Hello world! You’re listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. I’m Kyota Ko, and here’s Part 2 of sharing cultural insights into Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

Last time, we left off where Chihiro sees a lantern with the logo of Aburaya. So next, she stands in front of the red bridge that leads to the Aburaya building. 

Now you often find this kind of red bridge at Shinto shrines and Japanese gardens, and also Chinese gardens if you visit China. What’s characteristic about these bridges is that they’re arched. 

I don’t know about Chinese bridges, but in Shintoism, arched bridges are meant to be the bridge between our world and the world of the gods. Some arches are really steep and you’ll feel like you’re climbing rather than crossing. It’s so hard to cross because, well, you’re not supposed to come to the world of gods. You’re supposed to keep yourself in your world.

But, the bridge before Aburaya is not that steep because they’re not expecting humans. Chihiro of course is oblivious to the meaning of bridges and she climbs on the handrail on one side and then runs to the other side and climbs on the handrail again, like any child would.

And then when she looks back, Haku is there. Haku is pissed. He tells Chihiro to leave immediately. The sun starts setting quickly, it gets dark fast, and Chihiro runs to find her parents. They have turned into hogs, and Chihiro gets scared, so she runs back towards the car, but the stream she struggled to cross earlier has become a giant river.

And then she notices her body is starting to disappear. According to Haku who comes to the rescue soon after, people who don’t eat local food cannot stay alive. I don’t think that idea itself is very surprising. If you immigrate to another country and you don’t like the local food, you’re kinda screwed. 

The invisible Shinto gods

Next, a brightly lit cruise ship docks right beside Chihiro. The doors fly open and these invisible creatures come out. What might be a little confusing here is that these creatures make an appearance when they disembark the ship, and are invisible until then.

This is because these creatures are Shinto gods and spirits. Shintoism is a polytheistic religion, which means it’s believed that there are many gods. In fact in Shintoism, there is an infinite number of gods and spirits, and none of them are supposed to be visible to human eyes. 

They live in the same space on Earth as we do, but we can’t see them because they’re in sort of a parallel universe or a different dimension. In Japanese folklore, whenever a Shinto god plays a role in the story, they’re often just a beam of light, or just a voice, or they borrow the body of a statue or an animal.

So what Miyazaki is showing here is how the gods come back into their world from our world, and when they do, they reveal themselves, and we find out that they come in different shapes and sizes. Many of them are quite dorky!

Tsukumogami – spirits of your favorite tools

Some are shaped like people or animals, but some of them look like some sort of tool walking around on legs. So let me explain what they are. 

In Shinto belief, Japanese people have always lived in nature and thanks to nature, which is an incredible super power. It provides food and other resources to us and also gives challenges to us in the form of natural disasters. So Japanese people came to feel both thanks and fear towards mother nature so much that they began to think of things they found in nature as gods. They needed to personify their target of great thanks and great fear.

And to Japanese people, the tools they used, like plows and cooking utensils were also a subject of thanks because without them, they wouldn’t be able to make any crops or even eat. 

And besides, you come to like your tools as you keep using them. For example, f you keep using your own violin for a long time, and for some reason one day you need to play a borrowed violin, you actually cannot perform as well as you could with your own instrument. It’s like your violin remembers you, it likes you, as if it has a personality. 

So It has been thought that if you keep using a tool for a very long time, it starts to acquire a personality and becomes a spirit with a mind of its own. So there are many Japanese folk tales about your favorite umbrella or tea pot coming to life and doing good things to people if they took good care of them, and playing tricks if the owner mistreated them. Also for the same reason, many legendary katana swords that were passed on from one samurai to another were thought to have these spiritual features. 


So Miyazaki is paying homage to this traditional Japanese belief by creating these tools with limbs making their way to Aburaya along with the other gods and spirits.

In the screenshot I’ve put up in the blog post for this podcast, there is a wooden rice mortar with a ladel stuck to it walking, or perhaps floating past Chihiro and Haku.

Aburaya, a timeless place of the supernaturals 

Now Chihiro and Haku make a dash into the backyard of Aburaya and hide there. Haku tells Chihiro what the plan is for her to survive in this world. 

In this scene, by looking at the flowers that are planted in the backyard, we understand that the world of the gods runs on a time scale that’s very different from the human world. 

In the screenshot I have here, you see plum blossoms. Plum blossoms are flowers you see in early spring. But then in this other screenshot of the same garden, you see hydrangea in full bloom, although hydrangea are flowers you only see in early summer. And furthermore, in yet another cut, you see these red camellia flowers, which grow in winter. 

So this is an impossible garden on Earth. There are no seasons in Aburaya, or I should say all seasons overlap in Aburaya. 

In a later scene where Chihiro runs through a pathway of flowers to get to the pig pen, you see flowers in all sorts of colors in full bloom. I cannot really tell each kind of flower that we see in this scene, but again, this floral pathway is an impossible sight on Earth. 

So within the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, Miyazaki has established that Chihiro has wandered into an unworldly place very subtly. 

Over 60% of the over 4 million annual visitors to Japan are repeaters, which means it’s their second time or more to come to Japan, and I think and I hope it’s because they want to experience Japan’s different locations and also it’s different seasons. In spring, it’s for the cherry blossoms. In autumn, it’s for the autumn leaves. In early summer it’s for the hydrangea and in winter it’s for the snow. Don’t come in mid summer. The humidity is horrible except in the north. 

Anyway, thank you for listening. We’ll continue this topic in Part 3. それでは、またお会いしましょう。