It is difficult to figure out where to begin with this story. On the surface, it is simply about two gatherings of friends, the first in Tokyo and second in Kyoto. That I am meeting all but one of them face-to-face for the first time is significant, though not especially unusual. The meetings are special because they represent an inflection point along a path of learning that began in earnest two years ago, though has roots even earlier than that.
When I first started writing about urbanism in anime during 2012 Summer, I knew that real world locations were used as models for backgrounds and settings. I hadn’t anticipated just how frequently they are used and the extensive detail with which they are rendered. I had passing awareness of pop culture tourism related to live action TV and film. I hadn’t anticipated that an equally if not more engaged group of enthusiasts existed for manga and anime, though by about week three I had been filled in with regard to that blind spot. I hadn’t anticipated that in observing the work they do—and it is every bit real work—I would see so many similarities with the field study techniques of ethnographers and urbanists. I hadn’t anticipated that wanting to communicate with them would push me to take my virtually non-existent Japanese and add just enough to get to broken, halting, awkward, though usually understood Japanese. I hadn’t anticipated that they’d be so interested that a foreigner was watching what they were doing and attempting to understand their motivations. I hadn’t anticipated I’d be sitting around a table swapping stories, beer in hand, basking in the comfort and camaraderie of the unguarded, esoteric banter enjoyed only among groups of specialists and geeks. But here I am.
The first meeting is in the afternoon, after I had landed in Tokyo the night before, and though I am a little nervous, it is a soft opening. The three friends I meet are people that I have communicated with a fair amount through Twitter. One has even stayed with me for a few days in Beijing. We meet at the Setagaya branch of cafe Jashumon (世田谷邪宗門), which was used as the location model of the Shindō Photo Studio in the Kyoto Animation series Kyōkai no Kanata.
Gromit (グルミット Gurumitto, @gromit1446) is a fan of Kyoto Animation works and often makes casual visits to the real world location models. In particular, he has become a regular at this particular cafe, which in addition to its connection to the animated work, has a wonderfully cozy and unique environment carefully managed by a charismatic owner, a charming man who just celebrated his 80th birthday. Setagaya Jashumon is Gromit’s treasured third place. He even has his own teacup, which I’ll explain more about later. Gromit arrives first, and though he deflects compliments, he is quite capable with English and we talk for a bit in mixed language while we wait for the others.
Xiao (シャオ Shao, @xiao3_gu3) is an anime fan and is knowledgeable of pop culture tourism associated with it, but he is also a renaissance man of many other interests and talents. He speaks English and Mandarin Chinese in addition to native Japanese, and works hard to understand and build bridges between the three cultures they represent. He travels to China every so often and came to stay with us on his most recent visit. Today, he is our communication lynchpin, enabling me to go deep in explaining what I do in English and translating for the others. Though we are all grateful, it is a heavy and unfair burden on him, and I definitely owe him a dinner the next time we meet.
Kobaya (こばや, @ts_kobaya) is the last to arrive and, though he professes ignorance, is the celebrity among us. Among the core group of anime pop culture tourism enthusiasts, he is the only one who uses video as his primary medium. Because short videos are generally more shareable across language barriers compared with text heavy blog posts, his pilgrimages to anime location models often end up in English language media covering Japanese pop culture. He sat in disbelief as I explained many of his videos become the subject of story items on the news blog of Crunchyroll, the most widely used legal streaming service for anime outside of Japan. Kobaya’s videos were literally my first exposure to this world. He was also one of the first people I communicated with, one short sentence fragment at a time, so this meeting is cause for much heartfelt joy.
We’re all a little excited and overstimulated from what is a very new experience for all of us, and we talk for a while before we remembered we hadn’t ordered anything yet. Eventually we get tea to our table, when I notice the owner has pulled a different cup from a special shelf just for Gromit. The pale blue cup with desert scene appears in the second floor cafe Stars and Clowns in Kyoto Animation’s Tamako Market. Gromit was able to determine it was modeled on an actual set of porcelain, track down a source where he could buy a few cups and saucers, then present them as gifts to businesses in the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai in Kyoto, the location model for Tamako Market. One he reserved as a gift to Setagaya Jashumon, where it is now “Gromit’s cup”.
My daughter liked the 2014 Summer anime Hanayamata, which was set in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture and featured the Enoshima Electric Railway in its setting. Enoden produced a limited run of promotional toys and artwork related to the show, only available from its shop in Kamakura. I figured they would be gone by the time I arrived in October, but Gromit graciously offered to get one on my behalf and kept it waiting at Jashumon for when I arrived.
Gromit shows us photos from his seichijunrei (聖地巡礼 sacred site pilgrimage) for the second episode of Kyoto Animation’s current series, Amagi Brilliant Park. This is where we jump into the meat of our conversation. The group confirmed what I had mostly gathered from my observation of anime pilgrimage subculture in Japan. Specifically, seichijunrei refers to the casual end of the spectrum. As Gromit put it, just going to a location is all that’s required. Whereas butaitanbou (舞台探訪 scene hunting) is a disciplined approach that involves seeking the locations for each individual cut, taking photographs that are composed and cropped as closely as possible to how they are drawn in the anime, then posting a side-by-side comparison, generally with commentary about the atmosphere of the location, in a blog post. (From a format perspective, Kobaya is the notable exception to the formula, though the comparisons and commentary are also part of his edits.)
It is this writing about the atmosphere and notable details of a place that I explain is the link between what they do and my own efforts to drive engagement on issues related to urban development and sense-of-place. The butaitanbou practitioners, through their behaviors, develop unusually keen sensitivity to environmental details and awareness of urban design. While they may not have the acumen of a specialist or academic, they can certainly go head-to-head with regard to enthusiasm. The lack of planner jargon in some ways makes it more authentic and accessible reading for a general audience.
I explain that I’m interested in exploring and documenting urban design and street culture in Japan, so that I can translate the concepts and outcomes to planners in other countries. In particular, I spend a lot of time in shōtengai, covered or open air shopping arcades that often form the core of public spaces and neighborhood nodes. It was just a nice coincidence that Tamako Market was a story about a girl growing up in a shōtengai and the daily interactions of arcade denizens. But it was my deep dive into the particular location model and pop culture tourism surrounding it that raised my own profile among the butaitanbou community.
We talk about the legal aspects of using copyrighted images from anime in these informal studies. Many Japanese butaitanbou bloggers explicitly note that the use of the images is for study only, and that ownership always remains with the respective rights holders. I don’t include this message, but I follow news and legal proceedings related to the concept of fair use, and thus far don’t find any reason to think I’ve stepped over any lines. I’m writing about how the built environment is reflected in anime, and take screen captures to illustrate my specific examples, but no more than needed and none of scenes unrelated to the topic. There is also no commercial activity through my blog, so I feel pretty solid in making the case that this is all done in good faith with study and commentary as the objective.
I flip it around and ask them what they think about the use of copyrighted characters and settings in dōjinshi, self-published magazines, manga and novels. They understand it as being above board so long as the drawings are not literal copies of existing, published works by the creators. It is merely imitation. Furthermore, the print numbers are generally so small and mostly limited to biannual sales at Comiket and a few retailers like Toranoana that they wouldn’t be misconstrued as any kind of large scale, commercial operation. My understanding is a little different. As I have heard and read, any usage without explicit permission or licensing is technically infringement on the copyright, but in manga and anime industries is widely tolerated because, as Gromit points out, the numbers are small. But more importantly, dōjinshi represent very high levels of engagement with the work, something desirable for creators deciding whether or not to continue a series. So, it is wrong, except that it isn’t. While acknowledging each position, we agree to disagree and leave it at that until one or both sides receives input that changes the calculus. Disagreement is good. This is how we learn that others often don’t see things the same way we do, and is precisely why meetings like this are important.
We end on a light note, talking about norms surrounding labels. Whether labeling groups or individuals is good or bad is a separate discussion, but since it does happen it’s important to know what the names generally mean. I know that although otaku when borrowed by non-Japanese takes on a neutral or even positive connotation of enthusiast, in Japanese it is still something you don’t want to throw around lightly. It is still associated with obsessive compulsion and social withdrawal (whether or not that reflects reality), so can be jarring to hear unless coming from a good friend and in a joking context. They ask me about the use of freak, which is borrowed into Japanese as a more neutral synonym for otaku. It is just my own opinion, but I tell them I think freak would be treated almost the same way when used among English speakers. It is strong enough that you wouldn’t want to use it unless you and the other party know each other well. We agree we all understand the meaning of fan, used natively in English and borrowed into Japanese with essentially the same, neutral connotation. We like fan.
Fast forward a week, and I am on a shinkansen to Kyoto. Because I am concerned about my ability to communicate without a human translator at my side, I start work on a Power Point deck so that I can type up the main points in Japanese while I have the leisure to check my dictionary and think through it. The man sitting with me glances over and takes an interest. He strikes up a conversation and introduces himself as Yoshida Noriaki, a professor of media and journalism at Rikkyo University. His focus area is the relationship between media and identity. Clearly, the computer that makes seat assignments when you buy reserved tickets thought it was my lucky day. Instead of a quiet, two hour trip to Kyoto, we go back and forth with each other the whole way. By the time we pass Nagoya, he is helping me with translations for my presentation. Will need pick up where we stopped the next time I’m in Tokyo.
After I settle into Kyoto, from Demachi I take the Keihan Main Line to Fujinomori Station, where the Kyoto contingent of butaitanbou practitioners has planned a big night. I had originally thought I would just meet two or three close contacts, as I had done in Tokyo, but my hosts insisted a welcome party was called for.
We head to Fujinomori because there is an okonomiyaki restaurant with nomihōdai (all-you-can-drink) option nearby, but more importantly it is part of the seichi (sacred site) of Tamako Market. In fact, the footbridge and overpass over the canal comprise the very first cut of the first episode.
Big okonomiyaki for a big cast of characters:
Endos (エンドス, @los_endos_) is our organizer. After he learned my trip dates he set all of the evening’s events in motion. It is thanks to him that we were all able to get together and have such a great time. I knew of Endos’ butaitanbou blogging early in the Tamako Market broadcast. In addition to scene hunting, his style involves going deep into the details of the setting and meditating on the environment he finds during the exploration. His descriptions of the shops, managers and general atmosphere in the space are wonderful reading. We started communicating after I published my first and primary research piece on the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai.
Ebisu (夷（ゑびす）, @ye_bi_su) is a core butaitanbou practitioner that I also became acquainted with as Tamako Market began. Because he so enthusiastically reached out to other anime pilgrims visiting Kyoto during the broadcast, and was even good humored enough to field my questions in broken Japanese, I mistakenly assumed he was the Kyoto branch president of the Butaitanbou-sha Community (舞台探訪者コミュニティ), often abbreviated as BTC, an association that formally organizes events and facilitates communication between dedicated practitioners. Ebisu’s butaitanbou posts for Uchōten Kazoku, which followed Tamako Market and was also set in Kyoto, as well as film photography in Takehara, Hiroshima Prefecture for Tamayura, are second to none.
Seki Saima (関西馬, @seki_saima) is the BTC Kyoto branch president. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu! We hadn’t spoken directly before this meeting, but I was familiar with Seki’s top-notch butaitanbou pieces, which include most of the more recent Kyoto Animation series. I would be using Seki’s K-On! butaitanbou as my reference for some casual pilgrimage while I was in Kyoto.
Yakimeshi (@yakimeshi_1973) and I had followed each other on Twitter for some time due to shared interests, but I think sitting next to each other at dinner was the first time we had communicated directly. He and I are similar in many ways. We both have an interest in anime locations, and in the location hunters themselves, while we personally don’t go to the lengths of the butaitanbou core to document and publish our own accounts. We both look at the inclusion of rail transit in anime and follow collaborations between anime production companies and rail operators. We are also the two of the group that tend to listen for a while and think things over before speaking. Introvert power in numbers.
Tachikichi (たちきち, @tachikichi) is actually from Yokohama, but happened to be in Kyoto at the same time. He and I had communicated over Twitter a few times regarding Uchōten Kazoku and other works. I also closely followed his butaitanbou for White Album 2, for which he was one of the few people dedicating time and effort to location hunting. It is great and unexpected to put a face to this name.
I hadn’t explained earlier, but for the most part this community makes a firm distinction between real names and faces used in professional settings, versus net handles and avatars used in web communities and personal social media. In person, many are happy to exchange business cards and real names, but online anonymity is valued, which I will honor. The funny part is, because (with exception of me) we all know each other by net handles, it’s more natural to continue using them, with honorific attached. They asked me why it is that Americans tend more often to use their real names across social media, and I realized I hadn’t really thought about it before. I think Facebook’s real name requirement did much to socialize this norm, but there are probably many other reasons, too.
We hadn’t been eating long when the gifts start. Most of this parcel is from Endos, a collection of Tamako Market and Tamako Love Story material. The flyer with green foliage is what’s known as the key visual, the primary image used in the marketing campaign for a work. The location used in this cut is right over my shoulder, outside the restaurant where we are eating. I don’t have time to examine the contents closely while at the dinner, so it isn’t until later that I realize what everything is. The square paper board has a printed signature and note from Horiguchi Yukiko, the character designer and chief animation director, a role she also held in Kyoto Animation’s Lucky Star and K-On!
The square board and postcards were limited quantity gifts given to attendees from theaters screening Tamako Love Story, rotating to a new design each week. You can’t buy them. The promotional flyers were distributed by theaters in advance of the premiere, and the bound pamphlet was sold at cinemas only during the period of the movie run. I feel unworthy to have received so many precious things, and a little embarrassed to have arrived empty handed. I hope this post can be an interim response while I think about what meaningful thing I could offer in return.
Ebisu gives me a map of Fushimi Inari Taisha that outlines the locations that appeared in the anime Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha. I love getting my hands on things like this. Normally produced by local tourism groups, who have the most to gain by promoting the location model, this one is unusual in that the anime production committee played an active role in its development and is listed as one of the publishers on the back.
Seki offers his self-produced gifts humbly, but in many ways they are the embodiment of exactly what has led me here. One is his quick reference map and image table for seichijunrei to Kashihara, Nara Prefecture for Kyōkai no Kanata. The other is a 30 page bound volume of butaitanbou photography and commentary covering both seasons of Kyoto Animation’s Chūnibyō demo Koi ga Shitai!, which spans from the main settings based on Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture to other scenes drawn from Kyoto and Osaka prefectures, and all the way to Kagoshima and other locations in Kyūshū. The design is polished, nearly professional level, but what I can’t get over is the several months’ worth of work they represent. To get to this starts with carefully watching each episode, making screen captures of each significant cut, identifying their real world location and pre-mapping them to the extent possible. Then comes planning a travel itinerary and budget, showing up with a stack of printed or electronic images to be matched, finding the ones already known and then seeking out those that aren’t apparent from Street View, often consulting locals for help. All this while, making written or mental notes about the process and environment is essential for pulling it all together later. Back home, weeks spent sorting and cropping photos, writing captions and longer explanations, and finally dropping everything into a web or print layout completes the journey. It is a truly wonderful gift, and the fact that Kyōkai no Kanata is the only show for which I have produced full-fledged butaitanbou of my own made this a great conversation piece.
I go into the presentation, the content of which is the same as what I spoke about in Tokyo, but this time delivered directly from my mouth, with as much Japanese as I can muster. After the meeting in Tokyo, the train ride with Yoshida and a week of conversations with strangers I met on photowalks in both cities, I’m feeling a little more confident with my language. When I get stuck, Endos or Tachikichi jump in and translate for me. I realize after a while that Endos is listening very carefully to the cadence of my voice. When it goes too far out of rhythm he smiles and shouts English! English!
The group adds an additional clarification to my seichijunrei-butaitanbou definitions. Butaitanbou is all of the things I had been told in Tokyo, but there is also a time and discovery element. To be considered butaitanbou generally means the author is one of the first few people to identify and travel to a location, and does so not long after the initial broadcast. It is Endos who corrects my translation of scene exploration to scene hunting, implying that the practitioner is seeking out unknown things. Engaging in butaitanbou is to be a pioneer, of sorts. Of course, one can always follow the butaitanbou format regardless of time, but if using others’ work after the locations have all been mapped as guidance, the absence of risk puts it closer to the seichijunrei side of the spectrum.
At one point the conversation moves to Lidges (リジス, @lidges), widely regarded as the standard bearer for butaitanbou for his highly polished and prolific writing and photography. Lidges is also the BTC Shikoku branch president. I confide in them a secret, which quickly becomes not a secret, of my first contact with Lidges. It was very early in my awareness of butaitanbou activity, and while I was unaware of the hierarchy of the community, I quickly identified him as a highly regarded source of information. In my excitement, I jumped right to contacting him directly, in English, resulting in a not very successful outcome. I don’t blame Lidges. The encounter taught me two things. One was that I needed to spend time listening first, understanding the community before I jumped in and started making noise. The second was that I should be aware that many of the people I wanted to contact could not or would not feel confident enough to communicate in English. I would need to come to them. This is why I began attempting to learn and use Japanese. Even if it is very bad Japanese, if it allows me meet someone in the middle, it is enough. Though my language ability has improved much since I began, wary of causing more trouble I have stuck to retweets and favorites with regard to interacting with Lidges.
As I am finishing this point, Seki takes out his mobile phone and begins tapping around. I have a sudden sinking feeling and an inkling of what’s about to happen. Seki puts the phone to his ear, and after a short greeting hands it across the table with a big grin. Here, talk to him!
After getting over initial jitters, I get into a conversation with him for what feels like forever, but is probably no more than 15 minutes. I have a harder time communicating in Japanese and Chinese over the phone, where I don’t have the benefit of body language and facial expressions, so this is difficult. But I’m glad they put me up to this because, as you can probably guess, my fears turn out to be unfounded. When I eventually make it down to Kagawa Prefecture one of these days, I know who to meet for dinner.
We finish our own meal and pay, passing a stuffed doll of Dera from Tamako Market on our way out. The telltale signs of seichijunrei are spread far and wide in Kyoto.
We head back to the Keihan Line, which we’ll take up to Demachiyanagi Station for nijikai (round two) at the Masugata Shōtengai. Before we go, Ebisu and I take a few photos of the north ticket gate and the bridges, one of the main scenes of Tamako Market outside of those in the shopping arcade.
On the ride uptown, we get around to talking about my family. I mention that my daughter is English-Chinese bilingual, but that she also likes to sing along with anime theme songs with the bits of Japanese she picks up. I give the ending of Abenobashi Mahō Shōtengai as an example, after which, without cue, Ebisu and I simultaneously break into “Anata no kokoro ni”. We get through a few lines before Endos tells us to shut up because people in the train are staring at us. I tell them about the Hanayamata toy Gromit had saved for me to take back to her. Ebisu pulls out from his bag a naruko that he keeps with him. (Naruko, little wooden clappers for dancing, are a key prop used in the show.) I can’t remember clearly who, but either Seki or Tachikichi on my other side pulls out a Cyalume, the glow sticks people take to wave at idol concerts, in response. Endos yells at us for embarrassing ourselves again. We really are just a bunch of otaku.
After hours at Masugata is quiet and a little bit eerie.
There isn’t even a transformer hum from the large florescent lighting array, shut off for the night. Footsteps, the occasional car driving by one of the ends, and your own voice bounce around momentarily, before disappearing with rapid decay.
But there is one place in the arcade that keeps a lamp out well into the night. Hananami (華波) is a cafe by day and bar once most of the shops downstairs have closed their shutters. The second floor business becomes Hoshi to Piero (星とピエロ Stars and Clowns) in Tamako Market, where it is frequently used as the backdrop to scenes where characters grapple with emotional conflict and seek advice from the cafemeister. In real life, Hananami has been the last stop of the night for Tamako Market pilgrims from all across Japan, as well as the Kyoto regulars that began convening here early in the broadcast and seem to keep coming back again and again.
The image painted on the front of the sandwich board is of a mature, cocktail bar scene.
However, the back has a few menu items and a couple of clues that the management knows why quite a few people come here.
A few more clues. Rather large, too.
We get situated inside and order drinks. The signs of seichijunrei are everywhere, but subtle. Tamako’s toy is sitting on the bar. Not visible in the photo is the bird house with Dera stuck inside and a record player. Gromit’s camel cups are behind the bar. All of these have been donated by visitors.
In the corner is Tesra’s model of the paper cup phones used by Tamako and Mochizō, rigged up with functioning electronics and cable long enough to stretch from one side of the tiny bar to the other.
Another pair of cups and string hangs over the arcade.
Hananami has its own set of pilgrimage exchange notebooks in addition to the main Masugata Shōtengai notes kept at Sagaki. As I’m flipping through, we are joined by Toritakekan (撮竹館 @toritakekan) and later, Haikeibōzu (背景坊主 @high__k), both of whom have a deep interest in anime settings but prefer the casual engagement through social media over the time investment and rigidity of butaitanbou. I knew both before coming and had even chatted with Haikei a few times, but bumping into them at Hananami is another great surprise of the evening.
I go around the table and ask each person to tell me which anime got them interested in seichijunrei or butaitanbou, what was the motivation for starting and what keeps their enthusiasm sustained. This is a Kyoto resident group, with exception of one, so many of the shows named are based on Kansai area settings. Haruhi and Uchōten Kazoku get one vote each, but K-On! is by far the most often mentioned. However, Onegai Twins, set in Toyama, Nagano Prefecture comes up more than once. AIR, which has settings that span multiple prefectures between Kyoto, Wakayama and Hiroshima, is also pointed out. It is worth noting that AIR, Haruhi and Tamako Market are all Kyoto Animation productions. The little independent studio is known for extensive location research as part of its scenario development. That it chooses to highlight cities and neighborhoods in its local region is a point of pride for many who live here.
Motivation and basis of interest are harder to tease out. I understand it can be hard to explain to someone why you feel compelled to do something. The reasons are often so deep rooted that you aren’t thinking about them in your conscious mind, regardless of how strongly they influence your behavior. Asking for quick answers risks having the subject search for something on the surface that seems to be consistent with their behavior, but masks the real reasons underneath. I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth, so I try not to ask leading questions, but I do learn a few interesting themes. Some mention fascination that real locations are mirrored in fictional works like anime. This goes in both directions, seeing something in anime and wanting to go to the real place, but also having already been somewhere and later recognizing it when it appears in a work. One mentions that seeing a place where he lived during college in a setting brought up feelings of nostalgia (natsukashī). Another says that the story of an anime was the initial draw, with seichijunrei being a supplement to that experience. I hesitate to drawn any conclusions from this discussion, but it is a good starting point.
The more we drink, the sillier we get, so the last bit of the evening is pretty much just a big geek-out. Suzaki Aya, Tamako’s voice actress, has visited Masugata Shōtengai several times and always leaves plenty of mementos.
One of the pilgrimage notebooks has a page signed by the entire cast.
More from Suzaki
I leave my own note, but it isn’t really possible to sum up what the day has meant in a paragraph. I’m now at the end of a very long article and I still don’t think I’ve really processed everything. Fortunately, there will be more meetings like this, more chances to understand what the other side sees. They are no longer net handles and fictional avatars, but real faces and names. I’m no longer just that foreigner who retweets all of their stuff. As we are getting ready to leave, they have a little conference in hushed Japanese, after which Tachikichi, in his flawless English, looks at me and asks if I want to officially join the BTC. There are no dues or any formal requirements like that. It’s mostly just a testament to your interest and that you’d like to participate in group events held from time to time. There was only one possible answer to that question.