Small towns and villages in Japan are not often frequented by tourists like the bigger cities. Without trendy shopping malls, towering skyscrapers, and massive transportation systems, places outside Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka tend to be overlooked. However, in the seaside town of Oarai in Ibaraki prefecture, anime tourism has sparked an influx of visitors eager to lay their eyes on sights seen in the Girls und Panzer anime.
Tanks, Anime Girls and Japanese Tourism
Oarai, with a population of 15,787 residents, is the seaside port town setting of the 2012 anime Girls und Panzer. The premise of the anime series may seem like an unlikely pick to promote tourism to a small town. The anime’s main character, Miho Nishizumi, transfers to Oarai Girls Academy and (against her will) joins a club dedicated to tankery; a feminine art for young women coming of age in this world. The series uniquely combines moe anime high schoolers and the grittiness of war tanks to make a fun and fascinating experience.
But why Oarai? Why a small port town along the coast of the Pacific Ocean? We see an overabundance of anime taking place in the metropolis of Tokyo, with a population of over 10 million people. From slice-of-life to action, you can bet most anime on your seasonal watch list with a Japanese setting will feature Tokyo. The setting of Oarai gives Girls und Panzer a homey and surprisingly relatable feel. Something about high school girls driving military tanks through narrow neighborhoods as residents do mundane life chores such as hanging the laundry or getting dressed in the morning makes the idea of tankery somehow more believable; as believable as cute, moe high school girls driving tanks can get.
The easiest way to get to Oarai yourself is by going through the capital of Ibaraki prefecture, the city of Mito. Mito can be easily reached via a 90-minute ride on the HITACHI and TOKIWA trains from Tokyo Station. From Mito, you’ll board a local train bound for the seaside (the Kashimarinkai Tetsudo Oarai-Kashima Line). If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to board one of the few Girls und Panzer-themed trains. Either way, you’ll ride through a scene of gorgeous rice fields and small villages.
As soon as you arrive at Oarai Station, you will already see the influence of Girls und Panzer. Character posters line the walls of the staircase. The station prominently features standees of the characters in train conductor uniforms–art that is exclusive to Oarai Station. After giving your ticket to the train staff and going through the gates, you will come across a modest, unbranded convenience store on the left side as you enter the station lobby. This small shop sells Girls und Panzer merchandise such as acrylic stands, keychains, and snacks. Since it is one of the few remaining convenience stores independent of the major chains such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, I always try to support it when I go to Oarai, and I encourage you to do so as well! The other side of the station lobby features a glass case display of autographed Girls und Panzer paraphernalia.
Oarai will continue to be full of surprises as you walk out of the station lobby. You can find more character standees outside when the weather allows. You will likely also recognize the large dolphin statue featured in the anime. From the station, if you follow the sidewalk to the right until you see a Family Mart and then turn left (east) towards the coast, there are plenty more Girls und Panzer references to be seen. Many local shops place posters and character standees as if to invite anime fans into their establishments. Even the local post office that you’ll pass on the way to the beach offers Girls und Panzer decorated parcels.
If you walk about twenty minutes towards the coast, you’ll reach the true seaside! Oarai Sun Beach is the longest beach in the Kanto region of Japan and is a hot spot for surfers and swimmers. This beach is featured in several episodes of the Girls und Panzer franchise. While standing on the beach, you can see the Oarai Marine Tower to the northwest, which can also be seen in Girls und Panzer. After enjoying the beach, you can walk to this tower in about 15 minutes.
Oarai Marine Tower has an omiyage (or souvenir) shop on the entrance floor where you can buy Oarai specialties. On the first observatory deck of the tower, there is a Girls und Panzer cafe that sells food inspired by the series. In the cafe, you’ll find a wall full of fan art from other avid anime hobbyists. After grabbing a bite to eat, you can enjoy views of Oarai from the top floor of the tower. Next to the tower is an outdoor shopping center called Oarai Seaside Station, which can be seen in the Girls und Panzer anime OVA where the girls go bathing suit shopping. The shopping center has the GARUPAN Gallery; a surprisingly large store filled with Girls und Panzer goods and a tiny museum about the franchise’s history.
Besides Girls und Panzer, there are plenty of other incentives to visit Oarai including a fish market (and restaurants!), Isosaki Shrine, and the famous Kamiso no Tori, an old tori gate built on rocks in the Pacific Ocean that is always a breathtaking scene. Even if your Japan trip is centered around Tokyo, I think there are certainly enough reasons to visit Oarai during your stay!
As you walk back to the station, you might spot an itasha (hobby car) decorated in Girls und Panzer wrappings and stickers. Many of the itasha even have Oarai license plates, so it’s fair to say that the Oarai locals are passionate about their town being represented in the anime. Getting back to the station, make sure to pick up an exclusive juice from the local convenience store in the lobby for your train ride back!
Oarai regularly sees visitors to its long beaches and for access to the Sunflower – a ferry to Hokkaido. Oarai has countless attractions that draw visitors from all walks of life, but what truly sets this enchanting town apart is its prominent role as the backdrop for a beloved anime series. This makes the destination all the more captivating and irresistible to explore. Since I am a resident of Ibaraki prefecture, I often find myself in Oarai during the summer for beach trips of my own. However, I’m not sure if I would have even planned a trip to Oarai if it wasn’t for my fascination with Girls und Panzer. I came for the anime but stayed for the hospitality of Oarai and its people.
For more information visit Oarai’s Tourism website.
© GIRLS und PANZER Projekt