Here’s a typical vacation for Michael Vito, an American living in China: a flight from his home in Shanghai to Tokyo; then a sequence of four trains to get to Hida, a small city in Gifu prefecture; followed by a 10-minute walk to a bus stop. He wasn’t there to catch a bus — a good thing, seeing as the town shut down service the previous year. Instead, the bus stop was his destination.
Why would someone trek to an abandoned bus stop in rural Japan? The better question is: Why would a dozen people do it? When Vito got there, he joined a small crowd of tourists at the mundane location.
This was no ordinary bus stop, but the site of a scene in the 2016 animated movie Kimi no Na wa, released in English as Your Name. The highest-grossing animated film in Japan (surpassing Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away), as well as the fourth-highest Japanese movie overall, Kimi no Na wa went on to huge success internationally, particularly in China, and in the process, brought fame to some places you wouldn’t expect to be tourist destinations.
Vito was taking part in what the Japanese call seichijunrei — literally “holy land pilgrimage,” but in this context, translated as “anime pilgrimage.” While American tourists are familiar with the idea of visiting places where TV shows or movies were filmed or set, fans of Japanese anime also visit the locations of their homegrown animated films. This may sound unlikely, but it’s possible because for anime with real-life settings, artists often sketch backgrounds using reference material of actual places, including everyday ones. Imagine watching The Simpsons and seeing a perfect reproduction of the dry cleaner around the corner from your apartment.
Pilgrimages aren’t restricted to particular genres. Fans of a realistic story like March Comes in Like a Lion, about a high school player of shogi (a Japanese board game), can visit locations all over Tokyo: There’s the rather dull modern shogi association hall in the Sendagaya area and the small local shrine where the players pray for success; there’s also his neighborhood in the Tsukishima/Tsukuda area, where traditional wooden buildings contrast with modern high-rises and the soaring industrial beauty of the Chuo Bridge. But the shape-shifting tanuki and mythological tengu of The Eccentric Family also frequent real places all over Kyoto, from the forest they live in around Shimogamo Shrine to cafes and restaurants, famous sights like the Kamo River, and a shopping arcade and tram that in one scene are reproduced as a grand illusion created by one of the tanuki.
Once a fairly obscure hobby, anime pilgrimage has become mainstream as the value of the tourism dollars involved has been recognized. Productions may have official collaborations set up from the start; for the recent high school melodrama I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, the operator of the trams featured in the film created commemorative tickets and train announcements recorded by the voice actors, while Takaoka City offered a pilgrimage map and smartphone app. In other cases, locals may jump in afterward when the visitors start arriving, as was the case for the bus stop, where the mayor had taken its old sign out of storage and had it reinstalled to match the scene in the movie. Pilgrimage related to the film brought an estimated 130,000 tourists to Hida from August 2016 to July 2018.
This kind of well-publicized pilgrimage is an offshoot of a more interesting activity. Before promotions became common — and still now for many series that aren’t involved in these publicity efforts — visiting an anime location meant making sure it existed in the real world at all. Someone had to find it.
Butaitanbou, or “scene hunting,” is practiced by a small community of devoted fans, and it’s a much bigger challenge. The goal is to find and visit a location and take a photograph that corresponds as closely as possible to screenshots from the anime, and then share the photo online. While background art may precisely reproduce a real location, that place may not be named — or may be given a fictional name, as in the case of the town with the bus stop in Kimi no Na wa.
Both intense research and occasional leaps of inspiration are required for butaitanbou. It starts online with Google and on Twitter, where fans discuss theories and build a case.
”If I can not find any information, I have to go to the next step,” says a fan we’ll identify as Koichi. “I look into the captured image carefully to find a hint to identify the location, such as coastline, river, mountain, bridge, building, station and so on.”
Along with visual clues, hints might be found in the manga that an anime is based on, the location of the studio or places an author is associated with, or information from various sources about the production. One of Koichi’s projects was the anime series Aria, set in Venice, and he recalls trying to find the location of a hotel replicated in one episode. Unable to find anything online, he remembered that the DVD had a director’s commentary, which offered a vital bit of information: The model was located near Santa Lucia, the only train station in Venice. That allowed him to narrow down the search and find the hotel online.
Once a location is roughly identified, Google Maps and Street View may be enough to pinpoint a precise spot, but sometimes it requires old-fashioned shoe-leather detective work. Another butaitanbou-sha who goes by the handle Endos says he’ll try to guess how the characters would have moved around to reach the location: “And while walking around, I will unexpectedly discover the anime background in front of me and I will be deeply impressed!”
Watching TV — cartoons, no less — is frequently derided as a passive activity. But when you look at blogs that present the results of serious scene-hunting projects, like Koichi’s website for Aria, it’s clear that this is anything but. And in a year of anime, there’s plenty for people like Koichi to connect with and draw upon. The Kyoto of The Eccentric Family is at least as lovely to view as the real thing (perhaps more so, in that it’s far less overcrowded with tourists); Shinkai, the director-animator behind Kimi no Na wa, can’t seem to produce even a pedestrian overpass without making it heartbreakingly beautiful. These are nothing like Wile E. Coyote’s sketchy desert habitat or the merchandise-pushing countrysides of Pokémon.
Endos describes the feeling of being at a location as something that enriches his appreciation of the creative work. There’s an emotional punch to seeing and stepping into a three-dimensional version of a scene, with all the senses engaged: smells, the sensation of the breeze, and the sounds of environment bringing the art to life.
Beyond interacting with an art form, there’s the thrill of human connections made when a location is revealed. While the research may be largely solitary, the ultimate goal is putting the spots discovered out there to share with the world. Koichi has become a resource for people taking trips to Venice, for example, and Endos had one of those enviable experiences with the actual creator of a work. “When I posted an article introducing the anime background location of The Garden of Words (Koto no Ha no Niwa), director Makoto Shinkai himself praised my blog articles on Twitter,” said Endos.
There’s also their organization, Butaitanbou Community (BTC), which holds regular in-person meetings and recognizes member efforts with awards. BTC has grown from an original half-dozen members to a couple hundred in past 11 years.
But while BTC is still a pretty exclusive club, the broader context has changed as it has grown. Vito, who chronicles the subject of anime tourism on his blog, says that official tourism campaigns linked to series and mainstream media coverage have become much more common in the past five years or so. The campaigns tempt fans to visit in all kinds of ways — specially decorated trains, commemorative collectible items and tour packages are just a few. The peak example might be a case where life actually imitated art: A fictional local festival depicted in the series Hanasaku Iroha was recreated by the town that was the model for its setting. It’s now been held every year since 2011.
Along with local collaborations, there are also broader publicity efforts, like a campaign to promote 88 popular anime pilgrimage sites — the number based on a traditional pilgrimage to 88 temples in Shikoku — and an anime pilgrimage smartphone app. With tourism and culture being seen as the main hope for the Japanese economy and as a way of revitalizing struggling areas, the mainstreaming of anime pilgrimage is only going to increase. How does this affect devoted scene hunters?
”A butaitanbou-sha is an active, academic, research-oriented person that finds pleasure in finding an animation background by himself,” says Endos. The quest itself is enjoyable, as is the recognition that come with uncovering an obscure location. “It gets attention from many people and receives praise,” he says. “It is definitely a pleasing feeling.” Those pleasures, Endos says, are harder to find when a series clearly proclaims where it’s set and formal publicity for seichijunrei spreads the word far and wide.
”Because I think myself as a butaitanbou-sha, I do not like excessive coverage by the press, and I hope they do not deprive me of the enjoyment of inferring the background of my favorite animation work by publishing information,” he says. “On the other hand, I also want to obtain information of the anime setting place more easily and feel free to visit as a seichijunrei-sha.”
How the experience is affected partly depends on how localities choose to jump on the bandwagon. Vito was impressed with how Hida handled its sudden fame. “It was clear that a golden goose had been dropped in the city’s lap,” he said. “What’s interesting to me about the bus stop and the few other relatively small things the city did to respond was the level of savvy and restraint those measures demonstrated.” There seemed to be an understanding, he thought, that overdoing promotion might ruin the experience.
There’s also concern about the behavior of casual tourists who aren’t aware of the community’s norms, which include both explicit and unstated rules about being good ambassadors for the hobby and not being a nuisance. While complaints and incidents are mostly typical of what happens when any area sees an influx of tourists, there’s a worrying tendency to attribute problems to “otaku,” a term that still has a lingering stigma.
”The grizzled veterans worry that as incidents increase, their ability to access locations and acquire something like a social license to operate are jeopardized,” Vito says.
In many ways, it’s a pretty familiar situation to anyone who’s ever wanted to wail, “I was into this before it was cool!” But as someone who was actually there for the supposed “good old days,” Koichi has a more nuanced view.
”Locals saw an anime pilgrim as a suspicious person, because he/she took a picture at a ‘suspicious’ point,” he says. “These days, on the contrary, anime pilgrimage has been getting popular, locals recognize what we are doing and they even welcome us. When I think of those days, I feel I am living in a completely different age.”