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Hyogo town woos tourists with 'creepy' monster mascot

Fukusaki mascot "Gajiro" pretends to play the guitar at the town office of Fukusaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in September 2016. (Mainichi)

FUKUSAKI, Hyogo -- The town government here is looking to reel in tourists and spur the local economy with a "realistic" and "creepy" kappa monster mascot.

    The town is the birthplace of Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), known as the father of Japanese folklore studies. Located inland and to the north of the prefectural city of Himeji, Fukusaki has a population a little under 20,000. Taking advantage of Yanagita's fame and the recent popularity of "yokai," or Japanese mythical creatures, the Fukusaki Municipal Government a few years ago began holding yokai design contests, and they even installed a mechanical kappa that pops out from a park pond. These efforts paid off -- in fiscal 2014, after the installation of the statue, tourist numbers were up by about 90,000 compared to the previous fiscal year. The popularity has lasted, with fiscal 2015 seeing some 350,000 tourists come to the town.

    It was last fall that the "Gajiro" mascot costume was created, at the cost of around 1 million yen, for a public relations movie for the town. Gajiro is supposed to be the younger brother of "Gataro," a kappa in Yanagita's work "Kokyo Nanajunen" (hometown seventy years). With long hair, large eyes, a large mouth with sharp teeth and rough skin, Gajiro is the very image of a yokai.

    The Gajiro costume was only planned to be used for the PR movie, but it was decided that it was still usable and so it has appeared again at festivals in the town this year. When Gajiro played guitar to heavy metal music at one of these appearances, the crowd loved him. Although the town already had other mascots, Gajiro began to gain attention.

    At the end of last month, the Fukusaki Town Tourism Association published a picture book about Gajiro. The book tells a story about Gajiro and his brother kappa as they go to Yanagita to apologize for playing pranks on children. All 200 copies sold out in only five days, and the town quickly printed more.

    Tomoo Ogawa, an assistant department head at the town's area promotion department and the creator of Gajiro, emphasizes the mascot's unique appeal, saying, "There are already plenty of cute characters around the nation."

    The costume tears easily and there are obvious stitches in the neck and stomach areas. However these actually help give the character a creepy feel, so for the time being the costume will continue to be used without being fully repaired. From mid-October onward, Gajiro has been slated for appearances on television and at one or more live music performances.

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