Despite being located almost a stone’s throw from the historic town of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture and establishing itself as the gyōza capital of Japan, Utsunomiya was languishing in the economic doldrums for the much of the early 2000s.
Nearly a decade later, the situation is much improved thanks to the creation of a massive, citywide speed-dating event that was first organized by local bar owner Hitoshi Sasaki in conjunction with three restaurant owners in August 2004.
Called miyakon, a pormanteau of Utsunomiya and gokon (matchmaking party), the fad has almost taken on a life of its own. What first attracted 170 people to the inaugural party now brings in 20,000 or so every year to attend monthly events held in the city.
Local businesses have also benefited from the influx of young people looking for love, managing to put bums on seats that had been empty for far too long.
“At first, we didn’t think that our idea would turn into something as big as it is today,” Sasaki, 54, told The Japan Times On Sunday.
Sasaki believes the event is popular with young people almost by default.
“With the aging population and the low birth rate, young people simply have less opportunity to meet someone these days,” he said.
The format, in which multiple bars and restaurants work together to stage huge matchmaking parties, has since become a hit across the country. Some reports say there may now be as many as 200 to 300 machikon (citywide matchmaking parties) in Japan every year.
To take part in a typical machikon, participants must first purchase a ticket worth a few thousand yen, with men’s tickets usually costing slightly more than women’s. The ticket grants holders unlimited access to any restaurant or bar hosting the event, with the cost of food and drinks in each establishment already included in the cost of the entrance ticket. Only participants who are single are allowed, while some machikon events require people to come in pairs.
“It’s a natural setup: A guy and girl meet at a bar or restaurant in exactly the same way it would happen outside of a machikon,” Sasaki said. “At our events, however, the chances of meeting someone who is seeking to meet a partner are higher than out there.”
Some analysts say the monthly miyakon events pad Utsunomiya’s local economy by an extra ¥200 million each year, but Sasaki believes that figure is much higher. Tickets to a standard miyakon event, for example, are sold for an average of ¥5,000. Many participants purchase new clothes for the event, and some even book a hotel in which to stay the night.
On a more personable note, Sasaki himself knows of at least 60 couples who have married after meeting at a miyakon.
“The effect that miyakon has had on the local economy is massive,” Sasaki said. “Romance is proving to be the biggest economic factor in expanding regional demand.”
The successful matchmaking method has proven so popular that it has taken on new forms in recent times. Whereas machikon focused on the location of the matchmaking party, shumikon (a gokon based around a hobby) provides single males and females who enjoy the same hobbies the chance to meet.
“We will be running around the Imperial Palace tonight, with male participants making one line and female participants in a line beside them,” Hiroshi Ogawa, an executive at Best Partner Co., said before kicking off a jogging-kon (a matchmaking party based around on jogging) in Tokyo on a recent weekday evening.
After eight minutes, the male runner at the front of the line will be ordered to shift to the back, allowing the other males to move up one spot in the order and start a conversation with a new female partner, he explained.
Ogawa’s company hosts a series of matchmaking parties based on the participants’ hobbies. Events for joggers began about three years ago. They also hold matchmaking events for futsal fans, golfers, bowling aficionados, hikers and, er, table tennis players.
Unlike a regular gokon or a machikon, shumikon participants can be sure that at least everyone will share a common hobby.
“Because of that, the chances of finding a match appears to be relatively high at a shumikon,” Ogawa said.
About half of the people that take part in a jogging matchmaking party leave the night with a match. “There have been couples that ended up getting married after getting to know each other at our event,” Ogawa added.
Ogawa’s company organizes a jogging matchmaking party two times a week: once on either a Saturday or Sunday and then again during the week. Tickets have been in high demand, which Ogawa said was due to the boom in jogging following the relaunch of the Tokyo Marathon in 2007. The cost of participating in a jogging matchmaking party is about ¥3,500 for men and ¥1,500 for women, and anyone who is single and over 20 years old can join the event.
If a participant is struggling to complete the 5-km run, others will slow down so no one is left behind.
“A jogging-kon is not as conspicuous as a regular gokon and not as formal as a serious marriage counseling event,” Ogawa said. “It’s just the right balance.”
In recent times, the variations of matchmaking options hasn’t shown any sign of abating. Those with a flair for cooking might be interested in cooking-kon, where participants cook meals together. Fans of the popular “Neon Genesis Evangelion” anime series have Eva-kon events to investigate, while those seeking inner peace may be interested in checking out a Jisha-kon, in which singles visit temples and shrines together.
Ogawa, however, was quick to stress that mere participation in matchmaking events was no guarantee of success.
“Listening carefully to what the other person is saying is far more important than one may think. It’s the same as any regular date, even at a jogging matchmaking party. Making eye contact while speaking is also key,” Ogawa said. “Don’t be too slow in showing interest if you like someone at the event. That’s also important.”