With all available shelf space already occupied, stacks of textbooks, anthologies and manga line a path so narrow I have to be careful where I step. If I don’t swivel my head as I go, I might take out a lineup of miniature Gundam models with my camera bag. No, this isn’t the club room from Genshiken, it’s the research room of Dr Okamoto Takeshi (岡本健), member of the Faculty of Regional Promotion at Nara Prefectural University. Okamoto studies what is referred to in Japan as contents tourism (コンテンツツーリズム). Contents tourism generally includes the same phenomena as what in English is called pop culture tourism or media-induced tourism. This includes travel behavior motivated by any creative element (narrative, characters, locations, etc.) of a work of popular culture, such as film, TV, animation, comics, games and others. Okamoto focuses primarily on contents tourism phenomena induced by anime and manga.
When I first became aware of seichijunrei (聖地巡礼 sacred site pilgrimage) and butaitanbou (舞台探訪 scene hunting), the predominant variants of anime and manga-induced travel, I was an outsider looking in. Over three years later, I’m now in daily communication with many of the core practitioners, have participated in group and solo anime tourism, and am considered a member of community. Because I have many shared experiences with them, shop talk comes naturally when I meet others online or offline. However, and I’ve been very clear on this with everyone since the beginning, I’m also approaching the group as an active observer. I partake in and enjoy the behaviors, and I’m also using these opportunities to understand the group dynamics, experiences of individuals and the locations they visit. This is the typical approach used by ethnographers, who research cultural phenomena by observing them from the subject’s point of view. At this higher level of abstraction, there are probably only a handful of people I can talk with and know that we’re working from similar databases. Okamoto is one of them.
We met at Nara Station on a brisk but sunny autumn afternoon and headed first for some steaming bowls of udon. (Thanks for getting lunch, but I’m paying next time!) Though I’ve made slow but steady progress in my Japanese basics, the more people I meet with common interests, the level of fluency needed to say the things I want to say seems to move ahead at a far faster rate. Though I can understand enough of what I’m hearing to follow a conversation, getting my own thoughts together and out of my mouth requires more mental gear grinding than I’d like to admit. But with Okamoto, there is so much shared knowledge that he can kind of read my mind. As long as I can squeak out a some nouns and verbs, he can put the rest of my sentences together. I still need to do a lot of work, particularly with specialized vocabulary for my research areas, but it’s nice to have the rare occasion when something resembling flow happens.
We swap stories over lunch. Rather than an overly formal first meeting between relative strangers, it was more like two children at show-and-tell, each digging through a bag of his favorite possessions. It was funny to learn that, though we spend much time evaluating anime works that feature real location backgrounds, most of which are dramas or sitcoms, both of our early experiences and sustained interest in anime come from other genres. Okamoto likes big robots. Left to my druthers, I’d take a good noir or dystopian sci-fi.
Kyoto Animation comes up often. Contents tourism in Nishinomiya (Haruhi), Washinomiya Jinja in Saitama Prefecture (Lucky Star) and Toyosato (K-On!) features frequently in Okamoto’s writings. We’re in the middle of Nara and close to Kashihara, the settings of Kyōkai no Kanata. I describe the goings on from this year’s butaitanbou community summit in Kagoshima, including group pilgrimage for Chūnibyō demo Koi ga Shitai! He tells me about his involvement in Nara Toukae planning subsequent to Kyōkai no Kanata. The massive summer festival with thousands of candles lit in Nara Park is depicted in the anime.
We talk about existing and potential interest in seichijunrei among non-Japanese, and whether the Cool Japan initiative has anyone among its ranks who would know what or how to promote this kind of tourism. I ask him who he considers his counterparts, who else is studying anime and manga related contents tourism. He indicates that he recently published a book from which I can scan the acknowledgements page, more or less a who’s who of fellow researchers. This is our cue to relocate and continue our conversation on campus.
Okamoto makes apologies for the small scale and dated facilities of the public university. I tell him it doesn’t make one bit of difference, and mean it. He takes me first up to his research room, which he has dubbed “little Akiba”.
Okamoto-sensei, say cheese.
Gundam collection notwithstanding, Ika Musume currently reigns as his favorite gallery item.
He hands me a copy of his book, Contents Tourism Research (コンテンツツーリズム研究), open to the acknowledgements page. I try to hold it open to take a photo when he tells me to take the book with me. I ask how much. It’s a present. The Japanese equivalent of jeez! is mou~! Though a staple of anime dialog, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it from my own mouth.
Non-anime-character (as in normal) tobidashibōya magnets. This room is almost a museum exhibit.
There are more than a few pieces of Lucky Star paraphernalia from past events at Washinomiya Jinja.
I scan book titles until I start to get dizzy, then we move to a conference room at the university library, where we actually have room to sit and face each other. As I pull my laptop out of my bag, I notice he’s brought two more of his authored books with him, n-th Creation Tourism (n次創作観光) and Jinja Junrei (神社巡礼), the latter a deep dive on pilgrimage to Shinto shrines that appear in anime. (The original usage of the term seichijunrei refers to shrine visits by religious pilgrims.) Okamoto flips through and shows me a few things that had come up in our conversation earlier, then hands me the books. These are also gifts. I’ve given up protesting at this point.
I have a very short self-introductory PowerPoint deck with Japanese text that I use for this kind of occasion. It helps me explain who I am and how I managed to go from classical music to consulting, corporate environment issues, and ultimately trying to make my own path in alternative mobility and creating high quality urban commons. Ironically, contents tourism, the whole reason for our meeting, was an accident. It was my idea to analyze anime for depictions of urban commons and public transit use, but seichijunrei and butaitanbou were unanticipated discoveries. My deck includes photos of urban commons in different countries, ending with a series of images from my favorite commons and anime holy land (聖地), the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai, otherwise known as the Usagiyama Shōtengai from Tamako Market. This sequence seems to work well as a way to quickly explain my roundabout route before jumping back into the content.
Just a few days earlier, I had made my own pilgrimages to Uji for Hibike! Euphonium and the Kyoto Animation studio, as well as Toyosato for K-On! and Ōtsu for Chūnibyō demo Koi ga Shitai! I’ve gotten in the habit of quick developing a handful of photos each day on my field studies to share on social media. In the middle of a deep conversation about an inherently visual topic, they sure come in handy.
I tell Okamoto that I’m really interested in contents tourism’s implications for place-based engagement, so I’m looking for examples of bonds created between pilgrims and the municipalities that become holy lands. His favorite is a K-On! fan that moved to Toyosato and took on the role of caretaker for the former Toyosato Elementary School, used extensively as a location model for the anime and now preserved as a museum. A close second is the lantern festival now held in Yuwaku Onsen in Kanazawa, a festival that arose from fan interest after a completely fictional version appeared in anime Hanasaku Iroha. But there are so many of these stories. We could have sat there and just planned a course syllabus on this track alone.
I mention that not just Japan but many countries are struggling with widespread disengagement from civil society. The internet is part of it, moving social commons from physical third places to virtual ones, though ennui with regard to participatory acts seems to run deeper than that. Seichijunrei and butaitanbou fly in the face of this trend. By definition, they require one’s physical presence at the location used in the work. Okamoto grins as he tells me that seichijunrei might be even more powerful than I realize. He indicated knowledge of at least one instance of hikkikomori—someone who suffers from acute social withdrawal and may spend most or all of the day, everyday, confined to home—drawn out of isolation by the desire to participate in seichijunrei and visit an anime holy land.
Prior to, during, and long after this meeting, I think both of us will have spent more time than most humans recording, thinking about and trying to draw conclusions from all of these stories. Is there something about the way the fictional worlds are created that makes further engagement beyond the work appealing? Is it a way to extend the emotional response to a favorite story or character. Is it a desire to find a place where one can rekindle a sense of belonging? These questions, and a few others, are what keep me up late and get me out of bed in the morning. I’m glad to have found a friend to ponder them with me.
Dr Okamoto on Twitter: @animemitarou
Research and writings: http://researchmap.jp/t-okamoto/