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Japan’s anime pilgrimages give untrod real-world locales economic boost

  • Scene from "Your Name" courtesy Funimation Films

    The popular anime film “Your Name” drove many fans to seeks out the real-world sites that served as basis for the fictional film.


    The popular anime film “Your Name” drove many fans to seeks out the real-world sites that served as basis for the fictional film.

Tokyo >>

The popularity of the blockbuster anime film “Your Name.” went beyond movie screens, with fans flocking to the real-world locales depicted in the romantic fantasy.

Gifu Prefecture has seen more tourists since its sites appeared in the movie. The city of Hida attracted more than 1 million visitors in 2016 for the first time at least in three years.

Such sightseeing — walking in the footsteps of fictional characters — is not new. It’s called seichi junrei (sacred pilgrimage).

But given the immense popularity of Japanese anime overseas, Japan wants to further promote this type of tourism to international visitors.

Here are some questions and answers about anime tourism:

Question: When did the trend first start?

Answer: Avid anime fans had been retracing the steps of their favorite characters since the 1990s, according to Takeshi Okamoto, an associate professor at Nara Prefectural University who researches anime tourism.

Fans of the “Sailor Moon” series, which first aired on TV in 1992, would visit a shrine in Tokyo featured prominently in the program.

The activity was still low-key back then, he said, only to heat up with the widespread use of the internet in the mid-2000s.

“Before that, all fans did was visit and take pictures. But the internet allowed them to share their experience and give other fans information about where to find these locations,” said Okamoto.

Now a simple online search yields details on the real-life places behind the anime.

Q: Why does anime depict actual locations?

A: Since the late 1990s, producers have increasingly been creating stories with real-life settings to depict the lives of ordinary people, said Okamoto

The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in the popularity of science fiction titles, especially stories that take place in space, such as “Space Battle Ship Yamato” and “Mobile Suit Gundam.”

Many recent anime programs still incorporate sci-fi elements but tend to take place in worlds that closely resemble our own.

“Current anime needs intricately detailed backgrounds” that looks realistic, said Okamoto, noting that animators who specialize in background images told him it is quite difficult to design such scenes from scratch. Thus it is easier to use the real locales as models.

The production process has also moved away from traditional animation methods and background images are now typically traced from digital photos in an effort to lower production costs, said Okamoto.

Therefore, many anime scenes parallel real-world sites.

Q: How will Japan promote anime tourism to international visitors?

A: “Anime tourism has become more common within Japan, so we think our mission is to expand it to overseas,” said Fumiyuki Kakizawa, who is in charge of public relations at the Anime Tourism Association.

The association was established last September by various firms, including anime distributor Kadokawa Corp., travel agency JTB Corp. and Japan Airlines.

The group designated more than 80 cities, towns and wards as destinations in what is being dubbed the “Anime Tourism 88-Stop Pilgrimage” in August.

The venues were chosen based on votes from about 50,000 anime fans. The association offers the list of spots in various foreign languages and plans to post a map on its website.

Okamoto said some anime-linked locales are in rural areas and are hard for inbound tourists to find, so “I think it is a good thing that the association is making it easier to access them.”

The Anime Tourism Association also collaborates with municipalities whose sites appear in programs.

Q: How much of an impact could anime tourism have on towns and cities?

A: Anime tourism could provide a huge windfall for areas that would otherwise see few visitors.

The city of Kuki in Saitama Prefecture is often touted as a success story, well known within anime circles because of “Lucky Star,” a series that aired in 2007.

Featuring the everyday life of local high school girls, the show highlights an area in Kuki formerly known as the town of Washimiya.

While several locations appear in the anime, the local Washinomiya Shrine became especially popular. Before “Lucky Star” premiered, the shrine saw about 90,000 visitors for the New Year season, compared with around 300,000 in 2008.

Shinji Matsumoto, an official at the Kuki chamber of commerce, said it was shortly after the first broadcast of the anime program that local residents began to notice out-of-town visitors roaming about the sleepy community.

“It was really surprising to see young people strolling around on weekdays,” said Matsumoto.

In 2007, anime tourism was still a little known phenomenon in the country, but local residents soon wanted to provide something for “Lucky Star” fans other than just sightseeing, especially as many probably come from far away, he said.

It takes more than an hour to get to Kuki from central Tokyo.

So the chamber of commerce contacted Kadokawa, which was the publisher of “Lucky Star,” to see if it could hold events and sell original goods at local stores.

Matsumoto said Kadokawa was happy to cooperate. The town created 1,000 “Lucky Star” themed straps for cellphones in December 2007 that sold out in just 30 minutes.

“Also on that day, we had an event featuring a voice actor from the anime, and people had already started lining up the night before … we never had that kind of experience, so it was really mind-blowing,” he said.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the series’ premiere broadcast.

Matsumoto said the number of visitors on regular days has declined, but many fans still attend seasonal events, such as the birthdays of the characters.

Since the country plans to promote anime tourism, more towns are expected to partner with anime programs.

Matsumoto said his city was lucky to have been featured in a popular show, but he was in no position to give advice to other towns. He said, however, that the key is to respect the fans.

“I believe it’s not about pushing what the local areas want. We should always consider the fans’ perspectives,” Matsumoto said.

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