SDS blurs Cool Japan and otaku pilgrimages! I don’t know, they’re not the same to me. Maybe from a 10000-mile view in the USA, you can hand-wave the two, since it’s kind of neat to go to Japan’s countryside and
enjoy its traditional cultural entertainment neglected by its changing domestic demographic be in an anime, but please.
I think a more reasonable starter is this Kelts write-up of the Bonburi festival, and you can compare it to the Crunchynews take as both were invited to attend this year’s festival in Kanazawa via JETRO and PA Works. I like Kelt’s write-up because it gets at the key issues that resonate with me. I like the CR write-up because, that’s what it is like when you go as an anime pilgrim. (Although with that said you can do much better than to just post screenshots next to the photos you take. This is why HPT is…a mistake….)
- Good luck booking a room at one of the traditional ryokans! In general, there are not enough accommodations in Japan for foreigner visitors. By this I mean housing availability is domestic market-based; you have to have some amount of savvy to deal with it. Part of it is a matter of being able to find places to book even if they are available, as there are few centralized sites you can access overseas, in English, and be able to remotely lock in a reservation. A good number of the more traditional places can be only booked by phone, even if you know where to look. I’ve not booked any hotels by phones since the 1990s. Festivals (and in some of the more touristy parts of Japan, it’s seasonal) generally have high demands for out-of-towners, so those rooms sell out fast–in other words, because the demand spikes, it’s hard to justify building a lot of capacity when only a couple days out of a year that the rooms will sell out. This applies pretty much all across rural Japan, as only business-type hotels tend to be the kind of accommodations available on demand within not-months-out for any peak season. So on the bright side, if you want to pilgrim out of season, there will be places to stay even last minute. On the other hand, when the nice traditional experiences sell out half a year ahead sometimes, it’s hard to book and go for anyone, foreigner or not. Tokyo itself is a different story, in the sense that foreign tourism actually significantly impacts the hotels in the region (see: busloads of Chinese people, although this might be more significant out in proper tourist destinations like Hokkaido and Okinawa). Tokyo in general needs more hotels if you ask me, and Japan overall needs better booking portals, especially out in the boondocks.
- What is there to do besides taking photos? When I went to Oarai I did that, I ate and stayed the night there, and I did a stamp rally (which would have taken a full day)–only because I was able to book a ryokan there. It kind of goes to #1. To have that full “Kino’s Journey” experience you need to stay at least a night or two. And frankly unless all you want to do is take comparison photos (some people I know do mainly this on pilgrimages, and it actually irritates me), it can be challenging to find things to do. A few gaijins can stick out like a sore thumb at any local small mom & pops shop, say, for dinner, but this is kind of the charm some want from such an experience: that awkward exchanges with other pilgrims or locals who know you’re a pilgrim. At the same time, it’s easier at some places because they’re very used to seeing it year round. Oarai is a good example because it has long been a big pilgrimage site, and it’s not far from Tokyo. I imagine Yuwaku not so much. One of the things that makes Sendai attractive as a pilgrimage location is that there’s all the amenities and things to do a bigger city offers. There is actually nightlife at Sendai, for start.
- The degree of success of these otaku pilgrim pitches vary, but I think Oarai is exemplary because you can go during off season and still find pilgrims, even in 2017. Will you find pilgrims in Yuwaku during January? I have no idea. In some ways, this was one of the recurring, unspoken themes in Sakura Quest: PA Works throws some parties, it’s a huge effort for the organizers, but its impact is not lasting. Rural Japan will continue to shrink.
I feel the real spirit of otaku pilgrimage is actually completely missing in this discussion–you’re a tourist in all of these cases, so go and have fun, broaden your sights and knowledge, and experience something new. It takes a degree of adventure but also a degree of reservation, if only to give respect to the locals and do as the locals do. If there’s something fun and enjoyable you can do once you get to the place you want to go, things should work out by themselves. If you’re a culinary tourist type like myself, Japan in general should be pretty fun!