Since gaining international attention in the 1970s and 80, Japanese comics called manga and animated shows known as anime have won a worldwide following. But to truly delve into the heart of this pop culture phenomenon, you need to visit Japan.
Tenchi. Inuyasha. Momiji. Yu-Gi-Oh. Dragonball. Voltron. If these and similar names have meaning for you, it means you may be or may have been a fan of anime.
Anime are Japanese animated productions, ranging from TV shows to short films and feature-length movies. They are closely related to manga, the popular comics read in Japan by people of all ages.
They all share a common style — human characters with super-large eyes and faces, with the rest of their bodies often out of proportion to the head.
The storylines can be simple or complex, but often carry a moral message or delve into the struggle to find one’s way in a difficult, complex world. The images and storylines alike can range from innocent and playful to dark and sinister, or very sexy. They also often touch on themes in Japanese history and culture, as well as Japan’s relationship with the outside world.
Anime has been around since 1917, but it took the work of Osamu Tekuza, a physician who found his true calling as a cartoonist and animator, to set down what is now universally recognized as anime. The art form gained recognition outside Japan in the 1980s and its popularity now is virtually worldwide.
So why, you wonder, am I talking about Japanese animation on a travel blog? For the same reason I’d be talking about Disney characters or Harry Potter. That’s right, there actually is such a thing as anime tourism.
Just as the Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle provided the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle in California, and Alnwick Castle in northeast England was the real-life inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, many of the anime storylines are set in or inspired by real places across Japan.
But Ground Zero for a true anime fanatic has to be Akihabara in central Tokyo.
This district started drawing tourists in the 1970s for its dizzying array of electronics shops, selling everything from small hand-held radios to cameras, stereo equipment, cell phones, video games and much more, often including gear “not sold in any store” outside of Japan.
It was enough to earn Akihabara the nickname “Electric City.”
More recently, it’s become the headquarters for otaku, people of all ages devoted to all things manga and anime. If you’re into both anime and collectibles, Akihabara is where you want to be.
But Akihabara takes it even further with its comic cafes called “manga kissaten,” where you can watch anime DVDs and read manga to your heart’s content. Then there are the “maid cafes,” where waitresses dress up and act like famous anime characters.
Cultural kitsch to the max.
If you’re wondering if anyone in Japan runs anime tours, the answer is a definite “Hai!” The tours themselves range in length from a day to a week or more, covering one or more districts in Tokyo or multiple cities. A cursory Web search found these:
- POP JAPAN TRAVEL
Group tours with bilingual guides. Owned by Japanese comics publisher Digital Manga. These guys immerse you in Japanese pop culture in your choice of four cities — Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto. They also can hook you up with manga artists and anime studios.
- PACSET TOURS
Two things about this outfit caught my eye. The first was that they offer payment plans for their tours that don’t require you to buy the whole package up front (why don’t more tour operators do this?). The other was a vague Twitter reference to “anime-themed liquor.”
- DESTINATION JAPAN
They say their weeklong “Tokyo Anime Freedom Tour” is the most popular tour package they offer. The disastrous 2011 earthquake knocked them out two years ago, but they returned last year and are back again for 2013.
Believe me, this is only a very small sample of the tours available in Japan, but this should be enough to get you started. You also should contact the Japan National Tourism Organization, which can hook you up with tons of information on anime tourism.
Anime tours tend to run in the spring, so if this kind of Japanese visit sounds appealing, you really need to start planning now.
You come to understand ancd appreciate anything that much more when you get a look at it from the inside. An anime tour can take you deeper into this phenomenon than mere readers or viewers will ever get, and by extension, give you a richer understanding of Japan itself.
That alone is reason enough to seriously consider a wide-eyed flight into Japanese animation.