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The world according to Hayao Miyazaki

As the retired anime legend announces plans to build a nature park, we discover the real-world locations that inspired his art

In case you missed it, this week brought tantalising news that Hayao Miyazaki is building a theme park in Japan. That’s apt, given that his accomplishments as an animator have always been stacked up against those of Disney in the west. But Miyazaki’s project promises a very different experience from the plastic fantasias presided over by Micky, Donald & co. Built with local construction materials, the park will cost a modest £1.6m – funded out of the director’s pocket – and aims to encourage children to engage with the natural world, in a move that echoes one of Miyazaki’s great themes as a filmmaker: the environment. The park is scheduled for completion until 2018, but if you can’t bear to wait that long, you don’t need to: Miyazaki’s films teem with images of natural and manmade beauty drawn from the real world. The trick is finding out where he got his inspiration.

Jiufen, Taiwan (Spirited Away)

Miyazaki had wanted to make a movie set around a sentō (communal bathhouse) since visiting them as a child, but for the fantastical setting of Spirited Away, he needed something a little bit larger than life, and he found it in the Amei Teahouse of Jiufen, Taiwan. Jiufen was a goldrush town and jewel in the crown of the bourgeoning Japanese empire in the late 19th century, and these days does a nifty trade as an eye-popping tourist destination, thanks in no small part to the Miyazaki connection.

Yakushima, Japan (Princess Mononoke)

While researching his eco-minded masterpiece Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki spent three days with his team in Yakushima, a subtropical island off the south coast of Japan famous for its loggerhead turtles, ancient cedars and red bottomed macaques. And if you get along very, very early to the island’s mystical Shiratani Ravine – now popularly known as Princess Mononoke’s forest – you might just catch a glimpse of the Forest Spirit making its morning rounds.

Adriatic coast, Croatia (Porco Rosso)

Miyazaki’s adventure story about a strangely piggy-looking ex-WWI fighter pilot is set on Croatia’s spectacular Adriatic coast, though the outbreak of war during production prompted the filmmakers to omit explicit references to the fact from the movie. Nonetheless, the spiralling Balkan conflict cast a shadow over the film’s development, resulting in a darker and more complex story than Miyazaki had envisioned. “I haven't been to Croatia,” he told a press conference in 2008. “But I have actually – irresponsibly – made a film that was set there.”

Tomonoura, Japan (Ponyo)

Ponyo was conceived after a trip to the Seto Inland Sea in Japan left Miyazaki despondent about humankind’s disregard for the marine environment. “I saw how people have polluted the sea, and came back home angry,” he told Comic-Con in 2009. “I don’t think we’re born with a natural tendency to protect the environment. I think it’s something we learn if we’re educated and brought up to have the manners to care for the world.” The town featured in the largely aquatic adventure is reportedly based on Tomonoura, a humble fishing town in Setonaika National Park that also played host, oddly enough, to Hugh Jackman in 2013’s The Wolverine.

Minamata Bay, Japan (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)

Not a visual reference per se, but Miyazaki was moved to write Nausicaa by the plight of Minamata, the Kyushu factory town whose coastal waters were poisoned with mercury during the 50s and 60s, making many of its residents seriously ill. In the film, a young princess must negotiate the toxic wastes created by an apocalyptic war some thousand years ago to seek a rapprochement between humankind and the ohm, a mutant breed of giant insects also presumably bred by the environmental cataclysm.

Kazuiro, Japan (The Wind Rises)

Miyazaki saved some of his most beautiful evocations of nature for this final film, a grown-up meditation on the encroachment of real-world events on to the secret life of the imagination. Kazuiro, a summer resort where Jiro’s love affair with Nahoko blossoms, has long been a popular tourist destination with overworked city types from nearby Tokyo. It also has a reputation for romance, since the young Emperor Akihito met his future wife on a tennis court there in 1957.

Saitama prefecture, Japan (My Neighbour Totoro)

Miyazaki set his fourth feature film in the ‘satoyama’ – vivid-green patches of farmland flanked by wooded hills – which lie just a short trip from his home in Tokorozawa, Japan. The satoyama occupy a place of special importance in the Japanese psyche as a symbol of traditional rural life, and the character Totoro was subsequently used as a mascot by an environmental campaign set up to preserve them.

Gotland, Sweden (Kiki’s Delivery Service)

For his free-spirited tale of a trainee witch, Miyazaki needed a location every bit as whimsical as his teenaged heroine. Since the film was set in a fictional country in northern Europe, he turned for inspiration to Gotland, a Swedish island in the middle of the Baltic Sea with its own language, Gutnish. Getting there’s a bit tricky – youll need to grab a connecting flight from Stockholm if you’re coming from the UK – but that’s all part of the charm, right?

Colmar, France (Howl’s Moving Castle)

The insanely picturesque, Franco-Germanic architecture of Colmar, Alsace, was a key visual touchstone in Miyazaki’s tale of a young lady who hooks up with a handsome young wizard in order to lift a curse, with the carved renaissance balconies of the town’s Maison Pfister lifted wholesale for the film.

South Wales, UK (Castle in the Sky)

In trying to establish a look for his fantastical tale of lost floating cities, Miyazaki took his team of animators to a small mining town in South Wales, whose architecture would inspire the huddled terrace houses of Pazu’s hometown. He’d actually been there a couple of years earlier, in 1984, when he witnessed the miners’ strike first-hand. “I admired those men,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “I admired the way they battled to save their way of life, just as the coal miners in Japan did. Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone.”