Tourism companies and Japanese local governments are hoping to capitalize on anime box office hits such as "The First Slam Dunk" and "Suzume" by attracting domestic and foreign travelers, including from China and South Korea, to real-life locations associated with the movies.
Trip.com Group Ltd., a major Chinese online travel agency, has launched an online promotional campaign, timing it with the late April release of "The First Slam Dunk" in China, in the hope of promoting tourism at locations linked with scenes from the original Slam Dunk, a classic basketball television anime and manga series from the 1990s.
One popular location is a picturesque crossing overlooking the ocean in Kamakura, a seaside city in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, associated with the opening scene in the Slam Dunk TV anime, where the protagonist stands in front of an animated version of the railway intersection.
In recent years, fans have flocked to the crossing at Kamakura Kokomae Station, including on weekdays. The trend looks likely to continue as inbound tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Japan has now lifted its COVID-19 border controls for all arrivals. Likewise, China ended its stringent "zero-COVID" policy earlier this year, paving the way for people from the country to travel overseas, although group tours to Japan are yet to resume.
"The movie made me want to go to Japan," a Chinese fan commented on Trip.com's official Weibo account page.
The crossing is one of many places fans visit as part of "seichi junrei," which means "holy pilgrimage." The term is used to describe the phenomenon of fans visiting locations that are either the inspiration for, or are inspired by, famous Japanese anime, films and television dramas.
Zen Chai, who traveled to Japan from Singapore, was one of the dozens of visitors along the sidewalks facing the crossing in late April. Others were from China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, among other places.
Chai, 33, said he is "excited" to finally see the spot given his fond memories of the original Slam Dunk, an anime that reminds him of his student days playing basketball. Another fan, Hsinchi Wang, 45, said, "It's very popular in Taiwan. There's this nostalgia of high school."
According to Takeshi Okamoto, an associate professor at Kindai University's Department of Applied Sociology in Osaka Prefecture, things people enjoy during childhood become a part of their identity. "As adults, people can become spurred by a sense of nostalgia to visit places linked to their childhood memories," he said.
With COVID-19 restrictions causing many to stay indoors, Okamoto said the pandemic also led to people subscribing to streaming sites, such as Netflix and watching more anime than they otherwise would.
"Now, many people want to go to Japan, as they think back to those hard times when they were watching anime (during the pandemic)," Okamoto added.
As of May 15, box office sales for the "The First Slam Dunk" totaled 636.14 million yuan ($91 million), with the number of spectators reaching around 17.6 million, according to local movie data app Maoyan Professional.
The Slam Dunk craze has also led to renewed demand for a particular Japanese sake, sold by a brewery shop in Fukuoka Prefecture. In homage to manga creator Takehiko Inoue's character, the "Mii no Kotobuki" bottle has been sold with a "+14" red label on it since 2013, inspired by the number on the jersey of three-point shooter Hisashi Mitsui, a key figure in the Slam Dunk franchise.
Mitsui's name was derived from the sake, a favorite of Inoue. Sales reached 10,000 bottles over the course of a month after it was released, a figure that normally takes the sake brewer a year to achieve.
Recently, the company posted an online notice informing customers that the special sake bottle is not for sale at the brewery after some visitors from China traveled there looking to purchase it.
The firm, which was founded in 1922, sells the special bottled sake to its customer base of roughly 110 shops across Japan, and they have already been earmarked to provide for clients in China and South Korea on a yearly basis, although they are now in short supply for those markets, said Tadatsugu Inoue, CEO of the firm.
Equally popular in China and South Korea is "Suzume," an anime film that follows the journey of a high school girl from Kyushu, southwestern Japan, to the north of the country in a quest to close various "doors," or supernatural portals, to stave off disasters.
The first door in Makoto Shinkai's movie, inspired by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region in northeast Japan, is said to look like the remains of a locomotive roundhouse in the town of Kusu, Oita Prefecture.
Keita Shinkawa, from the town's tourism association, said being linked with Suzume is a "chance" to boost tourism in the area. "I hope visitors will also see and appreciate the other various charms of the town."
A replica of the door from the movie has been installed in the town of Yamada in Iwate Prefecture, another location that was badly affected by the disaster.
The association said it hopes visitors will be able to see how residents of the port town on the Sanriku coast, which has a history of tsunamis, have persevered through periods of reconstruction.
In 2019, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic meant border closures across the globe, Japan welcomed nearly 10 million visitors from mainland China, accounting for the largest group among all foreign visitors and totaling 30 percent of all inbound tourists, official data showed.
Earlier this year, China reopened its borders and resumed overseas group tours. But Japan is not among the 60 countries Beijing has designated as official tourist destinations.
While Japan is still regarded as one of the most highly desired travel destinations for many in China, other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, are emerging as potential rivals.
Thailand has been very welcoming of Chinese tourists. Its deputy prime minister personally greeted the first group of inbound travelers after they landed in January, and individual travelers from China can secure visas on arrival when entering the country.
Shintaro Chaya, chief representative of the Japan National Tourism Organization at the Beijing office, said, "We should not assume that travelers will come to Japan for certain," adding that if inbound tourists from China do not feel welcomed, they will likely go elsewhere.
Over-enthusiastic fans have also become a cause for concern among local residents. The crossing in Kamakura, for example, has become such a popular destination that a sign written in Japanese, English and Chinese has been installed nearby asking people to abide by safety rules, such as asking them not to walk on the train tracks.
Okamoto called for striking a balance between tourists and residents. "When visitors have happy encounters on their trips and go home with good memories, they want to come back," he said.
(Maya Kaneko in Beijing contributed to this story.)