Four years ago, two teenage girls, the nieces of Yasuykuki Saito, got up to mischief and drew cute anime characters on various sacred instruments at the Kamishinmei Tenso Jinja Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.
The Shinto shrine is from the Kamakura Period, which was between 1192 and 1333. Saito says that while he was originally upset, his mind was changed by the number of parishioners “asking if they could take the doodles home with them.” He realized that they had found a way to reach people that he himself would never have thought.
Anime: Not Just Otaku
Many of the older women that prayed at Saito’s temple loved the graffiti. Saito says, “I think the cuteness of the pictures struck a chord with them and brought them back to a richer time.” He adds that many of them live alone, with few changes to visit their family. “That’s when I realized that cute characters have a power to soothe that can reach beyond the otaku world.”
In 2014, Saito had his nieces design a poster for the year of the snake. They came out with a character similar to Hatsune Miku, complete with swords and instruments, dancing around a large, white snake said to “bestow wealth on those who see it in their dreams.” When the response was positive, he went further and had a costume designer create a kigurumi of Kubocchi, the name of the white snake. Saito’s attendant would don the costume during community events.
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Saito recently announced a design contest, in which people entered a cute anime character of their own, for the temples to use. The temples all need the help, as, in spite of thousands of visitors during New Year’s pilgrimage, there aren’t many visitors the rest of the year. Over time, the family run shops had begun to close, replaced by big name businesses. Saito hopes the new strategy can get their names out there, encouraging new visitors, young and old.