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!.

Washiyama Shrine, home of Lucky Star

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)
ANIME NEWS: ‘K-On!’ school to play host for anime tourism event (The Asahi Shimbun, 2014)
Contents tourism and local community response: Lucky star and collaborative anime-induced tourism in Washimiya (Takayoshi Yamamura, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014)

Please enjoy this series while I’m on vacation, and I’ll be back to reply to comments shortly after the conclusion! Though I have an anime fan for a long time, I didn’t bother watching Free! until someone told me it took place in Tottori. I found the grilled squid throughout the series was a nice and accurate touch, as it’s big stuff out here. ~Buri

As a conclusion to my Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines posts for now, I’ll conclude with Omori Town, a preserved historic neighborhood nearby Ryugenji Mabo Mine Shaft where much of the silver related trade was handled. This area is just one are in the larger UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you take the shuttle bus from the museum, the first place you’ll notice is Rakanji Temple, which is home to over 500 statues made in the 18th century to honor workers killed in mine shaft accidents. For a small fee, you can cross the bridges and take a look inside.

Like most any other place in Japan, populated or not, you’ll find a smattering of shrines and temples, such as Kanzeonji Temple.

Although there are preserved residences you can walk through and see how they were used in the Edo period, other historic buildings still function as serving the community or tourists, be it as a post office or grocer. I think we took a good hour to walk around the town, but it was one of the biggest preserved Edo period areas I’ve been to–I’m glad we planned on fitting it in!

After the drive, after the museum, after the bus ride and along the hike, my friend and I were wondering how much further until we’d reach one of the tunnels of Iwami Ginzan. We passed some smiling groups of elderly travelers as well as some scattered young couples, and actually going through Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft seemed an afterthought to the comfortable mountain stroll.

Pleasant though the weather was that day, it was a long enough hike that no one would have thought less of you for taking a breather here and there, and in weather any warmer than that you’d be foolish not to take your own drink. For those who are forgetful, however, there is a light up ahead–a tea house called Ginzan Chaya.

In all my travels through Japan and in all my stories I write in my head and sometimes go searching out settings for, this place more than any other I’ve chanced upon inspired stories in my head right away. It wasn’t run by just anyone–it seemed to be run by children.

The first thing I noticed when we approached was the kittens–a cage full of them, people holding them, and a decorative hand-written sign saying they were free. As if selling used cars, the girl in the red apron–who, for as far as I could tell, was the oldest sister and in middle school at the highest–was holding a couple kittens herself as she smooth-talked the young couple cuddling one of the kittens. Seeing as my current lifestyle does not allow me frequent fluffy animal encounters I couldn’t help but smile widely at the unexpected sight. Catching my smile, the girl saw her chance, and before I knew it I was holding one. The little orange tabby looked just as surprised as I was. “Sorry,” I said to my friend, “I think I need to stand here and hold a cat.”

The young couple politely gave the kitten back and politely declined taking her home, and I knew I’d have to do the same with the one I was holding. The sales-girl seemed unsurprised though she might have hoped they’d be takers, and she returned the kitten to the cage. But this time I had noticed who else was occupying the cage–for all I could tell, it was her youngest brother?

He was wearing a worn-out one-piece hoodie with ears of some kind of animal or otherwise, and he had a terribly running nose, but it didn’t bother him in the least–not when there were kittens to be held! The little tyke obviously loved them, though the kittens weren’t quite as appreciative of his hugs.

The other brother was on the outside of the cage, and looked to be only about the age of a 1st grader. The two clear indicators that he may have been a sibling was the nature banter between him and the older sister in how she’d nag him to do something and he’d give her some lip–and that he and the little brother in the cage both had the word for “autumn leaves”, 紅葉 (kouyou), shaved on the backs of their heads. It certainly grabbed attention and whoever shaved them that way was very talented, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the school might have thought of that.

Speaking of, school… school? I’m fairly sure we encountered them on a Saturday, but the naturalness with which they took to running the tea house made it seem as though that was their daily life. The younger sister was sitting away from the kittens and handling sales of bottled drinks from an old ice chest, and the table area set up outside was dotted with buckets and buckets of toys for free use at the establishment–a business move it seemed that only children could think of and employ. It was as if they ran the whole place freely, and it was their home-grown practice that brought for such independence and lack of shyness very uncharacteristic in most Japanese children.

What were these kids, homeschooled?!

In my experience in the US I have noticed that the lack of needing to “fit in” makes homeschoolers very unafraid of doing unconventional things and, contrary to stereotypes, rather unafraid of approaching people they don’t know. However, in Japan, homeschooling is usually unthinkable and I often need to explain that it is a legal and recognized form of education, it is not a matter of quitting or refusing school, and it is not a matter of being academically unfit for regular school, and that it’s not a bunch of shut-ins. I don’t usually bring this topic up unless I have ample time to explain it because it’s such a foreign idea. That all said, there are homeschoolers in Japan.

So they probably weren’t homeschooled–but even after moving on past the tea house, I found myself wondering more and more. Were their parents inside where the “real” business takes place? Maybe they were covering up top-secret stuff their parents were involved in by running the tea shop and distracting people with kittens? Maybe their parents have gone missing and they’ve quit school while very capably running a business? Maybe the tea house is really Neverland hidden away in the mountains of western Japan? I could just imagine all the ways the story could go.

Not that I stayed long enough to know, just long enough to wish I could keep a cat and have the kids bury themselves in my imagination. But we couldn’t linger–Ryugenji Mabu was up ahead and waiting.

This is a post a hike to Iwami Ginzan, the UNESCO World Heritage Silver Mines. Truth be told, we were already there–the silver mines stretch throughout the area and were in active use and points of contention between the warring Mori and Amago clans and otherwise, and they were so influential on the economy of the region that 16th century missionaries made sure to note it in their reports and it was included in early Western maps of Japan. At their peak, they accounted for 1/3 of the world’s silver production.

Recall Kotogahama and the Nima Sand Museum.

Sounds very cool, expect that most of the tunnels are out of sight what you can see is better seen in person, and seeing as photography is prohibited in the highly informative museum, I’m left primarily with photos from the hike. It was November, the leaves were changing, and the weather was perfect. Although most of the forest looked green, the red/orange/yellow trees stood out against the backdrop–trees or rocks–and looked especially bright in the sunlight.

There were a few restaurants offering locals the usual cafe items and local specialties, as well a few gift shops I haven’t run into elsewhere. For instance, a silver shop full of jewelry and other items, as well as a little shop specializing in fragrance pouches–priding itself on being the one place in all of Japan that sells metal-scented potpourri pouches.

Of course, this being the inaka, there was lots of inaka character to be found, from persimmons floating in the streams to… well… tanuki.

I’ll introduce my favorite of the little places in the next entry.

Matcha is a big deal here in the San’in region, especially in what used to be the Izumo province, and especially in the city of Matsue. It’s too cold here to grown tea, but they certainly get their fill of it.

As many people know, tea practically flows like water in this country, and being offered tea when you visit someone is a pretty standard form of hospitality all throughout Japan. However, in daily life in most places, this means something more along the lines of sencha, or a steeped tea. That said, there are many very fine grades of steeped tea, many of which I am quite a fan of. However, in this region, you frequently find people offering you matcha–it’s as if you just haven’t been offered tea until you’ve been offered matcha (unliked steeped tea, very high grade tea leaves raised specifically for matcha use are ground into a powder and consumed along with the water–as you would expect, it is generally more expensive than steeped tea).

This is not only my observation; Japanese people visiting from other regions have been just as surprised to see matcha where they expected to be served sencha.

It’s very easy to attribute the regional fondness for tea to Lord Matsudaira Fumai-ko, but I have heard a couple of suggestions for why it has remained so popular: the people here had extra money from the iron industry and ginseng industry, and because this region is so isolated from the rest of the country by the Chuugoku mountain range they’re a lot slower to change their ways, and old habits tend to develop more without so much outside influence. That’s not to say there aren’t serious coffee lovers here and the typical selection of vending machines, just that matcha remains a standard part of life (even the toddlers are frequent drinkers).

That said, the Izumo-based culture doesn’t always spread through the entire region. When I was talking about etiquite with a Kansai-area man who works all throughout Shimane, he stressed that the people in Izumo resemble people in Kyoto when it comes to being the most thickly mannered of the already rather indirect Japanese populous. He illustrated as follows:

A person from the Iwami region (western Shimane) goes to visit a friend in the Izumo region (eastern Shimane). The Izumo friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Iwami friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Izumo friend then prepares another cup of tea, and the Iwami friend is surprised and then forces himself to drink it so as to be polite.

A person from the Izumo region goes to visit a friend in the Iwami region. The Iwami friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Izumo friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Iwami friend pours no more tea, and the Izumo friend sadly wonders why he isn’t getting another cup of tea but says nothing so as to be polite.

In my personal experience, there have been many, many more cups of matcha than I ever blatantly intended.