A more countryside escape from Tokyo, Niigata Prefecture in the Chubu region is well known for its magnificent mountains, multitude of hot springs and delicious sake. As for its prolific manga and anime creation, the story gets a bit more curious. More than 100 professional manga artists with origins in Niigata Prefecture have helped shape one of Japan’s biggest cultural exports. Many are heavyweights in the industry, such as Fujio Akatsuka (also known as the Gag Manga King), Rumiko Takahashi of Inuyasha and Urusei Yatsura fame (she’s also one of the highest-paid manga authors in history) and Takeshi Obata, the mangaka of Death Note.
Why do so many of Japan’s manga artists come from Niigata Prefecture? One can only speculate whether the fresh air and clear waters imbue the locals with enhanced inspiration. One amusing hypothesis comes from no other but Toshiharu Koike, the director of The Niigata City Manga House. He has chalked up the great number of Niigata-born manga artists to the prefecture’s notoriously long cold and dark winters. Sitting under the toasty kotatsu table and drawing or reading manga is a great way to pass the time during this frosty period. Stories build up under the thick snow to later grow and blossom once spring arrives. Koike also adds that being introverted and shy, and deep into one’s own world is a classic Niigata character trait. And that seems to lead to thinking up stories and whole new worlds.
Niigata Nurtures Manga Talent
Regardless of personality, all are welcome to come follow their manga-drawing dreams, as Niigata is dedicated to nurturing creative talent in future generations. The Niigata City Manga House hosts free manga drawing classes dubbed “Manga no Ippo” (the first step of manga) where instructors teach beginners of all ages.
To delve more seriously into the profession though, Niigata-based Japan Animation and Manga College is a viable option for future artists: It reportedly boasts a 100% employment rate for its graduates.
Also, the Niigata Manga Competition, which started in 1998, and is judged by some of Niigata’s most prominent manga masters, is a surefire way to enter the manga industry with a bang. It receives a slew of domestic and international entries every year.
Manga and Anime Pilgrimage
Manga and anime fans will vibe at the same frequency with Niigata in their appreciation of this artistic craft. The Niigata City Manga House and Niigata Manga Animation Museum are two destinations on the Anime Tourism Association’s so-called 88 Anime Pilgrimage — and worthy ones at that.
Niigata Manga Animation Museum
Niigata Manga Animation Museum exhibits valuable signed original art and often holds themed special exhibitions. This museum invites you into the creation process, not just educating you on how manga and anime are made but also allowing you to try some voice acting and animating. There are mini-games to play throughout the premises, so why not see if you can find the hidden manga and anime characters.
Niigata City Manga House
The Niigata City Manga House boasts an impressive library of 10,000 titles, some of which are rare, out of print copies. Cardboard cutouts of famous manga and anime characters, as well as life-sized figures are dotted around the premises, perfect for selfies. The collection of original artist autographs alone is a reason to visit this fascinating facility.
Out and About Around Niigata
Outside these two institutions, characters can be found all over Niigata Prefecture. Niigata city’s Furumachi-dori, nicknamed “Manga Street,” is lined with statues of various characters from local artist Shinji Mizushima’s popular baseball manga, Dokaben. You can also hop on the Michael Bus, themed around Makoto Kobayashi’s What’s Michael? series.
Art imitates life, so naturally, many artists work in pieces of their hometown in their stories. Bandai Bridge in Niigata city, JR Niigata Station and JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station have appeared in manga and anime like Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku, as have areas like Sado Island, Nagaoka, Tsubame and Sanjo.
Sometimes places are used as inspiration for fictional places, while other times they are depicted as in life. In the case of the latter, fans can hunt for real-life locations like shrines and temples, shopping streets and peculiar buildings that stand as portals between reality and fantasy.
One example is Joetsu city’s Takada Castle, which appears prominently in the anime Magical Girl Raising Project, based on the light novels by Asari Endo. While Endo never specified this exact location in the novels, much of the described scenery used his hometown of Joetsu as a source of inspiration, so using the castle in the anime was a natural development for the material.
Niigata Manga and Anime Events
In March 2023, Niigata city hosted its first-ever large-scale anime film event, the Niigata International Animation Film Festival, in an effort to further promote the region as a cultural and industrial hub. Over a period of six days, up to 35 animated films were screened, together with other events, including musical performances and art exhibitions. This year, the festival will take place at four venues across Niigata city, including Kaishi Professional University’s Furumachi Refuru campus, which launched its anime and manga department in April 2021.
Then there’s Gatafes, which is the crowning event for cosplayers and Niigata’s biggest anime and manga festival that draws around 50,000 visitors every autumn. There’s also Gataket, Niigata’s fanzine market and convention, which has been running for 40 years. The private sector has taken the baton and created even more spaces that celebrate manga and anime.
Many spots around Niigata welcome cosplayers taking photos and the Niigata city website lists recommended cosplay photo spots. Some shrines and temples, like Hiyoriyama Sumiyoshi Shrine and Kaiun Inari Shrine have even created their own manga-inspired characters, placed liberally on prayer votives and even used on goshuin stamp designs. Creative efforts like this are visible throughout Niigata. After all, the joys of storytelling are the embers that keep us warm throughout the winter.