Saitama town turns into ‘cosplay’ mecca

Kyodo

A corner of Saitama Prefecture has become a mecca for “cosplay” fans in recent years, thanks to a popular manga strip based there, surprising the locals along the way.

The manga, “Lucky Star,” revolves around twin girls and their friends attending a high school in the former town of Washimiya, now the city of Kuki. It has been drawing attention as a successful example of tourism inspired by “anime” (animation), a feat made even more impressive considering the fact that the prefecture lacks beaches or World Heritage sites.

Based on a four-frame comic strip by Kagami Yoshimizu, a native of the neighboring city of Satte, the manga has steadily cultivated fans among anime enthusiasts with its heart-warming humor since it was first published in 2004 in a monthly magazine.

In the story, the main characters, Kagami and Tsukasa Hiiragi, live in the town’s Washinomiya Shrine. Soon after the comic’s publication, fans began visiting the shrine dressed in costumes, surprising the local residents. The number of such pilgrims spiked after the manga was adapted for television in April 2007, showing the shrine at the beginning of an episode.

The shrine has become a popular destination for the New Year’s crowd, drawing about 450,000 this year, the second-best attendance in the prefecture.

On Sept. 5, a “mikoshi” portable Shinto shrine decorated with “Lucky Star” characters made its appearance in the area’s traditional Haji Festival for the third straight year, with fans carrying the shrine on their shoulders and parading through a shopping arcade.

The festival drew as many as 70,000 people, including locals, and created somewhat of an unusual atmosphere as fans wearing blue and pink wigs and school uniforms filled the area.

“At first I was surprised by the outlandish costumes,” said Kenichi Yoshioka, 60, secretary general of Washimiya’s chamber of commerce. “But both children and adults enjoy the anime,” he said.

“Fans are quiet and polite. They energize the empty arcade,” a 59-year-old clothing store owner said.

Fans also seem to appreciate the friendly reception.

“I feel comfortable as people are kind to anime enthusiasts and feel that the entire town accepts us,” said a 25-year-old woman from Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, who attended the festival dressed in a school uniform. “It’s also the only place where we can mingle with regular people,” she said.

The chamber was keenly aware of the business opportunity from early on. Stores created “junrei manju” (pilgrimage cakes), recruited fans as staff to organize events and negotiated with the manga’s publisher to sell cell phone straps. The Saitama Shimbun newspaper has launched a mobile site for fans called Saitamania.

“This is a pioneer case in which the chamber, the fans and the publisher successfully joined forces,” said Takayoshi Yamamura, associate professor of tourism at Hokkaido University who is an expert on anime tourism.

The boom also seems to be spurring some international exchanges. In June, the portable shrine was taken to the Shanghai World Expo, and some tourists from other countries have been visiting the town as well.