Tourism boom for Karatsu after success of anime "Yuri On Ice"

Anime merchandise is seen on shelves at KaraFe cafe in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, with a view looking out at a Japanese-style garden.
PHOTO: The Japan News/Asia News Network

KARATSU, SAGA - Broadcast late last year, the figure skating anime "Yuri On Ice" is believed to be set in the city of Karatsu - even though a different name is used for the protagonist's hometown - because the work features many scenes apparently modeled after local landmarks.

Fans have been flocking to the city from around the nation and even overseas, including a greater-than-expected number of visitors for a two-month event this spring.

The success has inspired the creation of cafes and a ryokan inn to cater to visiting fans of the anime, which centres around a figure skater called Yuri and his rivals.

Immediately after the first episode of "Yuri On Ice" was broadcast in October as a three-month programme, viewers began chatting on social media that the anime must be set in Karatsu because various local landmarks such as a castle and the city's main JR station can be found in the anime.

The work prompted the Saga prefectural government to negotiate with the production company. The resulting event, rolled out in March, included limited-edition merchandise and special food and drinks, all themed on the anime.

The city initially expected the event would draw about 12,000 visitors. A survey of visitors, however, revealed about 24,000 people came to the event from 27 countries and territories, with 36 per cent staying overnight in the city.

Women accounted for 90 per cent of the visitors, with half of them aged 10 to 29.

Last summer, the prefectural government also held a similar tourism promotion event, this time featuring the TV anime "Osomatsu-san" with Karatsu's famous pine tree forest. (Matsu, a kanji character in the protagonist's name, means pine.)

The collaboration event drew a total of over 20,000 visitors.

"Compared to the Osomatsu-san event, more companies and organisations agreed to get involved in the Yuri event, in addition to the city government and the local tourism association," said a prefectural government official.

Meanwhile, locals have refurbished closed buildings into cafes and a ryokan inn as part of efforts to keep the city fascinating for fans.

For example, a local operator of accommodations and restaurants renovated a closed minshuku guesthouse near Karatsu Castle as a cafe and ryokan inn that opened in April.

To attract Yuri fans, the facility, named Riverside Inn Karatsu Castle, decorated its exterior wall with a picture of an ice skate, while its cafe space is adorned with Yuri merchandise.

"For Yuri fans, it's really fascinating to be able to spend time near the castle, one of the pilgrimage sites" for the anime, said Kaori Jono, 46, the inn's proprietor. "I don't want the current boom to end as a one-off thing, so it's vital for us to promote the beauty of Karatsu to visitors so they will love this place."

Herself a Yuri fan, Jono has made a map of local facilities and places featured in the anime, which is sold at the cafe for ¥100 (S$1.21).

Tokyo-based company Asile has opened KaraFe, a cafe for Yuri fans at what used to be a ryotei traditional Japanese restaurant in the city.

The cafe is located next to the Kagamiyama Onsen hot spring, the building of which was used as the model for the house where Yuri grew up, a fact that is bringing many fans to visit the cafe, even some coming all the way from the Kanto region.

Visitors can dine as they admire the facility's traditional Japanese-style garden, and various souvenirs featuring Yuri and Osomatsu-san are also on display.

"The combination of anime and traditional Japanese architecture is very popular among non-Japanese visitors," said Asile President Seiya Ishikawa.

As the ryotei restaurant will be torn down as early as October, the cafe will be open until September at the current location before moving to the city centre.

In June, the Karatsu municipal government earmarked an extra budget of ¥11 million to support anime-related projects.

Although details regarding the allocation are yet to be determined, "We'd like to secure the necessary resources so we can start working as soon as we decide on what to do," said an official at the city's tourism department.

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