By Estelle Rust, Doctoral Candidate, Keio University
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
For fans of Japan’s popular culture, visiting the country is a dream many hope to achieve. From images of Tokyo’s neon lights to the comparison of frames from anime to their real-world counterparts, Japan’s contemporary landscape is in part constructed in the imaginations of aspiring international tourists. Domestically, too, fans employ imagination in exploring their surroundings. One way this is done is through shared travels. Dubbed the Otaku Pilgrimage, this fan-driven travel overlaps imagination with physical reality in tourism to places that inspire manga or anime, or other creative works.1 This phenomenon may be most visible in terms of highly popular franchises, such as the association of the forests of Yakushima with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, or sites ‘sacred’ to the real-world Otaku experience, such as the center of electronics and manga culture, the Akihabara district of Tokyo. This concept of fan-inspired pilgrimages has also been applied to small-scale franchises, where again we can see the way the fictionalized content of these works overlays with real-world spaces domestically and abroad.2
As an anthropologist, I became interested in how fans share their fandom experiences through travel. Existing research explains the Otaku Pilgrimage, in Japanese called Seichi Junrei [聖地巡礼 ‘sacred place pilgrimage’], as a predominantly male activity.3 In my field work, however, I met with many women who used these terms to explain their own fan travels. These women were fans of the online collection game Touken Ranbu, and avid travellers to historical places. In this article, I look at these fans’ visits to historical sites, done both as fans and as explorers of history.
I look at these travels along with the idea of imagination. Commonly, this word has a nuance that indicates a lack of “realness”. However, in anthropological investigation, “imagination” is not used to describe what is “real” and what is “not.” Instead, imagination is explored as an act that informs social space and social experiences. This aspect of imagination can be used to create group identities, which at times is influenced by popular media.4 In this article, I use “imagination” to refer to the ways we imagine travel destinations and the experiences had in them. In doing so, I aim to highlight the ways popular culture inspires our imagination, particularly as it comes to historical life and our experiences as visitors to heritage sites.
In this case, the past is imagined through the experiences of Japanese sword-persons. Those unfamiliar with Touken Ranbu may wonder what a ‘sword-person’ is. They bear some explanation. Touken Ranbu is a multimedia franchise aimed at a female audience. It started with an online game where players are tasked with transforming famous Japanese swords into human-shaped warriors. The game’s appeal in media reporting is regularly attributed to the apparent attractiveness of its characters.5 However this narrow focus, often pushed against by the fandom itself, distracts from the key elements that appeal to the fanbase: that is, how the lives of these sword-characters (sword-persons) stir one’s imagination of the past. Each sword-character is inspired by a real-world sword. For Touken Ranbu fans, these real-world swords have life experiences similar to historical figures. In imagining the sword as a person with a life and past experiences, fan pilgrimages travels are aimed at the places a real-world sword is or has been. The imagination, spurred by an empathetic understanding of swords as ‘persons’ with their own life experiences, shape the ways fans decide to travel.
Imagination is not an unusual component of travel, particularly when it comes to historical or heritage sites. Local tourism guides in Japan highlight historical sites such as castles and the gardens of former Samurai manors. Alongside these sites is media that can provoke visitor’s imaginations: for example, historical fiction or tales of famous historical figures. This can be seen at the Teradaya Inn, a heritage site of Kyoto, which centres its appeal around one of its famed patrons, the historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma.6 Through careful arrangement of objects displays, this destination evokes the idea of Ryoma in the minds of its visitors, shaping an imaginary place alongside the tangible one through showcasing a past human person’s life. Similar acts of imagination are at play when Otaku pilgrims have their travels inspired by franchises that depict historical figures.7 Touken Ranbu’s fandom simply extends this imagining of a past person’s life to include the experiences had by swords. With this, their travels are not entirely bound to places in the narratives of Touken Ranbu. In fact, I met many fans at sites with little to no mention in the franchise or its stories. This was common when I met Touken Ranbu travellers at Shinto shrines: a kind of place that does not feature in imaginings of samurai and warrior lives as heavily as their castles or battlefields, but are nonetheless intimately tied to the experiences of sword-persons.
Researchers such as Sugawa-Shimada (2015) explain young women’s travels to shrines in terms of a personal, internal form of social negotiation that is separate to the Shinto shrine’s associations with religious spirituality or wartime nationalism.8 It may even be that the fans of Touken Ranbu, when exploring the lives of swords drawn from their own interpretation of the past, directly push against the imaginaries of war and post-war nationalism, and the connotation of swords as symbols of masculine military might. One Japanese fan I spoke to emphatically explained her own and other fans’ protests of Touken Ranbu collaborations with the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. They did so in support of the protests started by Chinese and Korean fans, as the fandom saw this decision by producers as excusatory to their fan practice. Records of this protest remain online, with one comment even comparing the sanctioning of war criminals at Yasukuni to the franchise’s antagonists, condemning real-world acts of historical revisionism and asserting a position against producer’s decisions to overlook these issues.9
Here, we can see how fan decisions contribute to what is and is not an appropriate destination for an Otaku pilgrimage, even when that contradicts the decisions of producers. With this comes the question: how do self-directed fans interact with shrines? And what comes from their approach, contrary to wider-known imaginations of place? To illustrate, let us look at sword pilgrimages in the city of Kyoto, itself a place that looms large in imaginary constructions of traditional, historical Japan. Fan travellers bring to light aspects of this city’s past that may not be represented in more well-known ideas of the city’s history, fictionalized or otherwise. For the typical tourist, Kyoto is presented as a well-maintained historical city with numerous sites of cultural and aristocratic wealth, from the famed Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji to the former Shogun’s residence of Nijo Castle. This latter site, as the residence of a former warrior government, may at first seem an easy fit to the interests of sword travellers. But these travellers often have different destinations in mind.
Kyoto’s ‘Sword Goshuin (御朱印) Pilgrimage’ provides an alternate travel path to typical itineraries, combining the travel practice of collecting calligraphic temple or shrine stamps (Goshuin) with shrines that would be of interest to travellers looking for the places related to the lives of sword-persons.10 The Pilgrimage is made up of four Shinto Shrines throughout the city. Toyokuni Shrine, dedicated to the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is centrally located close to Kyoto National Museum. The remaining three – Kenkun Shrine, Awata Shrine, and Fujinomori Shrine – are outside of the city’s main travel networks, but are nonetheless sought out by Touken Ranbu fans. Their prominence as fan pilgrimage destinations allows them to expand the idea of ‘Kyoto’ away from a city of historical rulers to one inclusive of its everyday residents. I now take a look at two of these shrines, encountered in my own Sword Pilgrimage: Awata Shrine, located at the city’s easternmost edge and enshrining two prominent sword-smiths, and Fujinomori Shrine, located in its south and once the home of the sword Tsurumaru Kuninaga.
Shrines are common destinations for international and domestic travellers. Kyoto’s largest shrines are heavily featured in city promotion and in organized travel itineraries. These typically have large offices to sell votive items to tourists, and have a dedicated desk for their Goshuin to be collected by visitors on their travels.
Instead of being one amongst a large body of travellers, visits to smaller shrines such as Awata Shrine and Fujinomori Shrine are a quiet affair. This was the case in Summer of 2021, where I was one of two to alight my Kyoto City bus near Awata Shrine, compared to the almost bus-load of passengers who disembarked at the previous stop for Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art. Access requires personal navigation of local maps and street signs, making this an exploration of local places. Small shrines also lack the large offices of their counterparts, instead having a single office desk that serves both sales and the distribution of Goshuin. Despite their smallness, these shrines have their own appeal that comes from their localised history. This is shared through informative signage, and at some shrines, the treasure house [hōmotsu-den, 宝物殿] displaying their artefact collections.
Fig. 1 & 2: Ducks at Awata Shrine, decorated in Touken Ranbu character motifs (blue).
Awata Shrine’s treasure house showcases the Awataguchi area of Kyoto’s crafts and manufacturing past. This local past once supported the luxuries used by the aristocracy of the former capital; however, rather than prompting the imagination to think of these aristocrats, the shrine displays items of local make and use that illustrate the working life of past Awataguchi residents. On my visit, I watched as fans engaged with the treasure hall’s displays. Afterwards, they acted as regular shrine visitors would, with a fan-inspired twist. Visitors directly drew on Awataguchi’s manufacturing past in their contributions to the Shrine’s collection of votive plaques [ema, 絵馬]. These were decorated with illustrations of Touken Ranbu’s sword-persons made by Awataguchi’s sword-smiths, and messages asking these historical craftsmen for help in forging swords in the Touken Ranbu game. During the COVID-19 pandemic, because visitors could no longer wash their hands as is typical when entering a shrine for a visit, Awata Shrine also introduced a system of donating rubber ducks . Many of these, too, were decorated in Touken Ranbu motifs. In their visit, and their active contributions to the shrine, these fan pilgrims engaged with an aspect of Kyoto’s manufacturing, rather than aristocratic, past.
As with Awata Shrine, Fujinomori is a long-standing, local shrine. I visited early in the winter of 2020, following other travellers boarding the train headed for the renown Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Rather than disembarking with them, I remained on board until the next station. Walk past regular houses and a university campus and you will eventually come to the quiet shrine, nestled amongst Kyoto’s urban sprawl.
Fujinomori has, over hundreds of years, accumulated objects dedicated to the shrine by its patrons. In the Sengoku period [1467CE-1615CE], one of these was the sword Tsurumaru Kuninaga. Tsurumaru Kuninaga was housed by the shrine for roughly 100 years. This has led to fans recognising Fujinomori as one of the sword’s former homes. Fans can easily be spotted when visiting, paying their respects at the main building before lining at the office window to collect their Goshuin. Others can be seen looking through the shrine office’s mix of votive goods and souvenirs depicting Tsurumaru Kuninaga. On recognising a fan visitor, attendants eagerly direct them to Fujinomori’s treasure house, where, upon entering, one is greeted with cases full of Touken Ranbu merchandise. I asked an attendant about these displays, and he eagerly explained that the items inside were dedicated by visitors, using the term [hōnō, 奉納], which describes a dedication to a shrine. Mirroring the sword Tsurumaru Kuninaga’s dedication, fans have gifted Fujinomori their own valued items.
Past the treasure house’s merchandise cases, visitors are free to explore Fujinomori’s other object collections. One case holds model horses of all ages, styles, and countries of origin; next to it is one filled with armor from the Sengoku period. In this group of collections, the objects gifted by Touken Ranbu fans are not an exception. Rather, they are part of a continuing tradition of giving and reciprocal display long managed by the Shrine. While larger shrines may only display their most renown objects, Fujinomori engages in a practice where even items some might deem ‘common’ are granted space in their treasure hall. Fellow Kyoto Shrine and sword-pilgrimage destination Kitano Tenmangu, a large and well-established historical site of the city tied to its aristocratic past, lacks this visible reciprocation of fan-dedicated items. Fujinomori’s act of display recognises the imagination of the fan traveller in a way larger destinations tied to national imaginaries of the past do not.
As the current-day fan dedicates their Tsurumaru Kuninaga items to Fujinomori Shrine, they are connected to both the lives of the past who made their own donations, and to the sword-person that once lived in this now quiet place. Fujinomori Shrine still maintains a sword collection, including an utsushi (写, an artistic work made in image of an original) of Tsurumaru Kuninaga, and from 2022, an utsushi of fellow Touken Ranbu sword Ichigo Hitofuri. A large banner inside the treasure house, paired with an equally large character image of Tsurumaru, outlines the sword’s history with the Shrine, its departure, and the fan donations that supported its return in newly forged utsushi form. These donations are multi-levelled: they give the Shrine an object to treasure and display, supporting its place as a destination for sword pilgrims. They support the crafting of swords in the current-day, where demand is understandably less than it was in Japan’s distant past. And they acknowledge the status of Tsurumaru Kuninaga as one who has lived through its own past and experiences. In supporting the return of Tsurumaru’s utsushi to Fujinomori, the fan’s imagining of sword lives and the places they were once housed in supports the past of one of Kyoto’s smaller-scale historical sites, nestled amongst everyday life.
In visiting Fujinomori, Awata Shrine, and others of the Sword Goshuin Pilgrimage, fan travellers engage in their own imaginary constructions of the past that diverges from typical tourism initiatives, and extending beyond the ‘sacred places’ of Otaku pilgrimages that are derived directly from fictional narratives. These Shrines, as with other sword-related sites throughout Japan, do not regularly appear in the official narratives of Touken Ranbu. Regardless, the minds of fans, which present the sword in a way similar to human historical actors, expand on the scope of pilgrimages to include their localised and perhaps overlooked histories. This is not isolated to Kyoto’s shrines. It occurs wherever Touken Ranbu fans visit. The Otaku Pilgrimage is not only a way in which a fan can compare the imagined world with the physical one, but where one imagines places of the present and is able to expand on our understandings of the past.
Estelle Rust is finishing her PhD at Keio University in Japan. Her research involves the relationships between humans and non-humans, with her PhD dissertation focusing on the living aspects of Japanese swords (Nihonto). She has been an avid Touken Ranbu Saniwa since 2015 and a fan of historical pop culture (and their swords!) for even longer. When not travelling to see Nihontō, she spends her time looking at the “things” in stories and how they are drawn into the lives of fans. You can follow her on twitter @_teruteruyo.
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- Sugawa-Shimada, “Rekijo, Pilgrimage and ‘Pop-Spiritualism,’” 54.
- Togetter contributor, “In the game, swords fight against the History Retrograde Army to protect history. But some are denying history by enshrining the spirits of war criminals with heroes. How is this any different from what the History Retrograde Army does?” (translation by author), Togetter, March 10th, 2017, https://togetter.com/li/1088979; “Online Criticism’: A flood of criticism against the Touken Ranbu -ONLINE- collaboration with Yasukuni Shrine from Chinese and Korean users, leading to change.” [【Enjō】“Tōken ranbu – ONLINE – ” no Yasukuni Jinja korabo ni chūkan yūzā kara hinan sattō ￫ ichibu henkō e], Togetter, https://togetter.com/li/1088979.
- “Kyoto’s Sword Goshuin Pilgrimage [Kyōto tōken goshuin meguri],” Kenkun Shrine [Kenkun Jinja], accessed February 12, 2022, http://kenkun-jinja.org/touken.html.