Contemporary Culture Going Global

A Walk Around Manga Artist Mizuki Shigeru’s Chōfu, Tokyo

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Mizuki Shigeru, born 100 years ago, spent most of his life in Chōfu, in Tokyo’s western suburbs, where he created his most famous manga story, Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō. A walk around Chōfu reminds us of Mizuki’s deep love for nature and yōkai spirits.

A Storyteller Finds His Place in West Tokyo

Mizuki Shigeru (1922ー2015) is one of Japan’s most famous and respected manga artists. While he is best known for Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō and other yōkai-themed comics, he also published works on world and Japanese history, often with autobiographical elements.

Mizuki Shigeru in 2010. (© Jiji)
Mizuki Shigeru in 2010. (© Jiji)

Born and raised in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, Mizuki moved to Chōfu in 1959, one year after making his debut as a manga artist for the then-thriving kashihon (book rental) market. By that time, Chōfu had become one of Tokyo’s biggest cities. Once a small rural town, it had rapidly expanded after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, when many people and businesses had moved to the suburbs. Here, Mizuki found the ideal environment to create his stories.

The main theme of Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō and other yōkai manga is mankind’s need to coexist with nature and the many creatures—natural and supernatural—that inhabit this world. Some of them may be invisible, but after all, people have always imagined things that are invisible to the senses. Mizuki used to say that he had noticed a catastrophic yōkai decrease in crowded urban areas with little nature, where the five senses were overstimulated and people had lost their power of imagination. On the other hand, yōkai tend to thrive in sparsely populated areas with lots of trees and water sources. That’s why Mizuki loved Chōfu.

Today, it takes less than 20 minutes to reach Chōfu from Shinjuku Station via the Keiō Line’s express service. The colorful Kitarō Bus has several routes departing from the station and can take you everywhere, but the best way to explore the city is on foot.

In any case, our first destination is very close to the station.

Mizuki-Related Sites on the Station’s North Side

Kitarō and Medamaoyaji welcome shoppers
Kitarō and Medamaoyaji welcome shoppers.

Tenjin-dōri may look at first like a typical shopping street, but we soon discover that it is populated with the statues of several characters from Mizuki’s bestselling Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō. Nezumiotoko (Rat Man) lies on a bench, Nekomusume (Cat Girl) rides Ittanmomen (Roll of Cotton) atop a transformer box, and Kitarō welcomes shoppers and passers by at both entrances to the street. They were installed in 1991 following a proposal by Mizuki himself, who apparently used to shop here. Even now, it retains a laid-back atmosphere. Not far from the street stands a nondescript building housing Mizuki Productions, the company that manages the artist’s huge creative output and plans new manga and anime projects.

Nezumiotoko relaxes on a bench.
Nezumiotoko relaxes on a bench.

At its northern end, Tenjin-dōri becomes the approach to Fuda Tenjin, a very old Shintō shrine surrounded by greenery that is said to have been built in the first century CE, during the reign of Emperor Suinin. Amazingly, such a quiet space can be found just a 5-minute walk from Chōfu Station. Besides being a famous power spot, Fuda Tenjin is popular among Kitarō fans as a seichi junrei, or otaku pilgrimage destination. According to the yōkai saga’s original version, titled Hakaba Kitarō (Kitarō of the Graveyard), the shrine’s little grove is also the place where Kitarō is supposed to live.

The main hall at Fuda Tenjin.
The main hall at Fuda Tenjin.

After saying our prayers and buying a Kitarō-themed omikuji (fortune-telling paper strip), we resume our northward walk crossing the lovely local river, the Nogawa, passing many rice fields, orchards, and small shops along the way.

North to an Ancient Temple

After a 15-minute walk we reach Jindaiji, one of Tokyo’s best-known and most beautiful Buddhist temples. Founded in 733, it is also the capital’s second oldest, after Sensōji in the central district of Asakusa. Jindaiji’s spacious grounds house several buildings, including structures moved here from three former major temples from the Edo period (1603–1868), as well as a Buddha statue dating back to the late Asuka period (593–710).

Among the temple’s many attractions are a vast botanical garden just up the hill and a morbidly cute pet cemetery, as well as a tree-shaded street lined with restaurants serving soba, a local specialty. But manga fans will probably prefer to check out the Kitarō Chaya, a quaint café and souvenir shop that best exemplifies how Buddhist temples in Japan are often a mix of sacred and profane. The retro wooden structure is over 50 years old and is one of the first things one encounters coming up the path toward the main temple gate. Here you can enjoy Mizuki’s fantasy world in all its aspects. The café has a nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of Shōwa (1926–89) Japan. Here you can buy yōkai-themed goods and taste its ghostly menu which includes such delicacies as Medamaoyaji (Daddy Eyeball) chestnut zenzai (made by boiling red beans in sugar) and Nurikabe (Wally Wall) miso oden: a slab of konnyaku (konjac) dipped in sweet miso sauce. There is also a gallery where valuable illustrations by Mizuki are on display.

Kitarō Chaya at Jindaiji.
Kitarō Chaya at Jindaiji.

Mizuki used to come to Jindaiji to commune with animals, birds, Buddhist deities, and even his beloved yōkai. Surrounded by Jindaiji’s splendid old forest, one is touched by the power and warmth of nature. Look around yourself and you may even see Kitarō peering from behind one of the trees.

Yōkai Near the Station

Those who want to experience more of Mizuki’s world now have to retrace their steps and head back toward the station. A recent addition to Chōfu’s yōkai landscape is Kitarō Hiroba (Kitarō Square). Opened in 2019 on a site between Chōfu and Nishi-Chōfu stations along the Keio Line, occupying a plot of land freed up when the train tracks were sent underground along this stretch of rail, this playground is equipped with yōkai and character statues and playing equipment for younger kids including Kitarō’s House, complete with a slide, and the Ittanmomen bench. The square and its equipment were created and are currently maintained thanks to people’s donations through crowdfunding.

The Kappa no Sanpei pond (not a real pond, unfortunately) was added this year to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of another Mizuki story’s original publication. Kappa no Sanpei is a manga about a boy called Sanpei who resembles a kappa, an impish water yōkai. One day, Sanpei meets a real kappa and is introduced to its mythological world. A portrait of an idyllic world where humans, animals, and yōkai coexist peacefully, living together in the mountains, this comic is considered one of Mizuki’s masterpieces.

The Kappa no Sanpei pond in Kitarō Hiroba.
The Kappa no Sanpei pond in Kitarō Hiroba.

Paying a Visit to Mizuki’s Grave

Our Mizuki-themed walk around Chōfu ends at Kakushōji, a temple belonging to the Jōdo Shinshū sect. Here we find Mizuki’s grave. Kakushōji is an offshoot of Edo-Asakusa Gobō, a temple that was built in Asakusa in the Edo period but burned down in a citywide fire in 1657 before being renamed as Honganji and relocated by the shogunate to reclaimed ground in the Tsukiji district. Even Kakushōji was originally located in another district in Chōfu, but in 1944 the military authorities, planning to build an airfield in the area, ordered its forced relocation to its present site along with two adjacent temples, Chōsenji and Kōgakuji. The current main hall was built in 2001, while the adjacent guest hall was built in 2007.

Mizuki’s tomb is easily found among the sea of flat grey tombstones because it is guarded on each side by statues of Kitarō and Nezumiotoko. The tombstone itself is engraved with the words “Namu Amida Butsu“ which can be translated as “Save me, Amida Buddha.” More yōkai adorn the low stone fence surrounding the tomb on three sides. We recognize Nekomusume and other popular characters.

Simultaneously cute and terrifying, Mizuki’s tomb is constantly cluttered with a vast array of gifts (the standard flowers, along with lots of sweets, snacks, and even canned soft drinks and beer) left by the many fans who come to visit from all over the country.

Mizuki’s tomb on the temple grounds at Kakushōji.
Mizuki’s tomb on the temple grounds at Kakushōji.

The tomb was actually built in 1987, when Mizuki was still in his sixties. According to Kakushōji’s chief priest, the artist at the time was planning to visit Papua New Guinea, where he had almost died during World War II and where he had become friends with the local people. Mizuki wanted to do some research on spiritual beliefs there; his wife, Nunoe, was worried for his health and suggested he get a tombstone made, just in case.

Although Mizuki’s family belonged to the Buddhist Sōtō school, he chose Kakushōji as his final resting place. He often came to the temple after taking his daily walk because he liked its atmosphere. The main hall is next to a thick tree, and one has to walk down a narrow passage to reach the graveyard at the back of the temple. Here Mizuki probably felt the friendly presence of his beloved yōkai.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Hitotsumekozō [One-Eyed Boy] sitting on the bench to scare pedestrians. All photos © Gianni Simone; characters © Mizuki Productions.)

manga Mizuki Shigeru Chōfu Jindaiji Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō