Your fearless authors, braving the ghouls of the Japanese countryside

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.


 

So far, we’ve looked at how small towns thrust into the anime spotlight have maintained a healthy balance between tourism influx and their rural charms, as well as a few places that have direct ties to famous works but have not ridden those waves of fame along with them. Other times, however, anime culture seems to launch an attack of Gundam proportions on the landscape of the unsuspecting Japanese countryside.

Although many of his short stories were directly or indirectly inspired by his hometown and the surrounding San-in region, Mizuki Shigeru has gained inspiration from stories he heard and paintings he saw as a child, to the cultures of the Pacific Islanders he made friends with while serving in World War II, to the masks of African tribes he visited as an adult, following his vocation as an adventurer and folklorist.

He is better known for his work as a manga artist and writer, especially as the creator of Gegege-no-Kitaro, which is sort of like the Scooby-Doo of Japan in that its creepy content and iconic characters have transcended decades and generations, known and loved by Japanese people of all ways of life. However, Scooby-Doo likely does not have an international airport named after him.

The great works, adventures, and cultural contributions of Mizuki are celebrated in his hometown of Sakaiminato, at the north-western tip of Tottori Prefecture, with a population of 35,710 and a claim to fame that speaks for itself. For the residents and businesses along Mizuki Shigeru Road, Gegege-no-Kitaro is a way of life. Hundreds of bronze statues of youkai (roughly translated as Japanese goblins and ghouls) line the gift shop laden street, which has hundreds upon hundreds of Mizuki-style youkai lurking everywhere from street side murals to the insides of vending machines.


That having been said, Mizuki has long since moved away from the fishing port town, and resides in Tokyo. Other towns in Tottori have also tried to follow suit by celebrating the manga writers who hail from there, such as Detective Conan’s author Gosho Aoyama, and the prefecture has taken to promoting itself as the Manga Kingdom. This has not been a hit with everyone. Ubiquitous columnist, TV personality, and Mister Donut spokesperson Matsuko Deluxe, who is otherwise a big fan of the prefecture, has been openly critical of the campaign and insists that Tottori should draw from its natural wonders and true strengths to draw tourism as opposed to trying to make and ride a manga wave.

Some examples of anime cultural crashing into a local tourism might feel more familiar to fans worldwide. Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hakone occupies a strange space between touristy and spacious countryside. It’s a town rather than a city, and the backdrop is as pretty as they come, situated as it is near Mount Fuji and within the borders of a volcanically active national park. On the other hand, its proximity to the greater Tokyo area and wealth of hot spring resorts means that Hakone also attracts its fair share of visitors, both Japanese and international. Other local attractions such as its famous Shinto shrine, numerous art museums, historical highway checkpoint, and old mountain railway make Hakone a perfect spot for sightseers wanting to escape the constant hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

Over recent years, Hakone has also been getting a further surge of tourists thanks to its connection with what is probably one of the most well-known anime franchises of all time: Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hakone, and in particular the Lake Ashi area, was used as the model for the imagined post-apocalyptic city of Tokyo-3, and even if you aren’t visiting Hakone as an Evangelion fan, it would be next to impossible not to notice all the promotional material. The Hakone Tourist Information Center features Evangelion-themed posters, for example, and customized vending machines with themed drinks are scattered around the area. During the buildup to Evangelion 2.0, one of Hakone’s Lawson convenience stores was redecorated to sell exclusive merchandise, and Sengokuhara Junior High School, the school on which Evangelion’s was based, held advanced screenings of the film.

A new souvenir store called Eva Shop also opened in 2012, and the Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus Company ran an Evangelion-themed bus that same year, with official anime artwork decorating the outside and bus stops announced by the voice of Maya/Nagasawa Mika. A second Evangelion bus began running in 2014.

For fans making a trip to Hakone exclusively for Evangelion’s sake, an official “Instrumentality Map” map of the area is available in both Japanese and English – although the English version is not officially available online, and must be specifically asked for at Hakone’s tourist information center. The map, which is also available as a phone app, highlights the many sights that were used in the anime such as the school, the mountainside where Shinji and Misato view the whole of Tokyo-3 at sunset, the mist-covered mountain where Shinji wanders after running away from home, and the lake where the sixth Angel appears, among numerous others. For those who get tired simply of sightseeing, the Fuji-Q Highland theme park is about an hour and a half’s drive out of Hakone, where the photo-friendly Evangelion World attraction opened in 2010.

Perhaps famous places like Hakone would have been fine without the additional boost, but many places in rural Japan are scrambling to attract more foreign tourism as they experience population drains to city centers. There is nationwide preparation underway for an influx of tourists anticipated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The real question is, how many of those tourists will leave the Tokyo region? Could anime be the hero that drives them to the underappreciated mountains, coastlines, and charming townscapes found throughout beautiful, rural Japan?

In recent years, policy makers seem more interested in encouraging anime pilgrimages rather than discouraging them. This could be merely coincidence – the number of anime set outside of the likes of Tokyo or Kyoto seems to be rising in general, as do the number of anime that actually specify a real-life location in Japan and then showcase that via featuring a shot of a famous shrine or including a DVD segment that introduces the real life charms. However, we do think the tourism industry is going out of their way to boost smaller, more local economies, as opposed to drawing attention to anime that take place in major metropolitan areas such as Durarara!! in Ikebukuro, or any of the perhaps hundreds of anime and manga scenes that take place at Tokyo Tower.

Plenty of overseas visitors and foreigners who actually live in Japan seem to be making these anime pilgrimages as well as Japanese people. Despite the country’s “Cool Japan” drive to introduce anime/manga/games etc. and apparent interest in promoting tourism in general, many of the info necessary to make these pilgrimages is either difficult to find in English or simply does not exist in English at all. This has caused quite a few English-language blogs to pop up over recent years, for fans to showcase not only their own photos from such pilgrimages but also to step in and fill the gaps in information, e.g. telling people what trains to take and providing specific directions around town.

If anime producers, the tourism associations of lucky locales, and policy makers want to embrace this potential, they have big questions to consider. What does it take to get people to spend the time and money to visit an anime “holy site”? International visitors have already dropped a lot of money to make it to the islands, so what will it take to get them to the settings of their favourite anime? Knowledge that those settings exist in real life? Ease of access? English maps and websites? Events and promotions?

What we hope they will remember is that in the cases where “contents tourism” is already working, there is something special in those contents in the first place.
Something is working with the Japanese audiences to get them out into the countryside, and something is working with otaku culture as a whole to get international visitors to come to Japan.

Additional Reading:
Japanese Popular Culture and Contents Tourism – Introduction (Philip Seaton & Takayoshi Yamamura, Routledge, 2014)
“Evangelion and Japanese Swords” on the attack in Matsue (Buri-chan, San’in Monogatari, 2014)
Bio: Kitarou (Buri-chan, San’in Monogatari, 2012)

Please enjoy this series while I’m on vacation, and I’ll be back to reply to comments soon! Even though I only had a passing familiarity with Kitaro in college, that was still enough for me to have heard of Sakaiminato before I had heard of any other city in the San’in region. There are many examples we did not wind up including (including a number of San’in settings and cameos I’ve come across), but I would like to conclude by mentioning how every Digimon fan I’ve met here loves to point out that Yamato and Takeru’s grandmother lives in Shimane. ~Buri

UPDATE: Mizuki Shigeru passed away at the age of 93 about eight months after this entry was published. He will be missed.

I recently saw a link going around to this article on MuscleCarsZone.com, titled “The SCARIEST Looking BRIDGE Is In Japan! Could You Handle Driving Over It?! Watch The Exclusive 2 Videos!” My first thought was, “Hhm, I wonder if that’s the Eshima Bridge?” Little surprise that I was right, as it is the third longest PC Rahmen style bridge in the world, so high at its apex–44m, 70cm above the surface of Lake Nakaumi–that 5,000 ton capacity ships can pass underneath.

Click for source (Asahi Shimbun). What I find more notable is the FamilyMart at the bottom. It has the biggest combini parking lot I've ever seen! Any time I'm in the car with someone we always have to wonder why it needs such a massive parking lot, though one guess is that it's for the photographers you sometimes see lined up at the side of the road to take shots like this one.

Click for source (Asahi Shimbun). What I find more notable is the FamilyMart at the bottom. It has the biggest combini parking lot I’ve ever seen! Any time I’m in the car with someone we always have to wonder why it needs such a massive parking lot, though one guess is that it’s for the photographers you sometimes see lined up at the side of the road to take shots like this one.

However, it seems the name has changed to “Betafumizaka”–“Floor It Hill”–after being featured in a car commercial in December of 2013 as a steep incline where you have to put the pedal to the medal. The Japanese blogosphere refers to it that way, but all I hear here is still Eshima Bridge, seeing as it connects Sakaiminato City, Tottori Prefecture, with Eshima Island of Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture. eshima2 Scary though it appears, I can’t remember if I felt nervous my first time crossing it or not. Any time I’ve ridden a bus between Sakaiminato and Matsue or between Yonago Airport and Matsue it’s been on this route (making it very accessible to tourists), and I’ve gone a number of times in private cars as well–including getting stuck in a traffic jam once during Golden Week. It’s high, but it ceased to feel special long ago! You can get more of the sense of a commuter’s view of it on this blog. That said, on a good day, it’s one of the best views of Mt. Daisen around, and Lake Nakaumi and Daikonshima are already so scenic that views of the bridge accentuate that. The Sanin Department Store Blog has a lot of nice photos!

Click for source.

Considering its safe track record, it’s not the scariest bridge in Matsue. That award would have to go to Azukitogi Bridge, leading to Fumon-in Temple, or Matsue Ohashi Bridge across the Ohashi River, as both of those bridges have ghostly stories attached to them.

Does Gegege no Kitarou ring any bells for anyone outside of Japan? Here in the San’in region, he’s a very familiar face.

If I had to draw a comparison, then Kitarou is like the Scooby-Doo of Japan. He’s been around for decades as the star of a cartoon filled with ghoulish creatures, has had multiple incarnations over the years, and enjoys a wide audience. However, as far as I know, Scooby can’t shoot his knuckles like missiles. And Scooby probably has more left of his father than just a walking eyeball (that’s not Kitarou’s missing eyeball!). Not to mention Scooby probably doesn’t have a whole city covered in statues and memorabilia of him.

Scooby probably doesn’t have an airport named after him either.

Kitarou’s creator, Mizuki Shigeru, is from the port town of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. They will find any way to put Kitarou and other youkai (monsters) on anything.





There is more to Sakaiminato than just Kitarou, but a first glance around town would imply it’s just Kitarou. For instance, one of the first places you’ll see after leaving Sakaiminato station is Mizuki Shigeru Road, which has 133 statues of Kitarou, other youkai Mizuki-sensei has compiled research about, characters from other Mizuki series, and Mizuki himself. Almost every business on Mizuki Shigeru Road either is full of Kitarou merchandise or finds some way to incorporate Kitarou into the theme. A normal barber shop is very quickly a youkai barber shop, and a bakery sells bread shaped like Kitarou characters. And because anything goes as long as it has Kitarou, you also find places like this:

Of course no normal item would be acceptable. If it can be made to fit the theme, it will fit the theme! You see these water bottles being sold everywhere, but I only saw this warning once. Even if you can’t read Japanese, you can probably figure it out.

I haven’t actually seen that much of Gegege no Kitarou myself, but I know it well enough to have thoroughly enjoyed visiting. It would have been faster just to take a bus from Matsue, but I took the trains–and even once you get to Yonago station, you know you’re on the right track.

He’s best known for the various versions of the anime “Gegege no Kitarou” but he was the hero of several different related manga Mizuki-sensei wrote (which is not to say he was in every manga!). With a character design consistent but flexible enough to appeal to newer audiences, Kitarou is a classic (although frightening) hero–rather calm and collected, he does his best to beat the bad guys with his set of powers and comrades, and he generally gets along with everyone. Medama-Oyaji–his eyeball father–is also rather popular. Purely because his name means “Rat Man,” I have a soft for Nezumi-Otoko too.

I also learned a lot more about Mizuki-sensei himself, though I had heard the basics a few years back. His introduction, however, merits a separate entry some other time.

Of course, no introduction to Kitarou would be complete without hearing the theme song. Thankfully they’ve retained the same song (just in updated styles) throughout the various Gegege remakes over the years.

And on that note, Happy Halloween!