KAMAKURA, KANAGAWA PREF. – When Liu Chenyu and Ji Xiaotian arrived in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, for their honeymoon early this summer, the Great Buddha and Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, two well-known tourist spots in the area, weren’t what they wanted to see.
Their destination was a railway crossing near Kamakura High School — the setting for a classic scene in the mega-hit animation series “Slam Dunk.”
On that particular day, dozens of tourists, mostly fellow Chinese like themselves, had formed a crowd there to take selfies while posing like the lead character, Hanamichi Sakuragi, who stands behind the school’s track with a bag on his shoulder, facing the ocean.
Liu wanted to take a selfie, too, but eventually gave up.
“Too many people,” the 25-year-old newlywed complained with a sigh.
Japan has become a magnet for young tourists from Asia on “pilgrimage” tours to the most famous scenes in Japanese anime. And with the 2020 Olympics approaching, experts believe the number will continue to rise as tourists combine visits to anime-inspiring locations with the games themselves.
According to a Japan Tourism Agency survey in 2018, 4.6 percent of about 140,000 responding tourists in Japan said they had visited anime- or movie-related locations. If applied to the record 31.19 million visitors Japan received last year, that would translate to about 1.43 million people in that segment of the industry.
“Foreign anime fans can easily collect and share details” about Japanese animation on the internet, including the places certain scenes were based on, said Takeshi Okamoto, associate professor at Kindai University in Osaka Prefecture and an expert on anime tourism. “It has become one of the prime motives for these foreign travelers to visit Japan.”
Seichi junrei (pilgrimage to a sacred site), was one of Japan’s buzzwords in 2016 when tourists of all types thronged to locations shown in “Your Name.” and other animated series and movies.
Medical students Zhao Chuning and Quan Xiaohang, both 26, came from Zhejiang province in southeast China for a graduation trip. Their primary objective: visit the places depicted in “Your Name.,” including a stairway that leads to Suga Shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo — the place where the two main characters find each other at the end of the film.
“The scene in the movie is so impressive,” Zhao said. “That’s why we decided to check it out.”
According to a ranking compiled by Chinese tourism website Mafengwo, other popular anime destinations include Tokyo One Piece Tower, a theme park in Tokyo Tower based on “One Piece”; the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei, western Tokyo, which contains historical structures believed to be depicted in Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Spirited Away,” and places in the capital that appear in Makoto Shinkai’s film “5 Centimeters per Second,” such as Gotokuji Station on the Odakyu Line and Ueno Park’s iconic cherry tree.
The Anime Tourism Association also compiles an annual list of 88 locations in Japan to visit based on votes from fans at home and abroad. For the 2019 version, which was based on last year’s poll, spots that made it onto the list for the first time include Hakata Station in Fukuoka, featured in “Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens,” and the Toei Animation Museum in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, which has works from the studio’s collection on display.
Such museums are drawing more visitors. One of the most popular is the Fujiko F Fujio Museum in Kawasaki, which highlights the iconic cartoon character Doraemon, who is widely popular in China.
“The proportion of foreign tourists has been gradually increasing since the opening of the museum in 2011,” said Taisuke Toudou of the Kawasaki Municipal Government, which operates the facility. The museum received nearly 86,000 foreign visitors in 2018 who accounted for 20 percent of its traffic.
Melody Cheung, a 24-year-old office worker from Hong Kong, rushed to the museum after she got off the plane at Narita.
“I really like it,” she exclaimed at the museum’s cafe, showing smartphone pictures of her Doraemon latte art and toast imprinted with math equations, mimicking the character’s “memory bread” tricks.
Japan is eagerly cashing in on the trend to sustain its struggling economy.
In January, the government extended its eased visa requirements to Chinese university students and graduates so they can be counted as single-entry individual tourists, meaning they are no longer obliged to provide documents to verify their financial standing.
The new policy will benefit 25 million to 30 million young adults, giving a boost to anime-themed tourism because this generation grew up on a steady diet of Japanese anime, Kindai University’s Okamoto said.
“We got it pretty smoothly,” med school graduate Zhao said, referring to the new visa policy. “We only had to provide the graduation certificate and some other documents to apply for it.”
While the tourist dollars are welcome news for local economies, the surge in visitors has created a problem of its own: “over-tourism.”
In March, the Kamakura Municipal Assembly passed an ordinance to raise travelers’ awareness of Japanese etiquette in public places. Actions such as taking photos on roads and eating while walking can be troubling behavior that visitors should avoid, it stipulates, though violators won’t be punished.
During the Golden Week holidays, Kamakura and Enoshima Electric Railway (Enoden) initiated a provisional measure that allows residents to be prioritized over tourists when using the small private train line. Enoden trains stop at the crossing depicted in “Slam Dunk” and at other sightseeing spots.
Under the policy, residents are able to board the trains ahead of tourists if they show their IDs.
“It’s good to have inbound anime ‘pilgrims’ here and let them enjoy different regional cultures,” says Kindai’s Okamoto. However, “strategies to deal with over-tourism are necessary.”
Yi Xiaojun is a former graduate student at Akita International University. This article is part of his course work in journalism at the Graduate School of Global Communication Practices.