Most famous for its anime, LoveLive! Sunshine!! is a multimedia project and a spin-off of the original Love Live! series, featuring a group of high school girls who form an idol group, called Aqours, in order to save their school, the Uranohoshi Girls' Academy, from closing down. The story takes place in the sunny coastal city of Numazu, in Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture. The first season of the anime television series aired in 2016, and the second season aired in 2017. Moreover, a spinoff anime, Yohane of the Parhelion: Sunshine in the Mirror, set in a fantasy alternate version of Numazu, is scheduled to air later this year, 2023.

In the last 7 years, Numazu has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with LoveLive! Sunshine!!, resulting not only in an influx in tourists but even new residents who have chosen to make Numazu their home. The anime has galvanized the city, encouraging active participation of local residents, businesses, and institutions who have turned it into an opportunity to promote Numazu's charms and create a positive energy cycle, making the city one of Japan's most successful "anime pilgrimage" sites.

The city has embraced this influx of tourists and has made efforts to cater to them, including creating maps and brochures that highlight the locations featured in the series and offering themed tours. Regular events are held in the city to celebrate the series. Moreover, numerous local restaurants, cafes and shops have also been participating, not only selling merchandise but also providing services to please fans, known as "LoveLivers." For example, as some of our more faithful readers may recall, we visited back in 2017 and rented an official anime car. In some cases, businesses have even become new "pilgrimage spots" in their own right, playing an active role in the evolving fandom.

Voices from Numazu

Through two visits, one in 2020 and again in 2022, we interviewed several sources in Numazu to understand how this particularly successful synergy has evolved.

Numazu city councilman Ryū Ozawa

Our first interviewee was 小澤隆 Ryū Ozawa, a councilman for Numazu City, who also happens to be a fan of the series.

Although Mr. Ozawa acknowledges that there were initially some reports of visitors talking to students from Nagaisaki Elementary and Jr. High School, the inspiration for the Uranohoshi Girls' Academy in the anime, as well as an incident in which someone defaced the anime-themed manholes installed throughout the city, these were only minor hiccups. Overall, most fans have been eager to enjoy the city and the anime sites, and far from causing trouble, they are happy to support local residents.

The impact of the anime on the city has been overwhelmingly positive, Ozawa explains. Local businesses have welcomed anime fans, and many have reported an increase in revenue as a result. Ozawa also notes that the anime has brought the community together in unexpected ways, such as an 80-year-old woman who started watching the series because it was set in her area. The mayor of Numazu, who was 52 years old when the anime came out, has also been an active supporter of the series, wishing the voice actors and characters a happy birthday on social media and even attending concerts in Tokyo Dome and Saitama as a guest of honor.

One of the numerous signs of the important presence LoveLive! Sunshine!! has in Numazu. Photo by grape Japan.

Even though several years have passed since the initial airing of the series, the relationship between LoveLive! Sunshine!! and Numazu continues to thrive. Due to restricted travel during the novel coronavirus pandemic, there were periods of time when fans couldn't visit. Nevertheless, Ozawa notes that the pandemic has not had a significant effect on the fanbase's enthusiasm. In fact, online expressions of desire to visit the city only increased.

In addition to visiting places featured in the anime, LoveLivers have a wide range of experiences to choose from when it comes to interacting with local businesses. Ozawa mentions four types of shops that fans like to frequent: those that are actually featured in the anime or game, those that collaborate with the official merchandise and sell items like stamps and badges, those that display large panels and attract customers to their store, and those that just show support for LoveLive! Sunshine!! but don't actively sell merchandise.

Tomomi Mine, Tsuji Photo Studio

Photo by grape Japan.

One example of a local Numazu business that has played an active role in nurturing the bonds between Numazu and the anime's fans is the つじ写真館 Tsuji Photo Studio. Although it wasn't initially featured as a location in the anime, this photo studio's role in providing a welcoming space and the enthusiastic efforts of its most vocal representative, 峯知美 Tomomi Mine, has helped to make it famous among fans.

Once she realized that the anime was set in Numazu and featured many of its locations, landmarks and businesses, Mine wanted to do something to help, so she started posting information about local events as well as a map of locations featured in the anime on a blackboard outside the store. Fans started coming to see the blackboard and they themselves started contributing by drawing pictures for the individual Aqours members' birthdays and other events related to the anime. After attending the first concert by the voice actresses held in Numazu, Mine was inspired to start drawing pictures of the nine members of the group to show her support. Later, her daughter took over because she was more skilled at drawing.

Photo by grape Japan. With permission from Tsuji Photo Studio.

In addition to the blackboard, Tsuji Photo Studio keeps a collection of albums filled with photos taken by fans. According to Mine, "the albums serve as a bridge between the past and the future, allowing people to look back on their memories of their visit and connect with others who have also visited Numazu." Moreover, when visitors ask where certain photos were taken, she explains that it serves as an opportunity for her and other fans to communicate.

Recognizing Tsuji Photo Studio's important role, the anime producers gave it a spot in the opening sequence of the 2019 film Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie Over The Rainbow.

Mr. Kiminobu Segawa, Shougetsu

Another example of a local Numazu business important for the anime's fandom is the confectionery and cafe 松月 Shougetsu in the 内浦 Uchiura area where most of the anime is set. Featured in episodes 6 and 12 of Season 1, as well as in the abovementioned opening sequence of the 2019 film, Shougetsu has become a popular destination for fans.

Photo by grape Japan

According to shop owner 瀬川公伸 Kiminobu Segawa, the anime brought them many new customers and an increase in business. In an effort to please fans, Shougetsu not only began making limited-edition sweets inspired by the members of Aqours to commemorate their birthdays but also began displaying goods brought in by LoveLivers. Due to the pandemic, the number of customers and sales decreased, but fans of the anime were still coming.

The store also sees a significant influx of visitors during the times of concerts and other major events related to the series. "Of course, the live events themselves are held in larger cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, but we see a lot of fans coming here to Numazu before and after the events," said Segawa. "We even have fans coming from as far as Northeastern Japan and overseas. They come here as part of their pilgrimage to the anime's 'holy places'."

Father Paul Kubota Makoto, Numazu St. John's Anglican Church

Speaking of holy places, some fans may have wondered about possible biblical references in the anime. Not only does one member, third-year student Kanan Matsuura, have a name that is homophonous with Canaan, the "promised land" of the Old Testament, but first-year student Yoshiko Tsushima has adopted the name of John the Apostle, ヨハネ Yohane in Japanese, which also happens to be the name of a church in Numazu.

Although numerous Japanese cities have churches with that name, fans from out of town who have ventured beyond the common anime pilgrimage route have surely been happily surprised to discover the Numazu St. John's Anglican Church (沼津聖ヨハネ教会 numazu sei yohane kyōkai) during their wanderings.

Photo by grape Japan

Could there actually be a connection to the anime? We spoke to resident priest パウロ窪田真人 Father Paul Masato Kubota, who kindly agreed to be interviewed.

Father Kubota took up residence at the church in 2018 just when LoveLive! Sunshine!! was at the height of its popularity. Although he avoids talking about the anime when interacting with senior members (aged 65 and up) who make up the majority of the congregation, he has tried to use it as a tool to connect with young members of his congregation and as a way to teach them about religion. According to Father Kubota, "members of the congregation, particularly children, have connected to the anime, so doing this makes them more interested in Sunday school and other religious activities."

For example, in his monthly comments in the newsletter for the Shion Kindergarten adjacent to the church, instead of diving straight into a religious topic, he has, on more than one occasion, used an analogy from the anime and the story of the members of Aqours.

As for Yohane being referred to as a "fallen angel," he doesn't have any negative feelings about it. "If it helps bring more interest to the church, it's a positive thing," he says. Perhaps even more fans will stop by* once Yohane of the Parhelion: Sunshine in the Mirror airs later this year.

When they do, Father Kubota hopes to connect with any fans, especially if they're Christians, and extend a warm welcome to his church.

* If you want to make a 'pilgrimage' to Numazu St. John's Anglican Church, please do so after 2:00 p.m. on weekdays, so as not to coincide with the hours of Shion Kindergarten.

These are only some of the numerous voices we heard during our visits to this lovely sunshine-filled city on the coast. Through their efforts and genuine interest in the anime as a positive force for Numazu, city government representatives, businesses, and establishments alike are maintaining the positive energy that continues to bring fans and establish Numazu as a shining example as one of Japan's most successful anime pilgrimage sites.

Note: We'd like to thank Mr. Yutaka Yanagida for his assistance in this report on location in Numazu

By - Ben K.