The rural town of Ōarai, in the prefecture of Ibaraki, is the home town of the characters featured in the popular anime, Girls und Panzer. As a result, Ōarai has joined the ranks of “pilgrimage locations” where fans visit to pay respects to places featured in their favorite anime. But Ōarai stands above the others as a success story of untold proportions, as its annual Ōarai Ankou (angler fish) Festival proves.
For the past twenty years, once a year in November, the town of Ōarai holds a local festival centered on one of the town’s staple products, angler fish. Thanks to the popular anime, Girl und Panzer–aka Garupan–the town and the festival have overflowed with anime fans for the past five years. They come to see landmarks and locations featured in the series as well as to see what has become an annual stage event featuring the main cast of the show. And the town welcomes everyone with wide arms.
This year, Anime Now! was on location and got to enjoy a taste of what has become one of the most popular anime-related events that isn’t anime-centric.
It all starts right from the local train station. Stepping out, you are immediately greeted by signs and billboards welcoming you to Ōarai.
Aside from rows of tents where local shop owners sell various foods, various merchandise-making companies have rented outdoor tent space or rooms in the local outlet mall to sell and display Girls und Panzer-related merchandise. Posters, figures, books, apparel, and toys are put on display for fans to enjoy.
Cup ramen-maker, Nissin had a limited number of its life-size tank ammo round cup noodle cases for sale, which apparently sold out almost immediately.
There is also a Girls und Panzer gallery/gift shop which has various memorabilia, awards, and souvenirs as well as documents of the series’ history with the town itself.
Video game maker Wargaming was also there holding a World of Tanks tournament where players could go head to head in teams consisting of tanks that appeared in the series.
Outside of the festival grounds in the local shopping district, an Itasha contest was held consisting of over 77 vehicles decorated with paint jobs and stickers proudly displaying the owners’ love for Girls und Panzer.
Throughout the festival and throughout the town itself, there is almost a palpable sense of pride and gratitude in the fact that Girls und Panzer has brought a great deal of tourism to the town. Shops and landmarks have posters and life-sized character art boards in their windows, some that show weathering from a long time of being on display. This also comes in part from the support of the creators behind the series towards the town.
Often, having a town featured in an anime is a one-shot deal where once the series is over, the tourism dries up and the series and the town part ways. There have been cases in the past where greed or apathy or the negative elements of others find their way into a tie-up collaboration deal. This is very much not the case with Ōarai and Girls und Panzer. All parties seem willing to actively promote both the town and the anime.
Walking through the town, there isn’t a shred of cynicism. People seem proud that Ōarai has made its mark in anime fandom and grateful for the attention it’s brought. And it’s not just for the Ōarai Ankou Festival. The town regularly gets visitors throughout the year who come to see the locations that appear in the anime series, visit the local shrine, or stay at the hotel that had a tank smash into it.
This year the Ōarai Ankou Festival reported over 130,000 visitors to the little town with a population of a little over 17,000 people. With the upcoming final chapter to the series, the town can probably look forward to even more visitors for the foreseeable future.