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Video gamers from across Japan, and the world, put down their controllers and head to Yokosuka

by Tom Hanaway

Staff Writer

The city of Yokosuka, located south of Yokohama, is mostly famous for feeling at times like a slice of America, as it is home to a large U.S. naval base. (Some stores in Yokosuka even accept U.S. currency.) For foodies and fashionistas, Yokosuka is also well-known for its spicy curry and flashy bomber jackets. This summer, however, a new group took an interest in the city: video game fans.

From Aug. 29 through Sept. 2, thousands of “Pokemon Go” players descended on Yokosuka for the game’s Safari Zone event, which offered a chance for fans to catch a variety of rare Pokemon that are normally hard to find. Yes, much to the chagrin of the “get off my lawn” crowd, “Pokemon Go” is still unfathomably popular.

The Pokemon extravaganza was held last year in Yokohama, but after too many complaints were filed by locals, this year’s Safari Zone was relocated to Yokosuka. Businesses seemed to wholly embrace the chance to sell food and merchandise to players, however, setting up special signs welcoming people into their establishments. IGN’s Andrew Goldfarb tweeted that it was “the best day of my life.”

Visitors posted online how they had a lot more elbow room at the Yokosuka event compared to last year in Yokohama, and even Eevee the Pokemon could comfortably walk down Dobuita Street without pushing through crowds. User @PgoJP tweeted that the Safari Zone was well-organized, and went on to compliment the sweet train station staff for pointing out where to go. The city also put up Pokemon-themed “Don’t walk and play” signs throughout the venues to make sure trainers kept their eyes on the road and not on their phones.

And any Pokemon event that has rare monsters to be caught is sure to attract the most hardcore trainers from across Japan. A pair of gamers from Nagoya were spotted playing on four and five smartphones each. “This is normal in Nagoya,” they were quoted as saying. Twitter user @TAM_DDR’s mission to catch ’em all took him all the way to Yokosuka where he walked around with a sign begging anyone to trade him a Heracross (a rare bug Pokemon that can only be found in South America). He tweeted several times asking for some kind soul to give him the big blue bug, and in the end he was successful.

Another set of video gamers are journeying to Yokosuka, but they are not searching for virtual monsters. Instead, they want to relive their favorite game, Sega’s “Shenmue,” which was re-released this summer and has renewed interest in the seaside city.

Originally published in 1999, the adventure game “Shenmue” follows protagonist Ryo Hazuki (fitted in a sweet bomber jacket, naturally) as he traverses Yokosuka searching for sailors and the man who killed his father.

Ryo looks for clues in the suburbs, the docks and Yokosuka’s famous shopping district, Dobuita Street. The original developers re-created the road into the game and the results can look nearly identical from certain angles.

Even though so much time has passed since “Shenmue” was made, super-fans are still taking trips to Yokosuka to snap photos of the real-life versions of the game’s locales, while others have blogs identifying every shop and street corner that appears in the game. People who can’t visit Japan on a whim are doing their own detective work from home, mapping out exactly what every digital citizen of Yokosuka does on a daily basis, or deciphering the blurry, pixelated posters that appear in virtual Yokosuka.

Sega has caught on to these fan pilgrimages and made a comparison video of its own. In the video, the company invited two fans to wander through Dobuita Street and identify some of the moments from the game, which they do in excruciating detail. “(‘Shenmue’) was really more than a game,” YouTuber Adam Koralik says in Sega’s video. “It was an experience.”

The city of Yokosuka has been well aware of these obsessive gamers for quite some time now. The City Hall even has a foldable “Shenmue” map that fans can follow to see all of the sites from the game. The “Shenmue Chapter One: Yokosuka ‘Sacred Spot’ Guide Map” was created by Yokosuka city employee Eriko Furusaki, who, to tie everything together, worked on previous “Pokemon Go” events for the city.

“We would be delighted for players to make a journey to Shenmue’s Yokosuka, seeing it through their own personal filter of memories and fondness for the game,” Furusaki told fan website PhantomRiverStone.com. “We are looking forward to even more fans coming to visit.”