TOKYO (AP) — Everyone's surprised that "Pokemon Go" is getting people out from behind their screens and out of the house. But Japanese animated creations have a much longer tradition of sending people on real-world adventures, although in a very different way.
The settings of Japanese anime series are often closely based on real locations. Places like shrines and train stations featured in these cartoons are often hunted down by fans on visits called seichijunrei, which translates as "holy land pilgrimage." Local governments and businesses sometimes even promote the connections to well-known places, decorating train stations with characters or selling souvenirs at shrines.
But there's a more challenging version of the pursuit: a subculture of hobbyists who hunt for everyday streetscapes, shops and train stations reproduced in these cartoons in exquisite detail. Called butaitanbou, which translates as "scene hunting," it's not as simple as it might sound.
Town and neighborhood names are often unmentioned or even changed in shows, so that's the first thing to figure out. Then, it's not just about identifying a big landmark, but finding specific, often very mundane places.
Imagine that your own local dry cleaner and playground were featured in a cartoon and someone from out of town had to find them.
"Butaitanbou implies that the hunter is doing his or her own location identification," says Michael Vito, an American who often visits Japan for anime tourism and who is one of the few English speakers who writes about the hobby. "To do butaitanbou is to be a pioneer of sorts."
Photos are taken of sites exactly as they appear in the show. "Butaitanbou generally requires composing and cropping photographs to precisely match the way they appear in the art," says Vito. The photos are then displayed next to corresponding screenshots in blog posts.
An easy place to experience seichijunrei is Kanda Shrine. It's a short walk from the fan mecca of Akihabara, where anime fans typically go on their first trip to Tokyo. A central setting for the anime "Love Live! School Idol Project," the shrine has capitalized on this connection with various items for sale. Prayer plaques, which you'll see at other shrines illustrated with seasonal motifs or religious imagery, here have illustrations of characters. And fans don't settle for just that: Many add their own drawings to the blank side where people write their prayers.
Of course a location like that is so easy to find that it lacks the thrill of discovery. Vito says serious butaitanbou fans of that series visited the Akihabara locations mainly for the sake of completeness. What sparked more enthusiasm was an episode in the second season where characters take a spur-of-the-moment train trip to the shore town of Odawara in Kanagawa prefecture. "The trip to Odawara requires a much higher commitment and confers greater bragging rights," he says.
Japan's other tourist capital, Kyoto, offers an example of how a very ordinary place can become an attraction. Demachi Masugata Shotengai is a traditional shopping street where locals go to the fishmonger, produce vendor or pharmacy, or eat at a neighborhood restaurant. But it's also the model for the shopping street that was the setting for "Tamako Market." Three years after the series ended, fans still visit a fish shop there. A notebook is left outside for visitors to sign; they've filled 11 notebooks already.
These notebooks are commonly installed near some significant location where fans can get a local to take custody of them. "The custodian and site are often a commercial business, like a cafe or shop, but shrines and other historic sites and even countryside train stations are known to lend a hand," says Vito. Voice actors and animators sometimes visit and leave an entry, and these pages get marked for visitors to find.
Even fantasy series are often set in precise real locations. Kyoto is also the setting for "Uchoten Kazoku" (released in English as "The Eccentric Family"), about a family of mythological shape-shifting animals called tanuki. Their fantastic escapades are set in real Kyoto locations, and fans may visit the shrine where they lived in their animal form and a billiard parlor they frequented when disguised as humans. One episode included a surreal fantasy trip on a car from the Eizan Electric Railway, which in real life regularly does tie-ins with anime series, and at one point used the characters on signs reminding riders to watch the closing doors.
Despite the rise in overseas visitors to Japan and increased access to translated anime online, English-language material about visiting anime locations is scarce. One place to start is Vito's blog, http://likeafishinwater.com/ , where he writes about current series and reports on discoveries from butaitanbou pioneers. Another blog, by Mike Hattsu — http://mikehattsu.blogspot.com/ — includes maps for locations he's visited, along with screenshots and photos. If you want to try to delve into Japanese language blogs, Vito recommends starting with the Butaitanbou Archive, http://legwork.g.hatena.ne.jp/ . You can usually find the Japanese name of a series in its English Wikipedia entry, which you can paste into the search box.
Warning: If you've got the slightest interest in Japan and animation, you may find yourself sucked into hours of looking at photos — even if you aren't planning a trip.