Yuwaku Onsen is a 1,300-year-old hot-springs resort tucked between mountains along the Asano River south of Kanazawa. Ten mid-size traditional inns line its slim main street, leading to a small hillside shrine and a man-made pond.
Earlier this month, I shuffled behind a procession of lantern-bearing priests and local residents in yukata (summer kimono) for the town’s seventh annual Bonbori Matsuri (lantern festival). Some 15,000 other tourists joined me.
We weren’t there for the inns, which had been booked months ago. The one-day Bonbori Festival has become Yuwaku’s biggest draw. Six hundred attended the first event in 2011; this year’s numbers are 25 times that. Local officials peg the town’s single day’s earnings at more than $100,000. Not a windfall, but a boost to a rural economy in Japan’s aging and neglected hinterlands.
“The Bonbori Festival is a big deal for us, but it’s only one day,” says Shinichiro Yamashita, chair of the Yuwaku Onsen tourism association. “We have fans visiting throughout the year, using our local transportation, dining at our restaurants and buying souvenirs. (Anime fans) are very important to us.”
The entire festival is an anime invention: a fictional tradition imagined by artists seven years ago that has now become a real happening. The festival was introduced in the anime series. “Hanasaku Iroha,” created by P.A. Works, a studio in the nearby city of Nanto. The series’ fans who flood the village each year are participating in a time-honored Japanese tradition called seichi junrei (sacred pilgrimage).
Our solemn procession to the shrine, the quasi-religious pronouncements of spiritual fealty and the climactic bonfire at the synthetic Gyokusenko Pond, where sparks flew and faded into the sky like Japan’s iconic cherry blossom symbols of mortality, were all fabricated re-enactments of a non-existent historical ritual.
The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) invited me and a handful of other non-Japanese journalists to Kanazawa for a taste of “anime tourism,” where anime fans explore real sites in Japan featured in their favorite anime series.
This is nothing new in the domestic market. In the early 1990s, “Sailor Moon” drew its fans to sites featured in the series, and the line between anime fiction and reality in Japan has long been blurred. (In 2007, 3,000 fans of “Fist of the North Star” attended the Tokyo funeral of its fictional fighter, Raoh.)
But many overseas fans of anime and manga know only the over-sold bastions of fandom — Tokyo’s Akihabara and Nakano Broadway neighborhoods, and maybe Kyoto’s Manga Museum. Worthy sites, to be sure, but generic.
“One big problem is, the foreign fans have no guidance on where to go,” Fumiyuki Kakizawa, public-relations director of the recently launched Anime Tourism Association (ATA), tells me at his office in the Ichigaya neighborhood of Tokyo. The ATA is a partnership between publisher and producer Kadokawa Corp., Japan Airlines, and Japanese travel agency JTB Corp. Founded a little over a year ago, the ATA in August released a list of 88 locales in Japan for overseas visitors to pursue an “anime pilgrimage.”
“The other problem is, once they get there, all they can do is take pictures,” Kakizawa adds. “There’s no interaction with the local community, and no exclusive products they can buy to take home. It’s a missed opportunity.”
But there’s a hitch — and it’s a very Japanese paradox: anime creators such as Ghibli seek to avoid crass merchandising strategies, partly out of a sense of artistic purity, and partly out of respect for their fans.
Back in Kanazawa, Nobuhiro Kikuchi, P.A. Works executive producer, admits that the Yuwaku Onsen festival is an exhausting project: “I think if someone asked me to do it again, I would say no. It’s too much work.”
He also admits that it was a concession: After torrential rains flooded Yuwaku in 2008, its city officials begged the studio to create an anime and festival that would bolster the local economy. Kikuchi agreed, but he didn’t want to serve only otaku. He was worried about a potential conflict between the nerdy young fans and elderly local townspeople.
The current festival, he says, is withdrawing from its anime roots to widen its appeal.
“In the first few years, we had voice actors and cosplayers and just targeted otaku who might come to Yuwaku Onsen. But we’ve actually reduced the anime angle. This year, we invited traditional musicians who play shamisen and shakuhachi, and we see more couples, families and foreigners attending the festival.”
Like so many neglected rural regions of Japan, Kanazawa is an untapped well of culture and stories. Anime tourism may be one way to exploit its potential. But as I visited the area’s absurdly desolate towns rich with tradition — wood carvers, washi paper artisans, silk weavers, seafood chefs and architects — with no one but me passing by, I began to doubt whether anime tourism alone can save them.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University.