Photo/IllutrationManga maniacs snap photos of a bronze statue of Kaito Kid in the Yurashuku district of Hokuei, Tottori Prefecture. (Tomoko Saito)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

HOKUEI, Tottori Prefecture--Hokuei may be just another hick town, so why all the visitors, many of them from overseas?

It's partly because Hokuei is the hometown of Gosho Aoyama, creator of the globally popular “Detective Conan” (aka “Case Closed”) manga series.

Another reason is that it boasts the Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory, a museum much admired for its displays of original manga drawings rather than anime illustrations, making it a shrine of sorts for anime enthusiasts.

Fans also flock to the town to snap selfies in locations that feature street statues of Aoyama's manga characters.

The museum was busier than usual June 21, when dozens of people arrived to celebrate the birthday of both the Kaito Kid and the author himself.

Fifty or so manga enthusiasts formed a line in front of the museum before it opened at 9:30 a.m.

Okayama native Yuri Matsubara, 21, said she visits the facility five to 10 times a year. It is also popular with foreign fans.

Matsubara becomes quite animated when the talk turns to the town's growing number of bronze manga statues.

The latest addition, in May, raised the figure to 24. Initially, six statues were installed on Conan Bridge in 1999. But town officials and others quickly realized the tourism potential, and made plans to expand the collection.

The new statue is of Doc Agasa sitting in the driver’s seat of his precious yellow Beetle parked in front of the museum.

“More people are visiting the town every year, and you can feel the buzz,” said Matsubara. "It's really fun to mingle with other fans."

In March last year, the town’s chamber of commerce and industry opened a tourist attraction called “Conan’s House Beika Shopping Street” along Conan Street to offer diverse food and merchandise items.

A record 4,040 visitors flocked to the Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory on May 4 this year, Conan’s birthday. The museum attracted 3,755 visitors on the same day last year.

The success of the latest installment of the animated feature film series, “Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer,” no doubt helped bolster the numbers.

The museum opened in 2007, but annual attendance only exceeded 100,000 for the first time in fiscal 2015. Accumulated attendance figures as of August this year are expected to reach 1 million.

The museum is also a big hit with foreign visitors, who accounted for more than 18,000 attendees, or 14 percent of the annual total, in fiscal 2017. Of that figure, 30 percent came from Taiwan or South Korea, 20 percent from Hong Kong and around 15 percent from mainland China.

Descriptions of the exhibits are also available in English, Chinese and Korean.

Efforts to transform Hokuei into a Conan town began 20 or so years ago when the chamber of commerce and industry realized the potential for a tourism windfall. Officials of the now-defunct town of Daiei presented their municipal counterparts with an initiative to establish a Conan-themed community, which initially was resisted.

But officials had a change of heart after they distributed coupons featuring a design of Detective Conan for child-rearing families and other residents in the municipality. They found themselves suddenly inundated with inquiries from fans across the country asking how they could obtain the coupons.

As head of the Hokuei tourist association, Keiichi Yamamasu, 66, tries to figure out ways to bolster the Conan town project. He started by opening Conan Tantei-sha, a store run by local residents with a similar vision, to offer related goods and souvenirs to tourists.

They gained permission from publisher Shogakukan Inc. to develop original items that are only available in Tottori Prefecture.

Its second outlet opened inside Tottori Airport, also known as Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport, in late July to sell original goods that cannot be found elsewhere, even in the museum.

“Our aim is to use fun ways so visitors enjoy themselves,” Yamamasu added.