Animated Fun in Tokyo

Forum Mithani

“Tot-toro, Tot-tooro….” The children bounce about excitedly, singing the theme tune to My Neighbour Totoro, their favourite Japanese animated film, or anime. Not again, I groan inwardly. In the past, I’d never been much of a fan of anime. Despite having a deep appreciation for Japan and its culture, I’d always found the Japanese fascination with anime childish and a little disconcerting, a fixation reserved only for nerds, or otaku, as they are known in Japan.

That was until I watched Spirited Away. The Oscar-winning fantasy about a girl who finds herself in a world of spirits and must find a way to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs, mesmerised me. It was imaginative and thought-provoking, and has inspired a love of anime, which I now share with my children.

So when a friend tells me about the Ghibli Museum, I am determined to visit it. Set in a wooded park in Mitaka, a suburban town west of Tokyo, the Ghibli Museum is an art museum dedicated to the work of Studio Ghibli, which has produced many critically-acclaimed and much-loved anime, including My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and, more recently, Ponyo, a charming retelling of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson.

We arrive on a hot and sticky morning during the summer holidays. A sign near the entrance to the popular museum informs us tickets are already sold out for the day. Luckily we have reserved ours in advance and the children yelp excitedly when they were handed their tickets – each one is made from a piece of real 35mm Ghibli film print used in cinema theatres. Holding our prints up to the light, we recognise scenes from My Neighbour Totoro, Whisper of the Heart and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Then we are left to explore the magical, wonderful world of Ghibli.

The Ghibli Museum’s motto is “Let’s lose our way, together” and it’s easy to imagine how one could get lost here, both literally and figuratively. The building itself looks as though it belongs in a Ghibli film, an enchantingly peculiar structure with spiral staircases, bridged walkways, a fresco-covered ceiling and a glass dome, somewhat incongruous to its leafy surroundings in a typical, suburban part of Japan. Stained-glass windows feature flowers, forest animals and various Ghibli characters. A five-metre Robot Soldier from Laputa: Castle in the Sky towers above surrounding parkland from the rooftop garden. It’s hard to believe we are only a twenty-minute train ride away from the heart of Tokyo.

The highlight of the visit is the short anime we watch in the colourful Saturn Theater. The children are entranced by Mei and the Baby Cat Bus, a 15-minute feature starring characters from My Neighbour Totoro. Although there are no subtitles, the charming film is very visual and easy to follow for even the youngest non-Japanese speaker. By turns the audience gasps in awe, then chuckles in delight as little Mei meets a baby cat bus (a magical, flying, bus-shaped cat) and is spirited off on a flying journey with hundreds of other cat buses.

All too soon, the film comes to an end, the curtains are drawn back and sunlight streams through the theatre, allowing us to see the film projector, which resides in a transparent booth at the back of the theatre, in all its glory. All the animated shorts shown in the 80-seat theatre are originals made especially for the museum and cannot be seen anywhere else. So far, the studio has made only seven such exclusive films, but is planning a catalogue of twelve so that they can be rotated on a monthly basis.

After the film, my youngest makes a beeline for the Cat Bus room on the second floor, where children are queuing for their chance to ride the Cat Bus. They take huge pleasure in climbing up, crawling over and sliding down the giant, furry creature.

While the museum is a huge draw for the young, there is plenty to entertain the many unaccompanied adults who also visit the museum. Zoetrope fans will love the enormous 3D ‘Bouncing Totoro’ zoetrope, consisting of 347 figures based on characters from My Neighbour Totoro, which uses strobing LED, rather than slits or mirrors.

Venturing up an iron staircase, we discover five rooms dedicated to showing visitors how a Ghibli film is born. Desks are piled high with books filled with thousands of sketches from different films. There are pictures, photographs and models of street scenes, architectural structures and props that provided inspiration for many Ghibli animations. A wall display shows the step-by-step process of creating an individual cell from a film. One room has been designed to look like the studio of an anime artist in the midst of sketching.

In an alcove, we watch a trailer for Studio Ghibli’s latest production, The Borrower Arrietty. The anime is based on the children’s novel, The Borrowers, by English author Mary Norton. It seems a sad and poignant tale, very much in keeping with the work of the studio. I make a mental note to hunt down a copy on my return to London.

Eventually rumbling stomachs force us to leave this wonderland in search of a satisfying bowl of tasty ramen noodles. But it’s clear the Ghibli museum is a big hit with everyone. Totoro and his friends are all the children talk about for days afterwards. I, for one, can’t get the theme tune out of my head: “Tot-toro, Tot-toooro…”

Ghibli Museum, 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181-0013

For more information and how to buy tickets see:

If you are looking for more anime-related fun in Tokyo, why not visit:

Suginami Animation Museum, Tokyo

Located in Suginami, the heartland of anime production, this free museum runs regular events and workshops, allowing visitors to make their own animated creations. The 150-inch screen theatre shows animated short films four times a day.

Tokyo Anime Center

The centre screens new productions and runs anime-related events, including talks by voice actors.

Toei Animation Gallery, Tokyo

Fans of Toei Animation, producer of many small-screen anime series including Dragonball, will find displays on previous and planned works by the veteran studio in this gallery at their headquarters.

The life cycle of Alumnus orientalis

An account of graduate study in Japan

Simon Darroch

It is over 30 degrees and there are copper-coloured snakes winding in and out of the bushes. Just out of the corner of your eye it’s a worrying 500 metre drop down to the paddy fields below, where dragonflies the length of a child’s forearm lance in and out of the Japanese sampa hats worn by the farmers. In central Kyushu, the Permian/Triassic boundary is recorded as an evil-looking black line slung at a shallow angle across the cliff face. Below the boundary the limestones are a pasty yellow colour and devoid of any recognisable fauna – a dead and sterile time in the history of the great ocean Panthalassa. Immediately above, the rocks become black and mottled-looking, dark peloids are strung across the rock like pearls on a string and stacked into narrow layers that can be traced for several metres across the rock face. You can see that thin threads of micrite are woven in and around the laminae, producing an unsettling, and overwhelmingly organic texture reminiscent of the wispy mycelium you find growing on old leftover lasagne. Although the rocks are slightly unsettling, this is a particularly lovely corner of Japan in summer time, and just one of a thousand sites with rich invertebrate fossil assemblages. There’s certainly plenty to work on in Japan, enough at least for an MSc and PhD, and the great news is that the Japanese Government could be paying you to study there.

For those of you who read Al McGowan’s account of doing a PhD in the United States (, this article is very much in the same vein and I hope that it will provide the stimulus for other students to conduct graduate study outside of the UK. I’ve just finished studying for my MSc at the University of Tokyo, piggybacking into the graduate program via a Japanese Government Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship. Being awarded the MEXT scholarship and entering into the graduate program of your choice at a Japanese university are two separate processes, and as far as possible I shall try to separate the two. In addition, although my experiences with the University of Tokyo were limited to a brief period as a research student and then MSc, there’s no reason why this article should not be of help to aspiring PhD candidates too (indeed, a French student, David Casenove, is in the process of writing his PhD on the palaeobiology of protoconodonts in Tokyo at this very moment). The MEXT scholarships (as well as their larger cousins, the JSPS fellowships – see are a tremendous resource for scientists and students pursuing any aspect of graduate or postgraduate study, and I hope that this article will encourage some of you to consider research in Japan.

The Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarships

The best place to find out about the history of these scholarships and the process of application is within the Japanese Embassy website (in the UK: They are an extensive series of scholarships, available to all nationalities, which fund students at any stage of their careers to undertake a two-year period as a ‘Research Student’ at the Japanese University of their choice. Once enrolled at a particular university, it’s possible to enter into graduate degree programs and although sometimes tricky, this process is often facilitated by your ‘host’ supervisor. Whilst you are under the auspices of the MEXT scholarship, the Japanese Government will pay all tuition fees required by your university. During my time at the University of Tokyo I met a Bulgarian student studying the content of Tokyo train announcements, a French post-doctoral student who is the world’s greatest authority on translating ancient Japanese texts, and innumerable postdoctoral physicists who all lived in an entirely separate world of their own devising. The message here is that the MEXT scholarships are open to people of all nationalities, in all conceivable disciplines, and to students at all stages of their career. The scholarship provides a generous monthly stipend (currently 160,000 yen, which is about _1,150 at preset exchange rates) which is comfortably enough to live on (especially if you arrange student accommodation), visa sponsorship, and will also pay for your flights to and from Japan at the beginning and end of your tenure. In short, it’s an incredibly good deal for an aspiring palaeontologist, and applications for the 2010-2012 scholarships will begin in April 2009.

The most important part of the application process will be establishing contact with a ‘host’ supervisor: a member of academic staff at your chosen university who will be responsible for you during your time there, and will fill in the other half of the application. This is also the hardest part as Japanese academics can be a bit on the reclusive side or can merely be confused at receiving an exquisitely worded email in a language they don’t necessarily understand. For this reason it is crucial to research the members of academic staff with whom you’d like to work, before trying to drum up their interest in taking on an international student. It helps to have a convincing reason for coming to study in Japan, be it a specific field locality, a specific project, or merely because you’d like to be supervised by someone who sets the global standard in his/her field. In addition, I discovered that it is often enormously helpful to maintain contact with a member of academic staff back in the UK, with whom you can discuss aspects of the project, and/or eventually publish the results (I’ve listed a few good reasons for this in later sections). I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Richard Twitchett as a co-supervisor for my MSc work, and who was kind enough to correct errors in my science and proofread the final thesis – things which for various reasons were not always possible in Tokyo. I also received informal supervision from international post doctoral fellows, notably Drs. Aaron Hunter and Andrzej Khaim, for which I am eternally grateful.

Graduate degrees at Japanese universities

Unlike the UK, MSc degrees in Japan typically last two years, and if you add on several months at the beginning to allow for your entry through MEXT and application to graduate programs, you can be looking at two-and-a-half years to complete your Masters – a lot longer than in the UK. A PhD can take between three and five years, similar to the Unites States, although the last two years may not be funded. As a scientist, the first year of your studies (MSc or PhD) will include attending a number of courses, on the way to accumulating the necessary number of credits for graduation. At the end of your first year you will probably have to submit a literature review on chosen topic of research, and at the end of the second year a written thesis that you will have to orally defend in front of the department faculty. Again, similar to the United States you can be flexible in your areas of research and will be able to design your own project, rather than having to audition for an assigned topic. As a MSc student, this gives you a huge boost in developing the skills necessary for independent research, and supervisors will commonly grant you the freedom to pursue whichever weird and wonderful approaches you fancy (although this can be problematic if you want them to take part). You will commonly have to fund any fieldwork yourself, however in many cases the MEXT monthly stipend will cover some of this, and some labs will have their own sources of funding which can be co-opted to research projects. Departments are not a single entity and cost centres are related to labs or seminar groups connected to one or two facility members so that equipment, lab space and general costs are directly related to your supervisor and can be a bit of a lottery.

I spent a total of two weeks fieldwork collecting microbial carbonates from an obscure backwater in the southernmost of Japan’s four large islands, and funded this extravagant research schedule through variously pouring drinks in ‘alternative’ bars around the rough end of Shinjuku, appearing in bizarre TV commercials and appallingly revisionist period dramas, scientific proofreading, and teaching pidgin English to aspiring young air-hostesses. It says a lot for Japan that most of these are considered perfectly normal pastimes for visiting foreign scholars, and I have friends who explored plenty of more unconventional ways to secure funding for their research. Part-time work in Japan is perfectly legal for foreigners and you may well end up being paid in cash. While on a MEXT scholarship, however, you will need to apply for the cumbersomely named ‘Permit To Engage In Activity Other Than That Permitted By The Status Of Residence Previously Granted’. These are valid for a year and will be provided by the University.


The University of Tokyo possesses a variety of dormitory blocks and apartments for foreign students available for a reasonable price. After talking to other MEXT students, this appears to be true for most other universities around Japan. The cheapest of these in Tokyo, by far, is the International Lodge Komaba, situated conveniently in the most attractive of the university’s three campuses and priced at 15,000-20,000 yen a month (currently _110-145, and a fraction of your monthly MEXT stipend). For this paltry sum you get a small but serviceable room, full en-suite (micro-) kitchen and (nano-) bathroom facilities, and a balcony that overlooks the most happening and interesting parts of town. If you want to guarantee a place in student accommodation, it is best to either contact your supervisor in advance, or speak directly to whoever is directly responsible for international students at the university. Some of these lodges put a limit on the amount of time that you can stay there (in the case of the international lodge, 6 to 12 months), after which you’ll have to find accommodation elsewhere. This can be a tortuous process if attempted alone and without fluent Japanese, so it’s best to enlist the help of your supervisor or a fellow student, apply to one of the gaikokujin guesthouses around the city, use the University realtor or gain entry into one of the other international lodges (which will require application in advance).

Cost of living

I overspent at times in Tokyo and had to be bailed-out by family and friends at least once, however this was pretty inexcusable as, surprisingly, the cost of living in Japan can be scandalously cheap, especially if you consider that a bowl of noodles and dumplings in pork broth is a decent meal (it really is). For 1000 yen (currently around _7), even in Tokyo, you could buy between eight and ten plates of sushi at one of the cheaper revolving kai-ten restaurants; the aforementioned bowl of noodles and Chinese dumplings; or a sizzling pancake of pork and vegetables cooked on a hotplate at your table. If you want to eat western food life can get considerably more expensive, particularly things like cheese, sausages and fresh fruit. Cooking for yourself becomes an incredibly cheap option as soon as you invest in a rice cooker, since seasonal fresh fish and vegetables cost very little and are a staple on top of rice if you know how to cook them. Imported beer can be expensive, but Japanese sake and shochu for example are delicious and can cost very little. Food is also easy to get hold of, as there are ‘combinis’ located virtually everywhere, and the vast majority are open 24 hours. Vegetarians may struggle initially (especially those who eschew fish), but vegetables are cheap and the Japanese have an amazing array of soya-based alternatives – there’s even an entire style of cooking devoted to it. Moreover, most Japanese food is extremely low in cholesterol, although can be high in salt.

Health insurance is a must and relatively easy to sort out, MEXT will talk you through all the documents and afterwards all you have to do is pay a monthly premium of 800 yen (currently £5-6), payable in cash at any of the ubiquitous convenience stores. For things like field trips, winter sports, and other strenuous activities the university will have all the relevant documentation and a year’s coverage will rarely cost more than 4000 yen (currently £30). I’ve never driven a car in Japan (and never needed to, the public transport system is both cheap and superb) and so can’t comment, however you’ll need an international licence to start with. Practical things like field kit start out relatively cheap, although don’t appear to have an upper limit in price. Laptops and computer hardware can be cheap: while wandering round Tokyo’s electrical district in Akihabara I’ve seen new and used laptops for under £150 stacked in boxes outside in the street like a jumble sale. Added to which, the average Japanese university student has a keen sense for everything electrical/electronic, and so with a little help it’s extremely easy to install the equivalent of a Ferrari engine, spoiler, and under-dash UV lights.


This is difficult, because although it obviously helps to arrive in the country with a working knowledge of Japanese, proficiency in the language is not required either for application for a MEXT scholarship, or to enter many of the university graduate programs. I arrived in Japan with absolutely none. Part of the MEXT scholarship involves an optional free four-month intensive (typically four to eight hours, five days a week) language course upon arrival – I probably don’t have to stress how valuable this is but I will briefly outline the benefits. At the University of Tokyo these courses are superbly taught, and are extendable for as long as you wish on a part-time (around four hours a week) basis for as long as you want, and at whatever level (it’s quite possible in fact to start from scratch upon arrival, and end up after five years with a PhD and fluency in Japanese – and I’m sure many have). Over the course of nearly three years I received well over one million yen’s worth of free language tuition, which elevates you to conversational level, allows you to interact with your colleagues in the lab, and crucially allows you to understand what on earth the lectures and seminars are about. Much of the material covered in the lectures will be required when you write exams at the end of the 1st year and, although you will generally be allowed to write in English, the University may well not translate the questions. If any of you are daunted by the prospect of learning Japanese then you shouldn’t be; it’s not a tonal language like Chinese, it’s logically constructed in terms of grammar, and 80% of the time the circumstances (academic or otherwise) will only demand a basic knowledge. Increasingly, Japanese students are being encouraged to write, and more importantly publish, in English meaning that Japanese universities will often be thrilled to have you.


Funding will vary between universities, as well as within departments. If you are designing a research project that requires field trips to the Bahamas or run time on expensive equipment (especially in different departments) then it’s obviously wise to consult your host supervisor first. As mentioned already, at MSc level you’ll be funding things like fieldwork yourself, which can usually be covered by the MEXT stipend and/or proceeds from part-time employment. At PhD level, departments may well have more funding to contribute towards certain projects, and will encourage you to apply to external sources of funding (typically JSPS). Doing part-time teaching assistant work is also typical for PhD students, and can be a useful source of income.

Academic Culture and Research Environment

This is the really tricky section; the ease with which you can communicate and cooperate with your lab and supervisor will vary enormously depending on where you are, whom you’re working with, and your knowledge of Japanese language and/or lab protocol. I can offer some general guidelines but they will certainly not be applicable everywhere.

My experience of research at the University of Tokyo was that it encouraged a large degree of independent, autonomous research at all levels of graduate and postgraduate study. Faculty and members of staff typically supervise a large number of students working on a wide range of subjects, and so sometimes won’t be able to offer a vast amount of expert advice on the specifics of your topic (or being busy, may not be able to see you all that often). Cooperation between labs is also scarce, and gives rise to a multitude of bureaucratic issues when, for example, you wish to use an SEM or preparation room belonging to another lab. Students belonging to the palaeobiology seminar group in Tokyo would rarely collaborate if supervised by different members of staff, even when working on the same problem or field area. There are obvious downsides to working within this sort of environment and it may occasionally be frustrating, however there are a number of positive aspects, which I shall list below:

1. Students as early as MSc level quickly pick up the sorts of skills that are necessary for being successful in independent research. Masters students design their own projects and approaches, and often organise and undertake solo all their own fieldwork.

2. The main forum of supervision is within the seminar group, with members of staff taking on large numbers of students in a variety of disciplines the students are required to present their research often and in front of the entire group. This ensures a broad spread of supervision and expertise.

3. Facilities are usually superb, and, using a little initiative, you have the freedom to develop your own experience with a huge range of extremely high-tech and powerful equipment.

4. The relative isolation actually encourages you to seek out and collaborate with other foreign researchers, regardless of the field they work in. My own research was based on ecological recovery from mass extinction events. However, two years is a generous allowance for an MSc and I used the time to collaborate with British, Polish, and Japanese scientists (outside of my own group) on material ranging from crinoid palaeoecology to Holocene diatom records and glacial retreat. This sort of interdisciplinary upbringing is invaluable to a well-rounded education in the Earth Sciences and becomes tremendously useful when approaching a PhD.

In terms of more general cultural advice, there are any number of books published on the peculiarities of Japanese culture, manners and social order. One of the genuine thrills about studying in Japan is experiencing this first hand, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you. In the vast majority of cases you won’t be expected to observe the finer points of Japanese etiquette, and in fact you will spend a lot of time being complemented on everything from your Japanese language ability, to your mastery of chopsticks (regardless of whether or not you can manipulate them at all). As foreign researchers you will to a certain extent be exempt from the incredibly formal rules that govern exchanges between faculty and students, and they will be delighted as you slowly develop both Japanese language and social skills.

In Summary

Being allowed to complete my MSc degree at the University of Tokyo was a unique privilege, and one that is having a huge influence on my wanting to stay in scientific research. The MEXT scholarships are an incredibly generous source of funding at whatever level, and during my time in Japan I met plenty of postdoctoral students who were happy to spend two years at the University of Tokyo on this basis alone. Entry into graduate programs at Japanese Universities can be extremely hard and expensive (especially for the Japanese); however, the MEXT scholarships are a great way of getting onto these degrees. Students from all over the world are now starting to filter into Japanese MSc and PhD programs, and still more are there on the basic Research Assistant programs, publishing their work and taking advantage of the fantastic facilities. Graduate study abroad fosters international scholarship, breadth of scientific and cultural experience, and encourages students as early as MSc to have the confidence to undertake independent research. The two most crucial pieces of advice are to: (1) Research the member(s) of staff you’d like to work with and contact them well in advance; and (2) Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of learning a new language, you’ll never have to be 100% fluent and it’s a terrific opportunity to make friends along the way.

Simon Darroch.