Art Imitating Life: Anime Pilgrimages Around Japan (Part 1 of 3)

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This three-part series about anime-based tourism is a collaborative effort between Artemis of Otaku Lounge and Buri-chan of San’in Monogatari. Artemis currently resides in Ehime Prefecture and since she likes to travel a lot, often discovers that she makes anime pilgrimages entirely by accident. She mostly writes about anime, with the occasional foray into Japanese music, street fashion, and general culture. Buri-chan originally became interested in Japan by watching the Odaiba episodes of Digimon Adventure, and already made that pilgrimage long ago. She currently resides in Shimane Prefecture and writes about Japan’s San’in region, including writing manga to introduce local Kojiki mythology.

For those anime fans with the opportunity to live in or visit Japan, undertaking a kind of anime ‘pilgrimage’ can be an interesting way to view the basis for, or inspiration behind, the locations depicted within some titles firsthand. Since many of these titles are set in places that are a little off the beaten track, this also affords a chance for people to leave the well-known cities behind them and see more of what Japan has to offer.

While there can be no precise starting date for when these anime pilgrimages first began to be undertaken, the official collaboration between the town of Washiyama in Saitama Prefecture and copyright holders of Lucky Star beginning in August 2007 was in large part responsible for starting a noticeable trend. Sightseers spent more than a billion yen over the next three years in visiting this location, pouring money into the local economy and prompting Japan’s tourism industry to sit up and take notice. Buoyed by the enormous success of the formal relationship between anime and real-life town, Kyoto Animation, the studio behind Lucky Star, has also continued to work with local tourism for many of their other anime projects such as Hyouka and Free!.

1. wakashiyama shrine
Situated in the midst of the Japanese Alps, the city of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture has more of a quaint, small-town feel to it despite its population of just over 90 thousand. Because of the high altitude and its separation from other areas of Japan thanks to its mountainous location, Takayama developed its own distinct culture over the years which is still in evidence today, and is especially well-known for its carpentry. Further lending the city a more rural touch is its old town with whole streets of beautifully preserved merchant houses dating back to the Edo Period, the nearby Folk Village with its thatched and shingled roofs under which silk worms were once raised, and the ongoing daily morning markets selling local fruits, vegetables, and handicrafts. Flocks of tourists crowd the streets every year for Takayama’s unique spring and autumn festivals, counted among the most popular in all of Japan, but the city otherwise has a generally quieter and even somewhat folksy atmosphere.

However, not all the tourists who visit do so for the festivals. Kamiyama City, in which Hyouka is set, is a fictional location but is heavily based on the author’s real hometown of Takayama. In 2012, Juroku Bank reported that the Hyouka anime was responsible for attracting around 150 thousand visitors each year to Takayama, which has been actively cooperating with the creators behind Hyouka to boost tourism since the anime’s release that year.

For example, the Hina Doll Festival, featured in the final episode of the anime, is a real traditional festival still carried out every April in which nine unmarried women from the area are chosen to be dressed up as Hina dolls, and participate in a parade and mochi throwing ceremony. An anime-collaborative event takes place on the same day, where fans of the series can follow a walking course, collect the stamps at each point, and obtain original Hyouka goods. Hyouka-themed goods are also sold at various stores around the city.

1. hina doll festival
In early 2013, the city’s official website revealed a free-to-download Hyouka tourist map as well as publishing ten thousand physical copies for distribution. The map shows 24 of the locations that were seen in the Hyouka anime such as the high school, the swimming pool from the first OVA episode, and the café in which Houtarou and Eru first meet outside of school. The last also features a signboard near the counter autographed by Houtarou, Eru, Satoshi, and Mayaka’s voice actors. However, the map is not available in English, making it more difficult to follow for fans with little to no Japanese ability.

1. hyouka map
Further west from Takayama and facing the Sea of Japan, Iwami-cho is a town at the north-eastern tip of Tottori Prefecture, has a population of 12,827. Most of the working population stays busy farming or in squid fishing boats off the rocky Uradome Coast. Iwai Onsen provides a luxurious place for tourists to stay after a day of hiking and swimming around the area’s abundant nature. If watching animated high school boys do the swimming is more your speed, then Iwami still has plenty to offer, as fans Kyoto Animation’s 2013 sports anime Free! are sure to recognize the townscape.

iwami-tajiri
Part of the success of Kyo-Ani’s slice of life anime is attributed to the richness of the settings, so much so that the town becomes a character that fans can actually get to know in real life. Even on a Thursday afternoon side trip to Iwami last September, there were female fans on pilgrimages and cosplayers on location, so the impact is real even when there are no promotional events going on.

When arriving by car, it might at first seem there is no connection with the hit series, but even before wandering into a few sanctioned havens of fandom and tourism information, there is visual confirmation of this being the right beachside town.

iwami-restaurant
The official Iwami tourism board does not put a big focus on Free! in its main branding approach on its homepage, but it does run news about everything from fandom events to special postcards to Free! themed desserts. It also endorses the official Free! map, which marks the spots with numbers and screenshots, so visitors who do not speak Japanese may still be able to find their way to the stages of their favorite scenes. It would be easiest to start the journey by train, as part of the Iwami station building serves as a fandom shrine and gateway to the three dimensional world beyond.

iwami-whaaaat

Though not a shrine in the traditional Shinto sense, there were also illustrated ema boards here, as well as a whiteboard filled with fan messages wishing Makoto a happy birthday.

Besides the occasional event and special souvenir, however, it appears this is the extent to which the real Iwami and the Free! Iwami mix. The locals embrace the increase in tourism without selling out to it, and the fans help maintain a respectful divide between daily life and cosplayer invasion—at least based on Thursday observations, that is.

Just as much as “Cool Japan” is a driving idea in attracting international guests to Japan, “contents tourism” has been a major element in rural tourism. Arguably, rural Japan has been profiting from fandom based pilgrimages ever since commoners could afford fandoms and pleasure travel, though the recent push has been more focused on movies or period dramas. The push for anime tourism has been more recent, and Kyoto Animation, given their somewhat accidental but now active cooperation, attracts much of the attention for research on anime based “contents tourism.” However, even without active tourism promotion, anime fans have often been inspired to travel to “holy sites” (seichi junrei). We’ll take a look at a few other relationships between anime and their settings in the following entries. Hop aboard the cat bus, because our next stop on this tour is Studio Ghibli.

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Additional reading:

A Study on Impact of Anime on Tourism in Japan : A Case of “Anime Pilgrimage” (Takeshi Okamoto, Web-Journal of Tourism and Cultural Studies, 2009)
http://eprints.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2115/38539/1/paper013.pdf

ANIME NEWS: ‘K-On!’ school to play host for anime tourism event (The Asahi Shimbun, 2014)
http://ajw.asahi.com/article/cool_japan/anime_news/AJ201411130025

Contents tourism and local community response: Lucky star and collaborative anime-induced tourism in Washimiya (Takayoshi Yamamura, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014)
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09555803.2014.962567?src=recsys#.VO0lh5f9nIU

This is where the customary question of the post would normally be, but I’m currently on vacation and likely won’t be checking my blog until I get back in early April. However, I’d still love to hear any general thoughts that people might have, and I’ll be going through the comments as soon as possible upon my return. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this short article series.

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6 thoughts on “Art Imitating Life: Anime Pilgrimages Around Japan (Part 1 of 3)

  1. I’ll be very interested to see the next entries, especially the Ghibli article. Even down here in Ehime and without knowing much about anime I’ve seen couple of spots that made me raise a quizzical eyebrow. Do you mind if I take the train, though? The catbus is always empty, and I find that deeply worrying.

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  2. Is there a reason why most anime settings are smaller towns and cities? Are big-metropolis settings becoming less popular with the industry and fans?

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    • I actually don’t think that most anime are set in smaller towns and cities..This is perhaps becoming more of a trend in recent years, but if I had to guess, I’d say the number of anime set in larger towns/cities still vastly outweighs those set in more pointedly rural areas. However, I do think that as far as Japan’s local tourism industry goes, there’s currently a lot more emphasis being placed on using those anime titles that do happen to be set in smaller towns in ways that help boost publicity for specific areas, as we see in Hyouka/Takayama and Free/Iwami. But there’ll be more on this point in part 3. 🙂

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