Experiencing Numazu: The city that lives and breathes Love Live! Sunshine!! (Part 1)

Navigation
Part 1 (Awashima, escape room game, Uchiura East)
Part 2 (Uchiura West, city center, harbor in detail)
Part 3 (shops, Awashima Hotel, Izu-Mito Sea Paradise, school + resources)


Sometimes a town being featured in an anime is fairly significant for the location in question. Anime tourism has grown, and pilgrims bring money and may invigorate places that would otherwise be in danger of falling off the radar, if they were on it in the first place. Many locals are happy about the recognition and the shows are celebrated around town. Restaurants and shops may also seek to draw in patrons by appealing to anime lovers.

The prime example of a town that has been taken over by an anime IP has to be Numazu, a fishing town with a population of 190,000, fourth largest in Shizuoka Prefecture. When the next generation of the societal phenomenon idol franchise Love Live! was being planned, the decision to set it in Numazu was made in cooperation with city officials, and the project, Love Live! Sunshine!! consciously makes efforts to promote Numazu City. For example, at live concerts, members of Sunshine’s 2D-but-also-3D idol group Aqours (simply pronounced ‘aqua’ in spite of the baffling spelling; furigana: アクア) often ask attendees to visit their “home.” By this point, Numazu seems to have become not only a virtual home by association with the characters, but also a spiritual home for the voice actresses and other staff.

All of this has resulted in Numazu becoming one of a kind with regard to just how deep the anime connection has become integrated in the city. In many other places, pilgrims would simply find cityscape that appeared on-screen in their favorite shows, sometimes a guest book in a notable café or a few posters in shop windows, but seldom more than that. In Numazu, many businesses have official partnerships with Love Live: restaurants have dishes carrying characters’ names, hotels offer special accommodation packages, buses are decorated with the anime characters, and there is an official stamp rally with dozens and dozens of participating establishments around the city.

In this sense, Numazu is an experience more comprehensive than other pilgrimage destinations: you can do normal scene hunting and pilgrimaging there, but there is also more in addition to that. As a fan, it is quite the special experience. On my three visits there, I visited anime spots and have included comparison shots for those here, but I also went to places that are interesting for fans otherwise, despite not appearing in the anime—basically, stamp rally locations decked out in Sunshine merch and art. I even took part in some special campaigns and an escape room game event. All of this is included in this report, making it, as a Japanese might put it, a pilgrimage report plus alpha.

First looks and an escape room game on Awashima: March 2018

In early 2018, I had yet to venture that deep into the Love Live fandom, or as it is known by its scientific name, “idol hell.” I came across the announcement of a Love Live! Sunshine!!-themed “escape room” puzzle-solving game that would run on Awashima Island in Numazu, named “Escape from the Solitary Island’s Aquarium: Take Back the Lost Treasure!” (孤島の水族館からの脱出 消えた宝物を取り戻せ!). I surprised myself with my investment in the franchise by buying tickets to this. I planned to combine a short, less-than-a-day Numazu visit with a Tokyo trip, since Numazu lies on the way between Kyoto (where I was living) and Tokyo.

I dropped by Numazu on the way back from Tokyo. I took the first train from Tokyo in order to see some of Numazu’s city center in the morning before I’d go to Awashima Island with the first ferries of the day. The date was 26 March 2018.

Right after exiting Numazu Station (on the south side), I saw an establishment representative of the heavy presence Sunshine has in the city. The “Sun! Sun! Sunshine Cafe,” a collaboration café offering Sunshine-themed food and drinks, stood right there in a premier spot of the city.

The Sun! Sun! Sunshine Cafe.

You probably know of so-called pop-up stores, shops with a very specific theme that are only open for a limited time that have become popular in many countries. Japan has themed cafés with this concept, including for anime series – these are called collaboration cafés, or collab cafés (コラボカフェ) for short. Usually they adhere to the pop-up logic, running for a couple months or so… but not this one. The Sun! Sun! Sunshine Cafe, despite being housed in a temporary tarp-based “building” that would be quick and easy to dismantle, has been running for years by now. I would have very much liked to sample their offerings, but the café was not open so early in the morning. I would do it another time, however.

Very close to the station is a shopping arcade that features at several points in the Sunshine anime, the Nakamise Shopping Arcade (仲見世商店街).

In real life, the shopping arcade is just one example of Sunshine imagery permeating the city. There are banners for the various members of Aqours hanging from the store name signs. Their only purpose seems to be promoting Aqours (and possibly marking the area as their territory?). They are dual-sided, a big portrait of a character on one side and some anime screenshots on the reverse. Here is Hanamaru’s banner, as an example. (I’m totally not playing favorites here…)

What’s funny is that there was a shop called the “Hanamaru Lunch Institute,” and the banner chosen for its sign was, of course, Hanamaru’s.

The non-cropped photo.

On the northern side of the shopping arcade—if entering from the direction of the station, on the left-hand side close to the entrance—there’s a mural of cityscape painted on some store shutters.

A couple blocks from the southern end of Nakamise, there’s Numazu Central Park (沼津中央公園). This is where the flea market is held in episode 4 of the second season. Aqours try selling their old stuff there, with limited success.

Incidentally, the stone nameplate in the middle saying “Central Park” is used in the cover illustration for CYaRon’s (a “sub-unit” consisting of three Aqours members; not featured in the anime) Kinmirai Happy End CD.

Don’t ask me where the signpole came from.

The surroundings of the park make a brief appearance in episode 8 of the first season as well, as Chika gets a ride home from Mito-nee there. The street running next to the park is the closest proper street coming from the riverside, where the girls were talking in the preceding scenes.

A path through the park continues past the park’s end as an elevated walkway, then as Ayumi Bridge (あゆみ橋) crossing Numazu’s main river, the Kano River (狩野川).

As you can see, right where the elevated part starts there are also stairs down to the riverside terrace. I took these to arrive on the terrace. This is the aforementioned place where Dia talks with the at-the-time six members of Aqours after their return from Tokyo in episode 8 of the first season.

Continuing along the river to the south, you can see the Ayumi Bridge as it appears in the movie’s opening Bokura no hashittekita michi wa… musical sequence. Of course, the movie wasn’t out yet when I was there in March 2018, but I happened to take a photo of the bridge just to illustrate the general feel of the area and that photo is good enough to compare, even if the perspective is a bit wacky.

Around where I took the photo are the Numazu Riverside Hotel and the apartment building Natty, where Yoshiko lives in the anime. The main entrances and street facades of both buildings are on the other side, but on the river side there’s the small Agetsuchi-Asahi-Inari Shrine (上土朝日稲荷神社). This is around where Yoshiko introduces Riko to Laelaps, the dog.

In the first season, the other girls appear here to recruit Yoshiko to Aqours.

With this, the time I had for walking around before everything opens in the morning was running out, so I headed back to Numazu Station to take the bus to the pier for Awashima ferries. The bus was packed, but I managed to get a standing spot.

Arriving at the pier, there were some panels set up to commemmorate the escape room game, and there were also banners for the decoration workshop there.

Now, usually there are two ways to get to Awashima: buying tickets to Awashima Marine Park or staying at Awashima Hotel. Almost all of the island is covered by the Awashima Marine Park, a paid leisure attraction with aquariums, penguin pools and more. The rest is covered by Awashima Hotel, a high-class hotel that appears in the Sunshine anime. In the anime, Mari amazingly enough lives there. Both the Marine Park and the hotel have their own check-in offices and boats to get customers over to the island. Hotel customers can also access the Marine Park.

The escape room game’s ¥4,500 tickets included Marine Park access (¥1,800 on its own), since it was held in the park. There was a booth for game participants to register, and it was playing the game’s theme song, Kimi no hitomi wo meguru bouken (by Aqours themselves, of course). When registering, you got a briefcase-shaped plastic folder with the puzzle notebook, along with a pen, a sticker, two envelopes to be opened at specific points during the game, and an event-specific ferry ticket. (I don’t think I have my supplies anymore, unfortunately.)

Next, it was time to take the boat ferry to Awashima. Or… almost. A notice at the pier told to open up the puzzle notebook to read (and listen to) the prologue of the game, so I did that before boarding.

Since the start of Love Live × Awashima Marine Park collaborations, even the ferries have been taken over by idol imagery.

One of Numazu’s charms is that you can see Mt. Fuji from there, and on this clear March day, I saw it properly for the first time. Bonus photo of the approach to Awashima.

Arriving on Awashima, my eye caught one more Love Live-themed vessel seemingly parked in the distance, the シャイニー号, which might be translated to M/S Shiny.

Shiny!

Once landed on Awashima, the game started for real. Unlike some escape room games, where you collaborate with friends and strangers, perhaps even the entire room, “Escape from the Solitary Island’s Aquarium” was set up such that you could play it both on your own and with friends. It consisted of walking around on the whole island, solving puzzles, so it wasn’t much of an “escape” from anywhere either, rather a puzzle-solving game (謎解きゲーム) as these escape room-inspired games that aren’t quite escape rooms (脱出ゲーム) are sometimes called.

The player would navigate the game with the help of the provided supplies, mainly the notebook, and of a purpose-made audio guide app for smartphones. You would input a three-digit code you’d get from the notebook, from a sign on the game track, or as a puzzle answer into the app to get an audio clip—everything was fully narrated by the Aqours voice actresses. As stated above, the first clip was actually before boarding, and there was another one right after landing.

The story went such that Aqours were to have a concert in Tokyo the next day, but an important suitcase containing their outfits, song notes and other things had gone missing. In its place was left a letter from an unknown person, telling the girls they would have to solve some puzzles to get it back. A Mario-style, rather simple setup. The player came in as a helper, suketto-san (助っ人さん), as I was cheerfully referred to by Chika’s voice, provided by Anju Inami. Chika said she’d known I’d be good at solving puzzles immediately upon seeing me, haha.

I’ll note that the following description shall include spoilers for the game, including the answer to the main mystery of what happened to the suitcase. The game was only organized twice, the original run in early 2018 and a rerun in late 2019. It’s not known whether another run will ever happen, and if it would, you’d have to go to Japan for it and understand Japanese. As such, I think many Love Live fans who didn’t have the chance will be interested in knowing what this activity was about in detail. However, if you’re a Japanese speaker hoping for another rerun and wish to still avoid spoilers, I’d advise you to skip ahead until you see pictures of dolphin pools and shrines.

(For the record: I don’t have superhuman memory, so I double-checked story details by listening to audio guide clips again just for this blog post.)

The first puzzle was at the Kaeru-kan, or Frog House, which serves as the model for Kanan’s diving shop in the anime.

The route followed during the game started out linear enough along the island’s coastline. Some interesting features that weren’t part of the game directly had side stories associated with them. These were essentially extra audio clips that had nothing to do with puzzles, but were there just for your enjoyment.

A peculiar spot, and a side story prompt.

Towards the end, the game took me to this lit-up tunnel near Awashima Hotel.

During the game, it becomes clear that the person who took the suitcase and organized the whole scavenger hunt for it is one of the members of Aqours. One of the final puzzles involves figuring out who it was, and picking the corresponding locker. Please take a look at the locker display below, since it’s fun how they showed off everyone’s personality through what things they have in their lockers.

Left to right—top row: Hanamaru, Riko, Mari. Middle row: Ruby, Chika, Dia. Bottom row: Yoshiko, You, Kanan.

In the end, the culprit was Dia. Once she is exposed, she herself explains her (rather cute) reasons for doing this. She has been insecure about the preparations for the concert, questioning whether the nine members of Aqours have really become one. They wanted to plan together, but everyone was busy and unable to find time to meet up. Dia feared that if they went up and performed while still not being united as one, they might fail as the third years had in the past. She figured that overcoming some difficulty together in the time remaining before the concert would help them become one, and consequently set up the puzzle course. Everyone accepts this, forgiving her.

However, there was one more difficulty: Dia had lost the key. Here, the player had to solve a few more puzzles to figure out what kind of a keychain it had in order to get the right key from the island’s lost-and-found office (set up for the game, not a real one). Once you submitted a lost-and-found report card with all correct information, staff at the lost-and-found booth congratulated you on finishing the game, and you got the numerical codes for the final clips. The ending was actually a video, with a proper ending credits slideshow set to Kimi no hitomi wo meguru bouken.

And then there was an epilogue clip… with the reveal that in reality, both Kanan and Mari helped Dia set it all up, and they only pretended to be uninvolved. Well, how about that.

(Spoilers end here.)

At the beginning of the game, I had thought I’d be done relatively quickly, since the first few puzzles went smoothly. However, in the latter half there was a point where I got stuck, started backtracking, and burned a lot of time. The game itself had no time limit, so that wouldn’t be a problem, but I had limited time to stay on the island if I still wanted to see something in the rest of Numazu and catch a train in the afternoon.

Still, once I was on the island, I wanted to see a bit more of it. I took a look at the dolphin shows and the penguin pools.

Next, I wanted to go up to Awashima Shrine, which has also been featured in the anime, notably in the best episode. It’s at the highest point of the island.

The way up is honestly relatively long and tough, as it is depicted in episode 4 where especially Hanamaru is quickly out of breath. Along the way, there are signs saying “you can do it!” (がんばって!), as seen in the anime as well. It’s supposedly part of Kanan’s regular jogging route, however. Just a testament to how fit Kanan is.

Not all of the route is as well-kept as you see in the anime.

At the top, you’re greeted by Awashima Shrine. There’s an initial torii gate where the stairs end, and then a short path to the main hall, with an ema (prayer tablet) rack to the side.

The views from up here are pretty great, too.

A view over Uchiura Bay.

With this important anime spot covered, I descended the mountain and decided to visit some of the establishments on the island since, well, I was there, I had paid for my entrance to the Marine Park. I went to Awashima Aquarium, which was pretty much empty at this point. As I was looking around at the fish and other aquatic lifeforms on display on the second floor of the aquarium, an employee gestured at me to try touching some sea animals in a special hands-on pool like they often have in Japanese aquariums. It was fun! I might not have gone ahead to try it myself without the employee encouraging me, since I’m a boring adult at this point.

Next, I took a look at some of the displays of items the park has received from Love Live fans, next to the Marine Park’s shop and café.

I also tried out the café, eating my lunch there. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time remembering the dish… But have a look at the café decorations!

Framed signature board on the left from Ai Furihata (voice actress for Ruby), on the right from Aina Suzuki (Mari), Arisa Komiya (Dia) and Nanaka Suwa (Kanan). The occasion for the latter was the Teku-Teku Aqours special with the 3rd year trio’s voice actresses visiting Numazu, included in Blu-ray volume 6 of the first season. They ate at the café as well.

After eating, I took the ferry back to the mainland, stopping to take a last picture of the Awashima-side pier and the aquarium.

I was on the other side later than I had first thought I’d be, and I had been pondering whether to try and visit Uchiura as well or to give it up. Uchiura is a quieter district of Numazu and originally an independent village that is the main setting for the Sunshine anime. Numazu as a whole is represented in the anime—the city center, Awashima, and Uchiura—but the Uranohoshi Girls’ High School is located in Uchiura and half of the cast lives there, making it the center of the show’s events. It has an air of separateness, since a bus ride between Central Numazu and Uchiura takes 40 minutes and costs a lot for an intracity bus.

Again, my attachment to the anime won out, and I made a dash to go take a quick look at some of Uchiura before I’d have to take the bus back to the center. Uchiura is close, but not right beside the pier for Awashima ferries. The distance is around two kilometeres (a bit more than a mile).

Approaching Uchiura.

When coming to Uchiura from the north, one of the first buildings that really catch your eye is Shōgetsu (松月), a café where the girls regularly meet. It appears in episodes 6 and 12 of the first season as well as in the movie.

Despite my tight schedule, I made a brief stop at the café, sampling their most well-known item, the mikan (mandarin) dorayaki. Sadly, since I was really short on time, my visit was a bit rushed, and just ten minutes later I was out on the street again.

On the other side of the street, there was some kind of a structure for the Uchiura Fisheries Cooperative Association, seen briefly in episode 12 of the first season.

To the left of that, there was a particular 7-Eleven: the one featured in the previous episode, episode 11. Chika and You were out practising the choreography to Omoi yo hitotsu ni nare while the first years were inside, having some mikan ice jelly and bad raffle luck.

Continuing on, next was Mito Beach (三津海水浴場), a very central location, appearing in many key visuals, several times in the anime, et cetera. There were some other fans there as well, possibly also coming from the escape room game, and very probably writing “Aqours” in the sand. Sadly, I did not have time to interact.

One reason why the beach is so prominent is that Chika lives right on the other side of the street!

In the anime, Chika’s family is running an inn and also living there themselves. In real life as well, the model for Chika’s home is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. It’s called Yasudaya Inn (安田屋旅館), they have a website, and you can book a room there! Thanks to being such an important location in the anime, it’s gained quite some popularity among Love Live fans. Apparently it’s also bringing fans together, since fans concentrate there and have good opportunities to chat in the inn’s common spaces and onsen (hot spring bath).

Yasudaya has actually been important since before its modern popularity with idol pilgrims. Osamu Dazai, one of the most influential novelists in Japanese literature, was staying there in 1947 when he started writing The Setting Sun (斜陽, read Shayō). He is said to have written the book’s first two chapters in the Evening Primrose Room (月見草の間), as it’s now called, on the second floor. Perhaps due to a combination of all these things, while this inn rich in tradition is said to be a great experience, it comes at a price, and you’d be best advised to book it well in advance, too.

Close by, there’s the Izu-Mito Sea Paradise, featured very prominently in the Koi ni naritai Aquarium music video and episode 4 of the second season.

We’ll get back to Izu-Mito Sea Paradise later, when I finally get around to visiting it on another trip. For now, I’d like to focus on the special wrapping buses. Most buses in Numazu are in normal Tōkai Bus (the operating company) colors, but the lines running to Awashima and Uchiura have several buses with Aqours-themed wrapping, to drive home the point of just how big Love Live! Sunshine!! is here.

On the left side of Izu-Mito Sea Paradise, there’s a car tunnel with no sidewalk. Seeing no obvious way around it to get deeper into Uchiura, and running short on time anyway, I decided to make this the end point of my venture into Uchiura. (Later I would look at maps and realize that there is in fact a path for pedestrians too, further to the right i.e. closer to the sea.)

I turned around and walked as far back as I could before the bus I were to take back to central Numazu would catch up with me. On the way, I checked a couple more spots I’d missed. For example, here’s the Mito bus stop, making a brief appearance.

For a random bus stop, this one is rather pretty.

My eye also caught the inn Tosawaya (とさわや旅館), which was advertising with Love Live stuff and a stand for the Love Live! Sunshine!! stamp rally in Numazu (more on that in the next section). The stamp was in an entrance hall and the door was left a bit open so people could go in, but since there was no one there at the moment it felt a bit weird. There was a lot of nice Yoshiko merch on display there! The stamp was likewise hers.

After this, it was time for the bus. I went to central Numazu and decided that once I’m there, I can still manage to stop by the local Gamers store before taking the train. The store is located very close to the station, after all.

Gamers is a major chain of anime/otaku goods stores, selling manga, books, physical media, and miscellaneous merchandise. I’d heard the Numazu branch is a bit special, and it had been closed in the early morning so now was the time.

Gamers Numazu was first opened after the start of the Love Live! Sunshine!! project in February 2016, with a focus on collaboration with the project. Right after opening, there was a poll for which member of Aqours should be the poster girl for the new Numazu branch, won by the in-universe game enthusiast Yoshiko. As this is a special branch, the signs are a bit special as well. The one on the street has a Sunshine logo, the text “official tie-up shop,” and Yoshiko added. The one above the entrance is more playful: “Gamers” is crossed over, replaced by ヌーマーズ, i.e. “Nuumaazu” (the chain’s name spelled in the Japanese katakana system is ゲーマーズ or geemaazu, so only one character was changed). The name of the branch is written down as “Little Demon Branch” rather than “Numazu Branch.”

I took a look inside, but this time I didn’t end up buying anything—remember, I was returning from a Tokyo trip, so my wallet was already relatively light as a result of that. There are, however, lots of specifically Sunshine-related goods sold in the store, since there obviously is demand for those in particular, so it’s well worth a visit.

For the record, I made it to my train on the last minute. I was reasonably satisfied with what I’d covered despite the at times hectic schedule. It felt like only a partial pilgrimage and there would definitely still remain interesting places to visit, but I wasn’t quite that into Love Live, so this ought to suffice. Ought to.

Continue to Part 2, “Getting to know the city over two full days: September 2018”

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