Proving that getting there can be half the fun, railway operators throughout Japan are introducing anime- and manga-themed trains to help boost ridership on their local lines.
The outside of these eye-catching new trains are adorned with pictures of popular characters, while famous voice actors handle the in-train announcements, turning transportation itself into a tourist attraction.
On some lines, the strategy is already paying off.
Izukyu Corp., which operates the Izu Kyuko Line in Shizuoka Prefecture, introduced a train decorated with characters from the animated TV series "Natsuiro Kiseki" (A summer-colored miracle), set in Shimoda, in the prefecture. The show follows a group of four junior high school girls, and the voice actresses who play the main characters announce the stops on the train's twice-daily round trip between Atami and Izukyu-Shimoda stations.
The anime series, which premiered in April, has proven a big hit with viewers despite its late-night slot. The themed train has received a similarly warm reception, helping boost ridership.
"(The anime design) has been attracting anime fans, clearly making an effect," Izukyu spokesperson Kazuo Kawamura, 44, said.
On one Saturday in early August, two men at Izukyu-Shimoda Station took photos posing with a life-sized panel of the anime characters set up next to the ticket gate. They were among the more than 2,000 visitors who took commemorative photos with the panel, which was installed before the train was put into operation, he said.
The move highlights a shift in priorities, as companies struggle with a devastating decline in ridership. Where operators formerly placed advertisements on the outside of their trains to pull in revenue, they are now paying copyright fees to feature anime and manga characters in hopes of attracting passengers and tourists.
Popular with fans, redecorating the outside of the trains is a fairly simple matter, as well.
"All that wrap advertisement requires is to put stickers on the train body. It's easy and cheap, so it's easy for local railway operators to work on," said railway expert Ryozo Kawashima, 61.
Other train companies have gotten in on the act, too, creating themed trains based on series either created by local artists or which are set in the region.
In Tottori Prefecture, where the prefectural government is using manga to attract tourists, West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) is operating six trains decked out in liveries of anime and manga series including "Gegege no Kitaro" and "Detective Conan."
The special Kitaro Train, which features characters from the popular horror manga series, has proven especially popular. The train runs on the Sakai Line, passing through author Shigeru Mizuki's hometown. It began using the voices of Kitaro and Neko Musume (Cat Girl), characters from the anime series, for train announcements on Aug. 4, and another train is scheduled to begin operating in September.
"We hear people speaking the Kansai dialect on the train, so it is popular among visitors from outside the prefecture," said an official from JR West's Yonago branch.
Farther north, Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) operates "Lupin the Third"-themed train on its Hanasaki Line between Kushiro and Nemuro stations. JR Hokkaido unveiled the train in the spring in honor of the series' author Monkey Punch, who is originally from Hokkaido.
Nagano Prefecture-based Shinano Railway Co. is also running a train featuring girl characters from the "Waiting in the Summer" anime series, whose story takes place in Komoro in the prefecture.
"It is intended to promote the local areas with anime associated with the community," an official with the company said.
The number of passengers began falling, in part due to the declining population, and Izukyu has seen a drop in daily ridership of about 1,000 from the figure 10 years ago, when it stood at 4,289.
People's changing leisure activities have had an impact as well. As more popular tourist spots spring up in the Tokyo metropolitan area, the number of beach-goers there is on the decline, with no signs of a reversal, according to Izukyu.
Ridership has declined for the Sakai Line in Tottori Prefecture and the Hanasaki Line in Hokkaido, but because each of the railway operators has yet to determine the exact number of passengers on each train, they can't be sure whether ridership has increased since the themed trains were introduced.
"It is just one of the measures to motivate tourists to visit the area," an Izukyu official explained.
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