As it struggles through its worst economic crisis of the postwar era, Japan has seen a drastic decline in the number of travelers arriving from overseas. But the downturn hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for “otaku tours,” which are consistently booked solid.
“Customers have the same drive and determination that the early Japanese otaku had,” says Isaac “Aka-san” Lew, 28, founder of LA-based Intermixi Tours. “They save up and buy on a ‘need’ that most would define as a ‘want.’ They’ve watched the anime, read the manga, played the games, and seen some J-drama, and now they need to experience the land that birthed the media they have enjoyed so much.”
Lew notes that some visitors make several journeys to Japan, the “anime holy land.” And who can blame them? The majority of animation shown in the world is Japanese, and the country boasts some 230 studios and 23 museums related to anime, manga and their creators.
In addition to pre-arranged tours, fans have been creating itineraries that suit their own interests. Popular destinations include otaku meccas like Osu in Nagoya, Nipponbashi in Osaka and, in Tokyo, Akihabara Electric Town, Nakano Broadway and Ikebukuro’s “Otome Road.” And then there are the actual locations featured in anime, like Tokyo Tower and Shibuya 109.
“People tend to want to see the places they recognize from their favorite works,” agrees Jacob Navok, 27, author of 2005’s "Warriors of Legend," a book detailing the real-life locales featured in the smash-hit anime series "Sailor Moon."
It’s no secret that fans in Japan and abroad tend to approach their anime with a certain amount of religiosity. For decades, otaku have been making pilgrimages, or "seichi junrei," to the locations featured in their favorite series.
“'Seichi junrei' is a part of otaku culture,” says Yutaka Yamamoto, 35, an anime director at the Ordet studio who helped popularize the pilgrimages in works such as "The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi" and "Lucky Star." “I myself did it as a student, going to Higashi-Koganei in search of Ghibli.
True to its name, Intermixi offers a mix of all things Japanese. Lew got his start building connections for the pioneering Pop Travel Japan in 2001. He founded his own company in 2007, and over the years has discovered that his customers, usually in their mid-20s, are as interested in Japan the country as they are in its pop culture.
“I once had a tourist say he wanted to smell Japan’s trees to feel all the differences and similarities,” says Lew with a smile. “I designed our schedule to respect the culture first, and then the pop culture. Animation is really watched best when you understand more about Japan.”
Intermixi tours range from Osaka to Hokkaido, and include visits to famous studios (Madhouse, Production IG, Gonzo, etc.), shopping excursions, dining events, and expos such as the Tokyo International Anime Fair. Lew says one of the appeals is traveling with fellow otaku, sharing experiences and making lifelong friends.
“Joining a tour like Intermixi’s is like joining the Scouts or an exclusive clan,” he says. “There’s an almost instant bonding of peers that tends to happen and continues onto our active forums afterwards.”
In collaboration with the Japan Travel Bureau, Intermixi runs weeklong tours, including three major excursions per year—in February for the Sapporo Snow Festival, late March for cherry blossom viewing and September for the Tokyo Game Show. The company has completed 19 tours to date and is looking forward to a bright future.
For more info about Intermixi, see www.intermixi.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today