For those who want to go on an anime pilgrimage, the biggest question is “Where do I begin?” Natsume Yuujinchou (夏目友人帳) fans, look no further! Let us follow Nyanko-sensei to Hitoyoshi (人吉) in Kumamoto (熊本), Japan. Nyanko sensei, buta neko, Ponta, Madara. He may come with many names but our favorite cat is a popular character from the series Natsume Yuujinchou and is who you will be on the search for on this anime pilgrimage.
— アニメ夏目友人帳公式 (@NatsumeYujincho) June 27, 2017
Also known as Natsume’s Book of Friends, Natsume Yuujinchou is about a young boy who, since he was a child, could see spirits. Natsume Takashi inherited the Book of Friends which contains the names of the spirits that his grandmother Natsume Reiko defeated. Possessing the names binds the spirits to a contract, rendering them unable to deny the words of one who holds the contract and calls their name.
Being Reiko’s descendant and having the same ability, only Takashi could set the spirits free from their contracts. While a powerful ayakashi, Nyanko sensei was trapped in a shrine until he was accidentally released by Takashi. This encounter led to a promise that Nyanko sensei will protect Takashi as his bodyguard in exchange for the Book of Friends.
An ongoing manga series by Yuki Midorikawa, Natsume Yuujinchou is published by Hakusensha in its monthly magazine Lala. It was first adapted into an anime by studio Brains Base in 2008. Its success led to a second season (Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou) in 2009, a third season (Natsume Yuujinchou San) in 2011, a fourth season (Natsume Yuujinchou Shi) in 2012, one OVA each in 2013 and 2014, and finally a fifth season (Natsume Yuujinchou Go) in 2016. A sixth season has been announced and will air in spring this 2017.
Hitoyoshi City (人吉市) is one of the many real-life locations we see in Natsume Yuujinchou and it is the best place to set off on our pilgrimage. The easiest entry point to Hitoyoshi is via the JR Hisatsu train line. The Hitoyoshi Tourist Information Center inside the Hitoyoshi Station is our first stop. This is where we can get the pilgrimage map and a special stamp that you can print on your journal!
Spend some time checking out the different Natsume Yuujinchou merchandise on display at the Hitoyoshi Tourist Information Center. Plush toys, posters, and Nyanko sensei’s favorite drink are some of the things on offer with some of them even autographed. The Natsume Yuujinchou pilgrimage map features eight sites. Two of these sites are in Hitoyoshi Station itself. The scenery is recognizable as soon as you alight the train and pass by the ticket gate. We can see the interior and exterior of the station in episode 8 of Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou. From Hitoyoshi Station, travelling to the next two locations can be done by bicycle, which are available to rent from the station at just ¥500 for a few hours. You’ll also find a queue for cabs waiting right outside the station if you don’t fancy pedaling your way around.
The third site is the Tamachi Sugawara Tenmangu Shrine. The shrine appears in the opening sequence of Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou and was also shown in Movie! Kumamoto’s video about the Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou anime pilgrimage. Inside the shrine, there is a notebook where you can see handwritten messages and illustrations from other Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou fans. Why not write or draw one of your own too? You can also make an offering and a wish through the ema (wooden plaques) at the shrine.
Our next destination is the Okoba Station which is referred to in Natsume Yuujinchou as “Ohata Station”. Okoba Station is also part of the JR Hisatsu Line and appears in episode 7 of the first season and episode 8 of Natsume Yuujinchou San. The switch back, or the zigzag line of the railway to help the train climb steep slopes located between the Hitoyoshi and Okoba Station, is also shown in the anime from the viewpoint of a fox who is waiting for Natsume in episode 8 of Natsume Yuujinchou San.
In addition to Hitoyoshi and Okoba Stations, a number of other stations in the JR Hisatsu Line are shown in Natsume Yuujinchou. These are Setoishi Station (瀬戸石駅) which was called “Moriguchi Station” in the anime and appears in episode 5 of the first season, and Yatsushiro Station (八代駅) referred to as “Nanigashi Station” shown in episode 9 of the first season and episode 8 of Natsume Yuujinchou.
The red bridge that frequently appears when Natsume is on his way home from school is known as the Tengu Bridge. Based on our pilgrimage map, Tengu Bridge is in between Watari (渡駅) and Nishi-Hitoyoshi (西人吉駅) Stations of the JR Hisatsu Line. Natsume usually encounters spirits on this bridge which appears in episode 10 of the first season, episode 5 of Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou, episode 2 of Natsume Yuujinchou San and Natsume Yuujinchou San, and the opening sequence of Natsume Yuujinchou San.
The last site on our pilgrimage map is the Matsutani Rice Terraces located near Naraguchi Station (那良口駅) in Kumamoto. It appears in episode 7 of the first season during Natsume’s train ride on his way to a study trip.
There are other places to visit in Hitoyoshi that are not on our anime pilgrimage map. One of them is the Hitoyoshi Castle Ruins. It is relaxing to walk inside the castle grounds while looking at the Kumagawa River. You can also see the Hitoyoshi Castle walls where Natsume and his friends view the summer fireworks in these postcards.
— らるふ@サンポマスター (@Ralph_Grimoire) March 10, 2017
Within walking distance from the castle ruins is the Hitoyoshi Castle History Museum. A section inside the museum allows you to peek at an underground passage that was originally part of the castle complex. Visiting the museum will let you learn more about the Sagara clan that founded this castle town and see more Nyanko-sensei goods which are displayed at the museum’s reception area.
While walking around Hitoyoshi, you may also stumble upon a general merchandise store with a crane game and dedicated shelf for Natsume Yuujinchou goods! Some of the souvenir and gift shops also carry items like posters, towels, and teacups.
Author of Natsume Yuujincho, Yuki Midorikawa is known to be from Kumamoto Prefecture and it is not surprising to see how her hometown has inspired the settings in Natsume Yuujinchou. Going on an anime pilgrimage can be nostalgic and heartwarming. Visiting the places that we see in anime makes us feel closer to the author and ultimately gives us a better understanding of their work.
4 Japanese Slice of Life Anime Series You Shouldn’t Miss Out On!
Do You Know What Japanese Anime Was Inspired by This Town?
10 Things to Do on the SL Hitoyoshi, the Sightseeing Train Along Kumamoto