Ghibli theme park prepares for visitors

People take photographs of an exhibit of Ghibli character 'Totoro' at Dondoko Forest during a media tour of the new Ghibli Park in Nagakute, Aichi prefecture, on Wednesday. (AFP photo / ©Studio Ghibli)

Beyond the gates, a whimsical world awaits, complete with a fluffy Cat Bus, the toothy grin of Totoro and a life-sized No-Face seated on a train: welcome to Ghibli Park.

On Wednesday, media got a sneak peek at the highly anticipated new theme park from Studio Ghibli, creator of beloved titles like "My Neighbour Totoro" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away".

It will open its doors to visitors on Nov 1, though initially only three of the five sections of the site in central Japan's Aichi region will be accessible.

Some local residents got early access through a lottery, including Yuki Asahi, a confessed Ghibli fanatic.

"It's the park everyone was waiting for," he told AFP.

Spread over 7.1 hectares of the 194-hectare park where Aichi hosted the 2005 International Expo, it features large open-air areas in keeping with the importance of nature in Ghibli works.

Among the three areas that will open next month is the "Hill of Youth", the gateway to the park that features an elevator tower inspired by several Ghibli films including "Castle in the Sky" and "Howl's Moving Castle".

Elsewhere, "Dondoko Forest" evokes the retro peace of "My Neighbour Totoro", with bucolic walking paths, playground equipment and an enormous Totoro figure.

A major draw will be Ghibli's Grand Warehouse, a hangar-like indoor portion of the park with various attractions, including 14 sets from 13 of the studio's film classics.

Visitors can stroll along an alley designed to look like the opening scene of "Spirited Away," or perch on the red velvet-covered train seat in a carriage next to the movie's instantly recognisable "No-Face" character.

Aichi is predicting an influx of 1.8 million visitors a year once all five areas of the park are open, from next year, with an estimated annual economic impact of 48 billion yen (12.5 billion baht).

Another resident, 34-year-old Yuiko Asai, told AFP she has watched "Howl's Moving Castle" so many times she knows all the words.

"I was really looking forward to visiting," she said, explaining that she adores Ghibli films because "they are deep, even for adults."

'We didn't want people to forget'

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by animators Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, and has captivated fans around the world with works blending nostalgia, courage, greed and interaction with the natural world.

Miyazaki's son Goro told reporters Wednesday the park was intended to protect the local environment.

"We chose a location that would have as little impact as possible," he said.

"The trees surrounding the park make the buildings look better... they look as if they have been there for a long time."

The park was originally conceived as a way to leave Studio Ghibli's works to future generations, Miyazaki said, in anticipation of his father's expected retirement.

"We didn't want people to forget Ghibli's works," he said.

"But we were betrayed again," he added with a laugh. "He's making a feature film now!"

Tickets will be reservation only, costing between 1,000 and 2,500 yen per area for adults.

Studio Ghibli already operates the hugely popular Ghibli Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo, which offers tickets only at the beginning of each month, regularly selling out within hours.

Japan is home to several major theme parks, including Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios in Osaka.

After two-and-a-half years of tough Covid-19 restrictions, the borders reopened fully to tourists on Oct 11, and a massive influx of foreign visitors is expected in the coming months.

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