A three-day tour of the Hokuriku region began in Kanazawa and ended in Toyama. Along the way we experienced the exciting anime-inspired Bonbori Festival in the rustic onsen town of Yukawa, visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gokayama, and stopped by at some locations of the popular animation series Sakura Quest. Here’s a look at some of our highlights.
Yukawa Onsen and the Bonbori Festival
A delightful 1,300-year-old hot spring town surrounded by greenery, Yukawa Onsen is a great place to visit for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. There are only a few hotels in the area, but each one is equipped with a therapeutic hot spring bath. The town is usually relatively quiet throughout the year, but it comes alive for a short time in autumn when huge crowds descend on the place to take part in the Bonbori Festival. It was first held in 2011, attracting around 600 visitors. This year around 15,000 turned up to join in the festivities.
The festival originally featured in Hanasaku Iroha, a popular anime series produced by P.A. Works in 2010. The story was set in Yunosagi Onsen, a semi-fictional location that was, down to the finest details, incredibly similar to the town of Yukawa. Re-enacting one of the pivotal scenes in the show, messages are written on wooden plaques before being taken down to Gyokusenko Pond where the festival culminates in a dramatic bonfire. The lanterns and flares make for quite a spectacle. Local officials felt the festival would be a major boost to the town after floods damaged the area in 2008. It began as an otaku event for fans of the program, but now draws in a wide range of visitors.
“Initially we invited voice actors and cosplayers to the festival in an attempt to entice otaku to the region,” says P.A. Works executive producer Nobuhiro Kikuchi. “Since then we’ve been trying to reduce the anime angle and this year you could see traditional musicians playing shamisen and so on. As a result of this more couples, families and foreigners are attending the event. Hopefully that will continue in the future.”
The most memorable part of our trip in Nanto was the visit to Gokayama. Not as well-known and therefore less crowded than the nearby village of Shirakawa-go, it is something of a hidden gem despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The steep thatched-roof houses known as Gassho-zukuri – meaning formed like hands in prayer – are centuries old and have been constructed to withstand the harsh winter elements. Located deep in the mountains, these houses are unique to a region that was once cut off from the rest of Japan. It is an enchanting location that doesn’t feel too touristy. While in the area we’d also recommend trying the sushi at Iwana and experiencing paper making at a destination that featured in the comedy anime series Uchoten Kazoku (Eccentric Family).
Another place worth visiting in Nanto is Inami Betsuin Zuisen-ji, one of the finest wooden temples in all of Japan. Rebuilt in the 18th year of the Meiji Era (1885), the elaborate carvings that can be seen at the gate and the main building are a joy to behold. Leading up to the temple is Yokamachi Dori, a captivating street that wouldn’t be out of place in Kyoto. There are traditional craft and sculpting stores, toy shops, a sake brewery and so much more. Strolling around the area, it feels like a place that has been transported back in time.
Yokamachi Dori and Zuisen-ji both appear in another of P.A. Works’ beloved animated series, Sakura Quest. It’s about a young girl who receives a job offer to work as a “queen” in Manoyama, a fictional village that is loosely based on Nanto. During our visit the two places (the imaginary village of Manoyama and the very real city of Nanto) held a special press conference to announce a deal they had reached to become sister cities. The room was full of journalists and special guests to celebrate the momentous occasion. Anime tourism has the potential to bring in a large number of domestic and international visitors and for a rural setting like Nanto the association with a well-known show like Sakura Quest can be a major boost to the economy. Even for those who aren’t interested in the series or anime in general, Nanto is well worth a visit.