Shimotsuki Festival is held every December in the remote mountains of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. But as well as locals, the festival also attracts visitors from farther afield, all ooking for the magic and fantasy of the world of Studio Ghibli.

That’s because this ancient festival, featuring boiling cauldrons and dancing monsters, has an unlikely and little-known claim to fame: it inspired Hayao Miyazaki to make Spirited Away.

Shimotsuki Festival is held at nine Shinto shrines in the Toyama-go area of southern Nagano Prefecture each December. Events vary from shrine to shrine, but the central concept is a traditional ceremony that’s said to be a thousand years old.

Masked villagers dance around pots of boiling water, reciting the names of gods from all over Japan and inviting them to bathe in the hot water.

Iida City

Ghibli fans have pointed out that the setting of the animated movie Spirited Away, a bath house in which protagonist Chihiro is forced to work and is frequented by gods and animal spirits, shares the festival’s central concept of the gods coming together in one place to bathe.

In the illustrated book of Spirited Away, the type of which are known as “Roman Albums” in Japan, it’s stated that Miyazaki happened to see the Shimotsuki Festival on television, and that this inspired him to make a movie about a bath house for the gods. The director himself has confirmed the connection: when asked where the idea had come from, Miyazaki explained,

“There’s a festival called Shimotsuki, where the gods come from all over Japan to bathe in the hot springs and feel refreshed – I thought that was fascinating.”

He did go on to say that he hadn’t really researched the festival, but just loved the idea of it. (He also said that Shimotsuki was held “in Shizuoka or Gifu or something”, which might be a bit galling to residents of Nagano Prefecture – it’s between the two).

The bath house for spirits is not the only similarity between the Toyama-go area and Spirited Away, however. The hidden valley where Shimotsuki Festival is held is only accessible by tunnel – just like the magical world featured in the movie.

▼ This scary, unlit tunnel to be precise.


▼ And here’s the iconic tunnel in Spirited Away.


Even aside from its connections to Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing movie of all time, the festival sounds pretty awesome. It is truly steeped in history, and is said to have been celebrated for a thousand years.

Shimotsuki is actually the old word for the eleventh month of the lunar calendar; this year’s events are between December 1 to 15. “Samui, kemui, nemui” (“cold, smoky, sleepy”) is the phrase commonly used by participants to describe shrine activities, which run into the night in the bitter cold. The festival’s unique finale occurs late in the evening, when tengu come out to dance and splash boiling water onto the gods using their bare hands.

▼ Ouch.

Irori Shimabata

▼ Double ouch.


This makes Shimatsuki Festival the holder of two unlikely accolades: as well as being the inspiration for one of the greatest animated movies of all time, it’s also the only place in Japan where men cast boiling water onto each other with their bare hands. Now that’s entertainment!

Sources: Naver Matome, Toyama-go hikyou no tabi (1, 2), Irori Shimabata, Interview: Miyazaki on Sen to Chihiro
Feature image: Irori Shimabata