Once here, there are plenty of hostels to set up base while you explore the cities’ seismic activity.
Mystery Inc, step aside. There’s a new group of detectives in town. Hyouka is a mystery series, centred around four high school students in the Classic Literature Club; an aimless group that ends up solving A LOT of local mysteries. Many sites and buildings in the series are based on actual sites in Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. Grab a Hyouka map from the Tourist Office to get your anime treasure hunt started. Our favourite spot? Arekusujinja Shrine is modelled after Hiejinja Shrine. Here is where the Spring Takayama Festival is held on the 14th and 15th of April. Visit in springtime to see intricate marionette performances and embellished festival floats paraded through the old town.
Takayama is quite a distance from Tokyo, but you can access it via indirect train routes and coaches. Its closest city is Nagoya, where you can catch the JR Hida limited express train to Takayama every hour. There are hostels in Takayama and Nagoya, depending on whether you want to stay overnight. We wouldn’t blame you!
Asakusa, Tokyo – Demon Slayer
Back to Tokyo, where Demons roam. In this devilish anime, youngster Tanjiro sets out to become a demon slayer to avenge his family and cure his cursed sister. It’s set in the streets of Asakusa, where neon signs light the paths of traditional low-rise marketplaces. Down and dirty but effortlessly cool, it’s a lot cheaper than the rest of Tokyo. Hungry? Asakusa is famous for Soba noodles (among a million other things). To sample all the eats on offer, take part in an evening street food tour.
Asakusa is a great place to stay if you’re on a budget. As a result, there are A LOT of hostels to choose from, each as trendy as the last.
Challenge completed. Japan (and Taiwan) are wonderful countries in and out of animation. Fan of this anime scenery? If you’ve been to any of these spots (or have some we’ve missed) let us know in the comments!