THE NERDIEST SHRINE IN JAPAN
Washinomiyamachi is a small town about an hour’s train ride away from the throbbing nucleus of Tokyo. Unlike Osaka, which, in a vain attempt to attract attention constructed a 60.9 billion yen waste-disposal facility that looks like a castle from Alice in Wonderland doodled by a three year-old kid, Washinomiyamachi has never been interested in hype. In fact, with barely any decent dating spots for young couples, this town of 38,000 was until a few years back quietly dying. That all changed three years ago thanks to the existence of a particular shrine. Now, Washinomiyamachi is known as an otaku mecca on par with Japan's principal geektown, Akihabara.
It all started with an anime series called Raki Suta ["Lucky Star"] which first aired in April 2007. The anime starred two sisters who were supposedly the daughters of the head priest at a shrine--not any old shrine, but the Washinomiya Shrine in Washinomiyamachi. Fans of the anime took heed of this precious tidbit, and began flocking in droves to the actual shrine in the town of Washinomiya. Every weekend, the otaku congregate in the shrine and town hall parking lots to flaunt their rides decorated with anime and video game characters, chatting merrily to local shop owners as if they’re best friends from way back. Though they were initially wary of all the newcomers, the residents of Washinomiyamachi have grown so fond of the attention that in 2008 they officially registered the fictional Hiiragi sisters and their priest parents as residents of the town. That’s like NYC granting Spiderman a driver's license.
Every New Year’s between January 1st to 3rd, it’s customary for the Japanese to visit their local shrine to pray for the coming year. This means that it’s the busiest time of year for shrines throughout Japan, and unsurprisingly, Washinomiya Shrine is now regularly inundated with hardcore Raki Suta fans. The number of visitors to Washinomiya Shrine has shot up from 130,000 people in 2007 to 300,000 in 2008, and hit a staggering 420,000 people last year. Damn, that’s a lot of nerds. I visited Washinomiya Shrine on New Year’s day to speak to some of the otaku and the residents of Washinomiyamachi about this annual ritual.
Vice: So you’re a local resident?
Masahiko Takahashi: Yes, I’m originally from Tokyo but it’s been 16 years since I moved here to Washinomiyamachi. I’ve loved anime from a very young age and was attending Comike [aka Comic Market, a huge biannual handmade comics fair in Tokyo--ed] even before Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal feature animation Laputa: Castle in the Sky was even released.
Have you participated in any of the municipal efforts to revitalize Washinomiyamachi through Raki Suta?
Yes, I’ve been helping out since 2009. Right now I’m considering the possibility of creating a new, original bishoujo character especially for Washinomiyamachi to help vitalize it even more. I mean, it would be great if we could claim the Raki Suta characters as our own, but in order to do that the town has to raise money to pay copyright fees to the publishing house and maneuver around various usage restrictions which will obviously take time to work out. However, if we were to create our own original anime characters, that wouldn’t be a problem.
That’s a great idea. How do you think the anime fans visiting Washinomiyamachi perceive your town?
Most fans initially visit merely because it’s the setting for Raki Suta, but a lot of them have ended up coming again and again because they’ve grown to love the place so much. These days, the fans call their trips to Washinomiyamachi a “homecoming.” It’s a very enigmatic town.
Are you married? What does your wife say about all this?
My wife is an otaku herself. She even used to sell her homemade comics at Comike, and yet I had no idea that she was interested in this sort of thing until we got married. I used to think that she was cheating on me because she’d suddenly stop seeing me for a while, but I found out later that it was because she was too busy preparing for the Comike. Anyway, because of her background, she is very understanding.
Vice: Wow, there are Raki Suta characters all over these ema [wooden plaques where worshippers write their prayers or wishes--ed]... did you draw them all yourself?
Takanori Motegi: Almost. I drew my first Raki Suta-themed ema at the start of 2008, and since then I’ve been coming back repeatedly to dedicate more ema to the same shrine. The one I’m hanging right now is my 99th. You can tell it’s new because it’s whiter than the old ones. Drawing has been one of my hobbies since elementary school. I especially love manga targeting young girls, like Sailor Moon. When I was a kid I used to do sketches of all the characters. You know, the type of girly characters that make us otaku swoon. We call these moe-kei ["moe-type" in English, "moe" referring to the fetishization of cute female characters in anime and manga. Not super-easy to explain, but this is a good start--ed]. My goal is to hang 1,000 ema plaques decorated with Raki Suta at this shrine. The first time I visited Washinomiya Shrine, I basically did what everybody else does here: Pray, and take pictures of myself in front of the shrine gates with my mobile phone. Realizing that this was what every other tourist was doing, I decided to do something different, like hang an ema. One ema would be considered normal though, so that’s why I decided to do 1000. Traditionally you only hang one ema at a shrine per year but that would take me a thousand years. That said, I didn’t think it was right hanging so many prayers and wishes in one go, so I had to think really hard about it. In the end, my internet friends gave me the push I needed. Now, I come to the shrine once a week to dedicate a new ema.
How long does it take to decorate one ema?
About six hours, meaning that I can only work on one ema per day.
So that's basically your job.
The ema project has become a guiding light in my life. I was a boring person before this. I had a shit job, everything I ever did was half-assed, and I hated myself. However, by setting myself the goal of achieving 1,000 ema, life became fun again because I knew that I was the only guy stupid enough to do such a thing! You see, anybody can be number one at something, as long as you choose what nobody else would ever even think of choosing. According to calculations it’s going to take 18 years to hang 1,000 ema, but I’m definitely going to do it. I don’t care if I fuck up my right hand. I always have my left.
Matsurin（left） / Satori（right）
Vice: Cool costumes, but aren’t you cold?
Matsurin: It’s freezing, but you have to suffer for fashion and you need a certain amount of will power for cosplay. So we’re fine.
What do you do for a living?
Matsurin: I used to be an electrical technician, but right now I’m unemployed. Satori: I teach math and science at a cram school.
Do your students know that their teacher is into cosplay?
Satori: Of course not. Some people sneer at these kinds of hobbies, you see. That said, my extensive knowledge of anime has worked wonders in the classroom because both my students and I love talking about it.
How do you meet fellow cosplay lovers?
Satori: We actually met here at Washinomiya Shrine last year. Back then I loved Raki Suta, but I only began cosplay after I met him.
So your cosplay life began here in Washinomiyamachi huh?
Satori: Yes, and I’ve met lots of people, like Matsurin here, in this town. Now I’m even friends with the chief priest and members of the town society. Plus, I’ve had a lot of people approach me when I’m dressed up. My life has changed completely since visiting Washinomiyamachi.
Are you coming again next new year’s?
Satori: Sure, although I may not come in my outfit again.
Matsurin: I’ll definitely come, but as another anime character. I mean, it’s already been three years since they stopped airing Raki Suta so it’s a bit old.
Vice: That’s a lot of merch you’ve got there.
Matthias Werner: Thanks. I went to a comic market at the end of the year. Look at this towel, I bought it at the K-ON concert on December 30. It’s a rare item.
What nationality are you?
I’m from Germany. I grew up in Bamberg, Bayern. I’m currently taking a year off from my degree at the University of Düsseldorf and have been doing a Japanese language course at Bunkyo University since last April.
Your friends pointed out that you were the most knowledgeable about Japanese anime out of the group.
That’s an honor. I initially took an interest in Japan after becoming hooked on Nintendo games. I began studying Japanese after watching the anime programs Evangelion and Air. I bought a cheap Japanese text book and studied my ass off, because I wanted to enjoy Japanese animations on a deeper level.
When did you discover Raki Suta?
I got into it after coming to Japan. The first time I visited Washinomiya Shrine was last July, after attending the Tokyo Wonder Festival [annual thing where people show off and sell assembly-scale model kits of anime characters]. I met many Raki Suta fans, and before I knew it I was frequenting Washinomiya, at times visiting five times a month. I took part in the unveiling of the Raki Suta portable shrine [a sacred palanquin honoring the Raki Suta characters which was unveiled at Washinomiya Shrine’s Hajisai festival in 2008]. It was a very emotional experience.
Vice: Where'd you drive from?
Fumitaka Tsuji: Kyoto. I arrived in Washinomiyamachi on New Year’s Eve and slept in my car. I’m planning to be here until the third.
I’d never seen a BMW adorned with anime characters until now.
I love cars and anime. I drive race circuits with this car too.
How much did the customization cost?
About 1.5 million yen [$16,500 USD]. That covers the costs for printing and cutting out the illustration. If you include the cost of the car, the whole thing is worth about 5 million yen ($55K). I still haven’t finished customizing it yet.
What else will you be doing to it?
I ordered some German aero parts but they haven’t arrived yet. I’ll also be changing the brakes, suspension, tires, and wheel, and inserting a M3 CSL lower arm.
How long have you been involved in this itasha fad? [Itasha literally means “pain-mobile” and refers to cars decorated with anime/manga characters]
15 years, so quite a while. The term “itasha” wasn’t even around when I first started. People used to glare at me back then because only social outsiders did this sort of thing. I rode my car with pride no matter what people thought of me.
Vice: What's the deal with that folder?
Terumitsu Saitoh: This folder holds a copy of Raki Suta’s Hiiragi family’s special resident card. We’ve been handing these out since December 31. We did the same thing last year, and managed to hand out all 30,000 copies. Stylish design, isn’t it? It shows the Raki Suta characters carrying Washinomiyamachi’s portable shrine.
I see. Do you think anime fans are contributing the revitalization of the town?
Of course, in a big way. It’s because of them that TV and newspaper journalists have taken interest in us, and the media have helped build us a great image. Plus, the fans shop in our shopping promenade while they’re here, and frequent our restaurants. Sometimes they even volunteer to clean up the town. We’re most grateful to them.
So no problems with the locals? No "Townies versus Drawnies" fights?
The shop-keepers in this town treat the otaku visitors as if they’re their own children. The otaku also help enliven our annual festival, which is great. The term “otaku” has always been associated with negative connotations and the media have focused on how exotic they are, but actually most of them are just normal people who are passionately in love with anime and games.
How would you pitch the town in one line?
Comike and Wonder Festival are only open a few days a year, but here in Washinomiyamachi it’s otaku paradise 365 days a year.
Vice: You’re riding an itachari (a bicycle version of the itasha). How did you get into it?
Sakura: When I first saw all the isasha cars parked in front of Washinomiya Shrine I thought it was the coolest thing, and I decided to customize my bicycle. I’ve loved anime since I was in elementary school, especially ones featuring beautiful young girls. Do you know the romance simulation game Tokimeki Memorial? It's awesome.
Did you customize this yourself?
Yes, it cost about 80,000 yen [$900].
What do your friends say about your hobby?
“Dude, that’s pure chaos”.
What do you think of Washinomiya?
It’s been 18 years since I moved here and it’s still amazing. I consider it my hometown.
Sakura（left), Rei（center, Kubu（right）
Vice: Where did you guys meet?
Kubu: At a cosplay event.
Did you make the costumes yourself? How much did they cost?
Kubu: This one cost about 2,000 yen [$22]. I made it myself with a special sewing machine for cosplay outfits.
Sakura: I bought mine for about 12,000 yen [$135].
Rei: I made this. It cost about 5,000 yen [$55].
Do you often make pilgrimages to sacred anime spots? Like, have you been to any featured in other animations as well?
Kubu: Not really. I did go to Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture though. It’s the setting for the game When They Cry. Did you know that it’s been listed as a world heritage site?
No, I did not.
Vice: Which anime is this character from?
Yu Tamai: She’s from the manga series Shugo Chara! (“My Guardian Characters!”). I became hooked after my younger sister lent me her books.
How did you go about customizing the car?
I cut out the letters myself from pressure-sensitive adhesive sheets. As for the actual illustration, I asked a company specializing in these things to create a huge sticker of the girl. The whole thing cost about 40,000 yen [$450].
What do your family members say about this?
They’re too appalled to say anything.
What do you think about Washinomiyamachi?
At first I was under the impression that only Raki Suta fans are allowed here, but then I found out that they’re open to all anime-loving otaku. When I’m here, I usually chat with people at the shrine and then eat at Monzen-Hanten, a Raki-Suta-themed ramen shop. This town attracts people that share the same roots, so it’s cozy.
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY HIROYUKI WATANABE
TRANSLATED BY LENA OISHI