I’m on the Seibu Limited Express Chichibu 11, known as the New Red Arrow, departing Ikebukuro Station at 10:30 in the morning, with a troop of my favorite people. We’re bound for the end of the line, Seibu-Chichibu Station, our jumping off point for the Ninth Butaitanbou Summit (第9回舞台探訪サミットin秩父飯能), held this year in Chichibu and Hannō, Saitama Prefecture on 2016 September 17, with a concluding breakfast and optional events the following day. The Butaitanbou Community ( 舞台探訪者コミュニティ), or BTC, is the highly engaged core of manga and anime-induced tourism in Japan.
When I attended this event for the first time at the 2015 summit in Kagoshima, I was a little bit nervous about how I would be received, the first foreigner to attend one of these meetings. Though it was not my first face-to-face contact with butaitanbou practitioners, it was the first time with nearly everyone together at once. I wondered if I would be welcomed into the fold, or kept politely at arm’s length as a guest, fears that thankfully were completely unfounded. A year and many Twitter conversations later, I have the opposite problem: Everyone is fired up and excited to exchange news, while my Japanese speaking is still middling at best, so I struggle to keep up with the pace. But it’s indescribably fun, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
There is a busy agenda planned for once we arrive in Chichibu, but with so many people coming from or transiting through Tokyo on the way, a large group of us elected to get a head start on the social part by riding the train together. There were enough of us to reserve group tickets in consecutive seats on the limited express service, so we took over most of a car.
The organizer indicated that a lunch would be included in the price, but I didn’t understand what it meant when he said it would be “loaded” at Hannō Station. Since there was no way someone could get off the train, buy food in the station, then run back in the two minutes while it was stopped at the station, I assumed lunch would be brought along from Ikebukuro and distributed when we passed Hannō around midday. No, as the train slows to a stop at Hannō, there waiting on the platform are several of our comrades, arms loaded with stacks of bento and cases of drinks, still cool from the refrigerator case. I continue to underestimate the amount of care everyone puts into this volunteer work.
Chichibu, where the main meeting is being held, is significant for its association with two works produced by A-1 Pictures, Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai. (Anohana) and Kokoro ga Sakebitagatterunda. (Kokosake). Nearby Hannō is the primary setting of the manga and studio 8-Bit anime adaptation of Yama no Susume.
We have a short walk through the Chichibu commercial district to our event space, on an upper level of the Chichibu Railway Chichibu Station complex.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to carve out time to watch the two A1 works before coming, so the significance of Chichibu locations are lost on me, but my comrades zoom quickly to points of interest as we pass. For many, this is not their first visit.
We know we’re in the right place when we spot a motorcycle embellished with Girls und Panzer and Yama no Susume decals and sporting a travel pack. A group of volunteers had arrived at the venue in advance to setup the registration area and event space.
As before, our day is a lineup of presentations and discussions on topics of high interest to the community, as well as awards for individual effort selected by popular vote.
We’re in Chichibu, so the meeting starts off with a deep dive into the history of the city and arc of pop culture tourism activity induced by Anohana and Kokosake. Anohana is notable as one of the few anime for which there is a high level of awareness of its real world setting among non-Japanese anime fans.
Among all the topics, the most interesting to me is the “Incident Report”, for which we are asked not to share the specifics outside of the meeting. However, the general idea of not causing meiwaku (trouble or nuisance) that is at the heart of this discussion is a very important part of community norms, and gets essentially no mention in general media coverage of anime-induced tourism. Among the BTC there is an unwritten but well understood code of going above and beyond to show courtesy and consideration to the communities we visit on pilgrimages. This includes everything from not trespassing or taking invasive photos, to the way we approach and share our activities with local businesses and residents we encounter. The idea is that butaitanbou practitioners are generally the first people to make contact with a community when new works are released, so we set the tone for subsequent pop culture tourism. We want to be good ambassadors for those who follow, as well as set a model for behavior while on pilgrimage and discretion in the subsequent media and references we generate. In this case, the incident arose from someone, not a BTC member, who revealed the address of a very private residential location used in a popular series, something we generally conceal on our blogs and other public forum out of consideration for the residents. There wasn’t really anything the BTC could do in this case, but the presenters felt it important to talk about possible fallout and reiterate the group’s stance.
This reveals two things about the BTC that I think are notable. One is that the lessons from Nishinomiya Kita High School, where pilgrims trespassed on school grounds to take photos for scenes from Suzumiya Haruhi, haven’t been forgotten. Inappropriate behavior done out of passionate interest is still inappropriate, and we try to make sure things like that don’t happen again. The second is that members of the BTC still see themselves as gatekeepers for information about anime pilgrimage locations. It was true that, even a few years ago, if butaitanbou practitioners did not publish a public reference about a location model for an anime series, it was highly unlikely that casual fans would make their way to that location. However, with interest in anime pilgrimage now expanding beyond this niche group and tools like Google Street View facilitating discovery, I think some BTC members underestimate the ability of a casual yet engaged fan to embark on the same kind of sleuthing, bypassing butaitanbou articles. Augmented reality smartphone apps with the locations already marked have accelerated this trend.
Butaitanbou blogs will always be the authoritative source of complete analysis of works and locations. No app, tour agent or local tourism promoter is going to go through each and every cut of every episode of a series, comparing the background art with the real location. But BTC members will increasingly find they are competing with other voices, as businesses and local governments become hip to revenue opportunities resulting from pop culture tourism interest, another trend that is already in motion.
The most anticipated portion of the summit comes about halfway through the afternoon’s proceedings. Supporting and cheering each others’ efforts is an ongoing affair, both online and at periodic regional gatherings. But this is the only time we get to all sit in the same room and formally recognize those who have shown superlative effort and community leadership. Votes, which include free text evaluations, are collected online in advance of the event. Beyond the awards, everyone is given the opportunity to read written feedback on what their peers have found most inspiring about their work over the past year.
Keita (@ktism1228s) from Kitahiroshima, Hokkaidō Prefecture is the recipient of this year’s rookie award. Not only does Keita’s active exploration and reporting further strengthen BTC presence in Hokkaidō, he has impressed many with his superb photography skill and style. I couldn’t agree more with his selection and I’m disappointed that he wasn’t able to make it to the meeting, as I’ve wanted to meet him for some time!
Ebisu (夷 @ye_bi_su) has dominated this show now for three years running, taking the rookie award in 2014, the grand prize in 2015 and again this year. But anyone familiar with Ebisu and his contributions is unlikely to be surprised by any of this. He is without question the most aggressive, adventurous and hard working, but also humble and gregarious practitioner among us. From his Kyoto base, he is generally the first to post complete and polished analysis for works set in Kansai, often Kyoto Animation series. But he also continues his pointed effort to explore and highlight locations in Tōhoku, where many communities are still grappling with recovering, rebuilding and reshaping their identity following the destruction of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
There is a new group of special awards given this year. The recipients of the previous year’s top awards were each allowed to select an individual they wanted to recognize.
Lidges chose RON (@RON_crmo0313), for his efforts to produce the first issue of Tanbōro (探訪路), the first dōjinshi created as a collaboration between members and representing the BTC.
Tesra chose Ooishigen (おおいしげん @genoishi), for his tireless and long-running compiling of the Butaitanbou Archive, a comprehensive database of butaitanbou articles.
Ebisu chose— me— for raising the overseas profile of butaitanbou/seichijunrei subculture and filling a gap in English language information about anime pilgrimage locations through my weekly column.
Ebisu and each of us are asked to speak to the room upon receiving our awards. Rather than drag poor Tachikichi up the the front to translate for me yet again, I decide I’ll see what I can muster on my own. My nerves get the better of me, so I keep it brief, just a quick expression of thanks before my brain goes blank. I hope I didn’t give anyone the impression that I wasn’t having a good time, because I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Now you know what my name looks like in katakana.
From this point on there are more awards for individual efforts and projects, a quick review of BTC finances, self-introductions for new members, and finally a commemorative group photo before we adjourn.
Shuttle buses pick us up for what turns out to be a lengthy and winding journey into the mountains around Chichibu to the onsen ryokan where we’ll be having dinner and the evening portion of the summit. Many people, including me, will stay overnight and continue with optional events the next day.
What begins as a conventional group meal quickly takes a turn for crazy, as comrades in cosplay barge into the room, regaling everyone with dramatic reenactments over the course of the evening.
There had only been one proposal submitted for the location of the next summit, so tonight is a straight announcement rather than a vote. The 10th Butaitanbou Summit will be held next year in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the setting of Love Live! Sunshine!!
With official matters concluded, things only get rowdier from this point on. Many still have people they need to find and play catch up with. Some are preparing for the late night specialist sessions. Many of us will also be up early the next morning for optional tours of the settings of Anohana, Kokosake and Yama no Susume, contemplating the relative merits of getting sufficient sleep with utilizing all of the limited time we have this evening. One thread tying everyone together is the comfort in knowing that we can be ourselves here. Despite rapidly rising mainstream awareness and interest in anime tourism, butaitanbou practitioners, like many otaku, can remember many instances when they were stigmatized for their niche activity, either in public or online, thus prefer to keep a low profile. But if there was only one place and time where one felt safe letting his or her geek flag fly, this would be it.
Toward the end of the dinner, amidst the clamor, Kansai BTC branch manager and good friend Seki, dressed in drag, shuffles over and quietly slips something into my hands. This is the fourth in his series of butaitanbou dōjinshi, this one a comprehensive study of the Kyoto settings for Tamako Market and Tamako Love Story. There are many layers of symbolism in this bound print, for both me and him. Tamako Market was my first deep exploration into the use of real urban environments as the basis for anime settings, as well as the methods and dynamics of the butaitanbou community. Of all the anime series I’ve reviewed over the past four years, Tamako Market still sticks out as having had the most vivid pop culture tourism response. It wasn’t just the numbers of visitors, but the rich quality of the interactions they had with the places and each other. Fans descended on the city nearly every weekend during the broadcast, culminating in large impromptu gatherings of formal BTC members and casual seichijunrei participants each Saturday night, with Seki at the center of it all. He and Ebisu were there with the small group that met me at my first face-to-face meeting with BTC members in Kyoto, our evening beginning in Fujinomori and moving on to a late night session in Demachi, the two main settings for the anime. These are places I’ve returned to so many times that I now know them like the back of my hand and people say welcome back when I pass through. I think about how Tamako Market was a catalyst for much of the growth in my understanding of this community, while flipping to the pages that cover the Demachi Masugata Shōtengai and pointing to the photos, telling Seki that my most cherished memories are wrapped up in these places. Mine too, he smiles.