Lucky Star Umakara Sauce

everyone by now has likely heard about the lucky star motor oil. if you haven’t, consider today another step forward on your journey of knowledge. every day’s a school day once you escape endless eight. unfortunately, you’re also too late to fill up your itasha with it, or to swish it in your mouth and make a reference doujin about its herbal notes as a seiyuu pig would, because it’s been out of production now for about a decade. motor oil doesn’t have the smoke point you would want anyway when preparing dinner for your wife. nine out of ten chefs recommend using kagamin and tsukasa’s (balsamic vinegar) umakara sauces instead, which are now excitingly available for the first time this year in 300mL bottles. that’s twice the previous amount at the same price!

the fruits of seichi have been much sweeter than a few spicy sauces. seichi junrei, literally pilgrimage to sacred places, emerged as a treasured practice for otaku inside of this century, but it’s also only a subset of a richer antiquity of nonsecular junrei, famously performed by heian aristocrats visiting buddhist temples on pilgrimage circuits like shikoku and saigoku kannon. while we’re now a few generations removed from diehards taking the plunge at kiyomizu-dera, the modern practice of temple circuits actualizes somewhere between a blend of spiritual asceticism and curious tourism. its endurance in the cultural consciousness can probably be traced through most directly to tale of genji, sometimes dubiously boasted as “the first novel” but nonetheless a crown jewel of japanese literature. with a motif of genji traveling between temples concentrated around kytoto and uji, and modern translations of the novel now also enshrined in school curriculums, ease of access to the region and a narrative grounding to real temples has seen readers successfully bridged into visiting those featured locations. with its appreciation only continuing to solidify more in the last few decades, being decorated on the vanishingly circulated 2000 yen note from the turn of the millennium and focal to the recently established classics day, the emergence of seichi as a modern twist on a tradition forged by earlier acclaimed fiction can help us to decipher why tourists also go out of their way to see a random bench in uji as much as they do to present offerings at mimurotoji.

most critical analyses would correctly identify lucky star, set in kuki, as the modern blueprint for otaku-fueled town revitalization. what surface examinations tend to fail acknowledging is that the organic fan seichi preceding it are what allowed it to develop a commercial imagination to begin with. most anglo fans are probably limited to being aware of a few key examples of the phenomenon when the last decade, especially, has seen it spread further than lucky star. helpfully, wikipedia’s seichi article was exactingly ported from japanese only two weeks ago, which brings with it a cleaner history of originating examples like tenchi muyo and even curious parallels like sherlock holmes, but being in service of summary means it still jumps over useful history. “contents tourism” as seichi’s modern history is one that has been entirely rewritten by the success of the washinomiya shrine, ignoring the colder reality that saitama was already unsuccessfully dipping their toes in on commercialization first thanks to shinkai’s 5cm/s and, improbably, idolmaster’s xenoglossia. before newtype was providing direct guidance on how to visit the washinomiya shrine, fan-run blogs brought (and bring, still) spotlight to these decaying rural towns. before that even, when online publishing wasn’t predominant, they were doing the same through physical doujinshi and fan meetups. the year preceding lucky star’s broadcast, dengeki daioh would actually warn fans to refrain from visiting hanamatsu to scout the residential areas featured in ichigo mashimaro. otaku, before they were entirely understood for how they could be squeezed for their yen, were not always greeted with welcoming local flavor. under those conditions, seichi is perhaps most analogous to the travel diaries that guided the meiji era, providing intimate meticulous accounts of excursions and customs that editorialized on a rapidly industrializing japan that was coming to grips with its shifting national identity. the utamakura of a real life location like washinomiya being slipped into a fiction of chocolate cornets simply may have been most ripe for commercialization at the acceleration of a moe boom where things were beginning to open up most for otaku.

there’s little reason to doubt why the hiiragi sisters are still being turned into marketable sauces sixteen years removed from the show being on air. while town locals continue to steward efforts today, most of washinomiya’s initial success was only made possible backed by kadokawa muscle, and as probably one of the most studied success stories for seichi, examples like exclusive merchandise being dived up to multiple local shops are ample. kadokawa uniquely at this point pioneered a committee model that tightly integrated locals in promotional efforts, and so while lucky star has mostly faded from balance sheets, it’s also not surprising that its star has continued to shine for the community that has heavily embraced itself as its backdrop. countless other towns have now replayed commercial success under that bottom-up model of seichi, like oarai and hanno, though probably none with as much celebration as the picturesque small city flavor enshrined in examples like tamako market. the hiiragi sauces, as they are, could never be produced in warehouses. instead, they’re bottled locally for distribution in the same exclusive model that hast kept them guarded to tourists flocking to local shops. the annual cadence of the hajisai festival and new year celebrations, which at one point saw tripled attendance over a period of three years, continue to draw crowds well above what was once normal, even as the initial blast effect of a seasonal anime has long faded. radio washinomiya, a mini FM station only heard at a 50m range near the shrine and established to supplement seasonal events, continues to regularly broadcast and operate as an experimental station today for local high school radio clubs and, supposedly, soba restauranteers. matome bottomfeeders may be quick to levy criticism against seichi otaku congregating around a barbeque cookout without so much as a konata happi being sighted, but a mellowed out crowd of reliable foot traffic and cottage radio infrastructure can’t honestly be considered anything other than a wild success through a lens of revitalization. we may just need to recalibrate expectations for when they can expect the next crumb of new key art.

Dealer distribution map for Umakara Sauce
Dealer distribution map for Umakara Sauce

with seichi’s rapid growth has also come the sprouting of troublesome weeds from its roots, expressed from attendee behavior on up to policy. a swelling number of anime productions and the rush to command the otaku wallet has meant participation from towns eager to be injected with a dose of revitalization. lean too hard into a tie-in, though, as kamogawa did with rinne no lagrange, and people will reject the effort when they smell the desperation, even if you weren’t all that much in cahoots with the committee anyway. others, like sabae’s enthusiasm for meganebu, simply fail to register any attention to begin with. mizushima so feared the thought of garupan bombing with audiences that he made a conscious effort to set expectations for seichi interest low in planning meetings with oarai, an indifference easily contrasted to the many towns following the yurucamp model that set expectations sky high before their representative shows got close to broadcasting their first episode. not every show, of course, can be a yurucamp. a surging interest may also not reveal itself as more bowls of udon being sold or more trinkets to take home to coworkers, but as visitors trespassing into elementary schools, or vandalizing with graffiti. social media might take umbrage with too much cleavage showing up on your promotional posters. modern otaku transients can go through a boom and bust of interest faster than willing locals are able to nurture it, or swarm to landmarks that lack the ability to ever scale up capacity to entertain it. if the powers that be really wanted me to visit ogawa out in the sticks, they wouldn’t have complicated the thought of a day trip by doubling the cost of the japan rail pass as well. what’s only a mere roadblock to me should also be taken as considerable warning to any rural town vying for the seichi yenny: some externalities, like how good the anime you’re banking your image on, will always be out of your control.

certain scholars have, in recent years fueled by emerging interest in seichi, taken to qualifying otaku as a new spirituality. while first blush could rightly lead one to consider that a thin veneer over a naked consumerism, the comparison starts to look more apt when otaku seichi is overlaid concepts like the power spots, designated places where one can harness the earth’s power, that have informed many emerging sects. seichi, most directly as I’ve come to internalize it, is a development of an affective space not too far removed from that same character. reality seen at a digital distance may feel physically far and detached for an observer, but that cannot necessarily ever suggest an emotional detachment of the gaze. foucalt, drawing attention to the symbiosis of knowledge and power that is fed when one acts as an observer, wouldn’t find reason to disagree. when I follow otaku traveling to remote locations, often to cities and towns teetering on generational extinction, that appetite for moral agency feels plainly on display reading through the blogs where they practice and document fleeting realities, contextualizing the locales of shows that have blurred metafiction and reality using direct photography from location scouting for backgrounds. nature cameras, peering in on endangered species and disappearing environments, do not mistake their own moral agency either when soliciting donations or asking observers to become activists to help save their presented realties. horiguchi’s cute saucer-eyed characters, shown stuck in the sticks of toyosato, are probably not so different either.