Photo/Illutration The fresh green scenery of Totoro's forest in Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, with mountains bearing lingering snow in the far background (Shigetaka Kodama)

YONEZAWA, Yamagata Prefecture--In Hayao Miyazaki's acclaimed anime film "My Neighbor Totoro," only the kids can see the mysterious creature the title refers to.

But here in "Totoro's forest," anyone can come see it any time of the day throughout the year.

A forest of the iconic character has been created out of a grove of trees located by the border with Fukushima Prefecture.

During rice planting season in late May, a rice paddy into which water from melted snow poured reflected images of the trees on its surface. Inside the woods, sunlight gushed between leaves and branches where a miniature "hokora" shrine stands.

No one referred to the spot as Totoro's forest when the Studio Ghibli Inc. film came out in 1988. The hokora shrine was set up to usher in prosperity for the settlement more than 100 years ago, said Kazushi Takahashi, 71, who lives nearby. 

"This was a 'no-name forest' that nobody cared about," Takahashi said.

Ten years ago, I was working in the prefecture, but I was unaware of Totoro's forest. The sculpture was later featured in the media, and has since drawn a growing number of visitors. Local residents founded a preservation association for it and even set up an observation deck at the spot.

Still, only a few people visit Totoro, Takahashi said.

Two soaring cedars make up Totoro's ears. The creature's giant waistline measuring about 80 meters is comprised of about 20 Japanese zelkova trees.

In the summer, Totoro boasts a beautiful contrast between its belly and dark green ears. During autumn, the leaves turn its belly red.

The story of "Totoro" is also set in a rural area with rice paddies.

I saw the anime film back in elementary school. I remember a scene where Totoro takes the two sisters into the sky, and flies around in the wind.

The trunk of a cedar tree that formed one of Totoro's ears snapped during a typhoon a few years ago. But another cedar growing next to it coincidentally took its place.

Totoro's forest is located 15 minutes by car from the Yonezawa-Hachimanbara Interchange on the Tohoku Chuo Expressway. It is convenient to drive there from Yonezawa Station on the Yamagata Shinkansen Line.

If you go by bus, take one operated by Yamako-Bus for Shirabu Onsen at Yonezawa Station and get off at the Yakashiro stop.  

The forest is 600 meters or so south of the Sumomoyama branch of the Minamihara Elementary School, which is roughly 50 minutes on foot from the bus stop. A sign to guide you in the area and an observation deck are set up nearby.